I knew I was going to enjoy Hotel du Lac when I reached the third page, on which Anita Brookner described Edith’s hotel room as ‘the colour of over-cooked veal’. It sounds so perfectly disgusting – the insipid colour, the dryness, the foul tough chewy taste and also curiously old-fashioned, as veal is one of those things rarely eaten these days.
The book is peppered with moments like this, these little phrases which are spot on – imaginative, evocative and also drily funny. To my mind, Penelope Fitzgerald (see here) and Elizabeth Taylor (see here) are the real mistresses of them, but Anita Brookner is not far behind.
In Hotel du Lac, these pert phrases sparkle against what some might find to be rather a quiet, dull background of a Swiss hotel with its dotty residents who sit around not doing very much. But I liked the quietness of the novel, the feeling of the hotel’s slow crumbling decline, while clinging on to its delusions of grandeur – an attitude not unlike that shared by many of its ageing, fading residents.
The hotel is the setting for a short episode in the life of Edith Hope. A romantic novelist, Edith has been bundled off to the Hotel du Lac in the wake of a mysterious ‘event’ in order to escape the scandal and – it is hoped – reflect on her bad behaviour. Her story gradually unfolds as she observes the peculiar residents of the hotel, who have their own rather idiosyncratic tales to tell.
In many ways Hotel du Lac feels like an older novel. I suppose, as it was written in the eighties, it is reasonably old now. But it feels more like a novel of the thirties – which was probably the heyday of the Hotel du Lac. People still dress for dinner, ask people to join them for coffee, and enjoy other dated forms of behaviour – it is as though the hotel exists in something of a time warp. Some of my favourite moments are when this old-fashioned feel clashes with something terribly eighties, such as one of the guests dressing for dinner in:
pink harem pants, teamed, as they say in the fashion mags, with an off the shoulder blouse.
Not the elegant silk gown one was expecting!
Anita Brookner is revisiting this old-fashioned scenario of a grand Swiss hotel and re-examining it in a modern light. Not only in terms of fashion, but as a background to re-asses ideas about love and about women.
It becomes clear pretty early on that Edith has been having an affair with a married man. David and her have an affair that seems to consist of visits to private views at art galleries, lots of sex and then her cooking him tremendous fry ups in the middle of the night. Actually that sounds quite fun. But we are often reminded that David has a wife and children; Edith is the other woman. And yet, as Edith is the narrator, and is timid and a bit hopeless, the reader can’t help but sympathise with her. She is not the scheming ‘baddie’ one would automatically expect the other woman to be.
In thinking about the age-old issue of affairs, Anita Brookner calls up an older literary exploration of it, Elizabeth Jenkins’s 1954 novel The Tortoise and the Hare, which is one of my favourite books – terribly sad, too brilliant and I wrote about it here. Edith has a conversation with her agent about the tortoise and the hare, which she terms ‘the most potent myth of all’:
In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market … Hares don’t have time to read.
In The Tortoise and the Hare, Jenkins deploys Aesop’s fable as an extended metaphor for a failing marriage and an adulterous other woman. What is so clever about Elizabeth Jenkins’s book, as Carmen Calil points out in her Afterword, is that while you read it you are endlessly reassessing who you think is the tortoise and who the hare. From this conversation, it would seem that Edith thinks the slow unassuming wife is the tortoise, the swift scornful hare the adulteress. She bemoans the fact that in the novels she writes the tortoise always wins, when that isn’t true to life.
But hang on a minute, Edith is herself a character in a novel, and she is the adulteress. Does that mean that she is the swift scornful hare? Does that mean that, because she is encased within a novel, she will lose? Or, in terms of her ‘real life’, as opposed to the novels she writes, will she win?
Perhaps Anita Brookner is just as clever as Elizabeth Jenkins here, because Edith is as much a tortoise – timid, miserable, reading lots of books – as a husband-stealing hare. And the little we see of David’s wife does not make her seem particularly tortoise-like:
Highly coloured, drinking rather a lot, argumentative. Sexy, she thought painfully. But discontented, nevertheless.
The metaphor of the tortoise and the hare, so brilliantly employed by Elizabeth Jenkins, rather falls apart in this context, where the women in question are shown to possess qualities of both. That was the fifties, this is the eighties, says Anita Brookner, and things have changed.
I suppose what feels rather depressing about Hotel du Lac – aside from the grey light and veal-coloured rooms and somewhat lost, rejected-by-society cast of characters – is that Brookner gives such a negative portrayal of love affairs. Things haven’t changed for the better, in terms of relationships.
Edith has to choose whether to marry and live the life of a tortoise or to continue with her affair and live the life of the hare. Neither seems particularly appealing or fulfilling. Really what makes Edith happy is writing and sitting in her garden – man-free activities. Could Brookner be suggesting that the race to win a man simply isn’t worth running anymore? By exploding these roles of tortoise and hare, Brookner suggests that rather than trying to squeeze into such ill-fitting moulds, women should run in a different race altogether, a race in which men don’t feature.
This pulling apart of the tortoise and the hare myth is part of Brookner’s wider assessment of women. Here is Edith’s scathing description of women who are ‘ultra-feminine’:
the complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them. Treats. Indulgences. Privileges. The right to make illogical fusses. The cult of themselves. Such women strike me as dishonourable. And terrifying.
Ladies, I suppose the lesson here is to tend to your garden, as Voltaire instructed, and live as a self-sufficient individual without needing to ‘consume’ men in such a hideous way. Rather than choosing between being a tortoise or a hare, Brookner suggests that a woman can be a different creature altogether.