…it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market…Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.
There is no denying that Anita Brookner found her fach and stuck to it. On my first read through all of her 24 novels, I often noted that I had a hard time telling one novel from another. But for some reason over the 14 years that it took me to read all of her novels, it always stuck in my head that the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac was one of my least favorite Brookners. Having now re-read it, I am at a loss to understand why I felt that way. Granted, plenty of you haven’t liked it, but I think that may have had more to do with a general dislike for Brookner rather than anything specific to Hotel du Lac. Although I class myself as a rabid Brookner fan, something intensifying as I re-read her catalogue, I can understand why she is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But for those of us who do like her…
Brookner sets Hotel du Lac is in an unnamed Swiss town along Lac Leman/Lake Geneva in the waning days of the fall shoulder season as the town and the hotel look to close up for the winter. Edith Hope is a romance novelist who has done something scandalous that forces her to escape London until the furor dies down. Being a woman of means, one has to wonder why Edith installs herself in a rather lackluster, grey location with “unemphatic” scenery and poor weather, instead of travelling to some other more pleasant, dynamic location. Perhaps it is because a more interesting destination wouldn’t have provided the proper penance and reflection her acquaintances in England felt she needed. And frankly it also wouldn’t have suited a Brookner character very well. They tend to thrive, if it can be called that, on quiet and gray. True, Edith isn’t a typical Brookner character in some respects. Indeed she takes several decisions, including the one that caused the scandal and the one that ends the book, that belie the usual inertia of a Brookner heroine. Still, in Hotel du Lac we have plenty of compulsive walking: “…she carried on [walking] until she thought it time to be allowed to stop.”
In many ways Hotel du Lac is a treatise on the roles of women in society—at least as Brookner saw them in the early 1980s. It may not cleave to the tenets of traditional feminism, but it most definitely can be read as a gentle, quietly satirical screed against those social conventions that keep women playing to type and being defined solely by their relationships with men. We’ve all met Mrs. Pusey:
On those rare occasions when Mrs. Pusey was sitting alone, Edith had observed her in all sorts of attention-catching ploys, creating a small locus of busyness that inevitably invited someone to come to her aid.
Then there is Mrs. Pusey’s daughter Jennifer, outfitted like a queen (pink harem pants and an off the shoulder blouse—oh the 1980s) who serves as a kind of lady-in-waiting to her mother, while they both wait for the day when a suitable gentleman—someone interested in being the third in their mother/daughter sandwich—comes along to marry Jennifer. And then there is Monica, an eating-disordered woman about to be abandoned by a husband desirious of an heir that she is unable to produce. And Edith’s friend Penelope back in London who insists that a man is needed to legitimize Edith’s existence. Even Edith’s romance novel readers, the tortoises, all waiting for the world to turn upside down and reward the slow and the meek.
Many times I reduce Brookner’s characters to caricatures of people who find it impossible to do anything about their lives. I don’t think Edith is that same kind of character. But I do think that the decision she makes at the end of the book–the right decision no doubt–may put her on a trajectory to be one of those people. I think that few of us are truly victims of circumstance. Instead we are victims of our own decisions. As I approached 40 I made some decisions that I thought would keep me from a certain kind of professional future. Now, five years later, I realize that despite having a bit of an enjoyable whirl and liking what I do at the moment, I am back on the professional trajectory that I thought I left for good at 38. The difference is my place on the trajectory is much less secure than it was back then. I could blame it on the bad economy and the short sidedness of the Tea Party, but in the end I made the decisions that led me to this place. I think Edith is rightly changing her trajectory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up where she started.