Saturday, 24 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 12

So I come to the end of my trek through Brookner's most famous novel. I accorded it this treatment in acknowledgement of its undoubted preeminence, and not because I have any particular fannish zeal for it. But it is special to me insofar as it was the first Brookner I read. Rereading it now, nearly thirty years later, I tried to be objective. But I found recent memories of the BBC film of the novel intrusive. And I found the novel's tone a little too ironic, too almost whimsical at times.

Surely among the unlikeliest things ever to have
appeared on a TV screen

It's certainly a comic novel overall, perhaps a reaction against the darkness of its immediate predecessor, Look at Me. The resolution of the Mr Neville plot does have similarities with events in the previous novel, but the effect on Edith is infinitely less devastating than what is suffered by Frances Hinton. The two books also draw similar conclusions on the subject of writing, the first markedly more serious and defeatist:
It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is for me. It is your penance for not being lucky. (Look at Me, ch. 6)
Why does the recipe no longer work? Is it because the whole process now seems too much like the hair shirt of the penitent, angling to get back into God's good graces? (Hotel du Lac, ch. 12)
But Hotel du Lac finishes in a sombre key - perhaps a more characteristically Brooknerian key. Even before the truth about Mr Neville is revealed, Edith is contemplating the change:
Looking back, she saw that [on her first evening here] she had been braver, younger, more determined ... It had seemed, at the time, almost a joke ... Since then she felt as if she had acquired an adult's seriousness...
I find the transformation in the novel's tone one of its saving graces, even one of its triumphs. It makes us feel we've come a long way. It is something of a surprise to discover in this final chapter that Edith has been at the hotel for only two weeks.

***

The Brooknerian will now be taking a short break. I look forward to returning with thoughts on other hotel-set works of literature and preparations for my own visit to Vevey. Thanks for reading!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 11

One of the several things this chapter-by-chapter survey has shown me is the extent to which Brookner elegantly varies her narrative methods. The interleaving of group scenes, two-handers, passages of individual introspection, letters and flashbacks gives an agreeable sense of structure and substance to an otherwise fairly slight novel.

Chapter 11, in which Mr Neville and Edith take a trip on a pleasure steamer, reads like a novelisation of a well-made play by Noel Coward, or even Oscar Wilde. The tone and the treatment are oddly superficial and at odds with the content. Brookner never quite gets to grips with Mr Neville. He's a 'curiously mythological personage'. The terms of his debate are satisfyingly and reassuringly antique, but his patriarchal condescension perhaps demands greater scrutiny than the novel is prepared to offer. Edith unpicks his argument to an extent, but her critique is weakened by her weakened mood. Brookner herself is all but silent, almost ambivalent.

'Please don't cry,' says Mr Neville at one point. 'I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her.' But there is no challenge, and the narrative glides opaquely on.

'And I have a rather well-known
collection of famille rose dishes.
I am sure you love beautiful things.'

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 10

The novel's new tone - darker, less ironic - continues here. The season has changed; we're heading towards winter. Then there's a scene with the Puseys: Alain, the young waiter, has been (wrongly) accused of impropriety. 'Of course, he'll have to go,' says Mrs Pusey.

The Puseys are no longer comic characters. The scene isn't played as farce, as might have been the case earlier. Instead we see the Puseys' carelessness, their misrule, their disregard of others, and also Mrs Pusey's fear of change. That Jennifer Pusey may have one or two secrets is hinted at. The mystery of the opening and closing door is again invoked. 'I wonder,' thinks Edith. 'I wonder.'

'My patience with this little comedy is wearing a bit thin,' she says to herself, confirming the change that has been in the air of the novel for some time.

Breakfastless - for the hotel is at sixes and sevens - she heads into town, turning into Haffenegger's,* where she meets Monica. The themes are feminism, exile and homesickness. The tone is glum. The changed circumstances are acknowledged:
It seemed to both of them in their separate ways that only the possession of this day held worse days at bay, that, for each of them, the seriousness of their relative predicaments had so far been material for satire or ridicule or even for amusement. But that the characters who had furnished that satire or that amusement were now taking on a disturbing life of their own...
Time in chapter 10 passes alarmingly quickly. Soon it is afternoon and the day is wasted. We finish in the hotel again, preparing for dinner. Like chapter 5 the chapter has taken place, classically, over the course of a day.

It's worth pointing out here that one isn't quite sure how long Edith Hope has been at the Hotel du Lac. Everybody seems fully institutionalised. One recalls the inmates of the Swiss sanatorium in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and the terrifying vagueness with which days, months, years go by.


*Last encountered in chapter 6 (see my post), where the spelling was slightly different.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 9

What do we think of flashbacks? Generally I'm not a fan. I was disconcerted when I read Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night in the original version, Bowen's The House in Paris, and Larkin's A Girl in Winter, all of which contain lengthy flashback sections centrally placed. In Hotel du Lac the key flashback comes later, two thirds of the way through, and elements of it have already been hinted at. As such it works, but only just.

Edith's misgivings about marriage are about love and its absence: she isn't content with the 'kind looks and spectacles' model of mature romance favoured by the likes of Barbara Pym. But more than that she worries about her writing. Married, she would not be writing. Writing may be 'illicit', rather shamefully 'orgiastic', but it is authentic. We are reminded (again) of Larkin in the poem 'Vers de Société', labouring under a lamp, looking out to see the moon 'thinned / To an air-sharpened blade':
A life, and yet how sternly it's instilled
All solitude is selfish.
This is to be no 'noble jilt' of the Trollopian kind. Geoffrey Long, Edith's ill-fated fiance is dismissed out of hand, condemned for the 'totality of his mouse-like seemliness'. He is, in a word, unBrooknerian, and to Edith's rejection of him the true Brooknerian can only raise a cheer.

For Edith, who seems at times in the novel rather mousy herself, is perhaps in fact a genuine malcontent - nowhere near as extreme a case as, say, Frances in Look at Me or any number of figures in the later novels. But as the full story of her wedding day is revealed the novel finds its feet, Kodak-sharp not only in details of food, clothes, the surrounding streets, Larkinian in their charming ordinariness, but also in its setting out of Edith's emotional rebellion and refusal to be bowed - its setting out also of Edith's rejection of the sort of modern inauthentic life her friends had earmarked for her, and which they themselves seem only too happy to live. There's a small but telling detail buried in the middle of the chapter. Amid the modish vol-au-vents and asparagus rolls of the proposed wedding breakfast is a Nesselrode pudding, an archaic and unfashionable confection, but loaded with significance for Edith, loaded with notions of a better past.
'Pudding, Edith? You must be mad,' said Penelope. 'My mother loved it,' countered Edith, and thought, privately, that her mother would have considered this a puny alliance. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 8

Chapter 8, the first part of which comprises a long extract from one of Edith's letters to David, focuses on the timeworn themes of appearance and reality. Mrs Pusey, so spry, is revealed to be seventy-nine, and possibly deaf, and her daughter, who looks about fourteen, is in fact Edith's age, thirty-nine. Edith's disappointed Viennese mother is pictured reading innocent romances ('Perhaps that is why I write them') while dressed in an ancient peignoir. 'My mother's fantasies, which remained unchanged all her life, taught me about reality. And although I keep reality in the forefront of my mind, and refer to it with grim constancy, I sometimes wonder if it serves me any better than it served my mother.' Such reflections are occasioned by the elaborate fantasy of Mrs Pusey's birthday party, the artificiality and theatricality of which Edith compares and contrasts with her own memories and also with the less than enviable lives of the other guests - Mme de Bonneuil, for example, dutifully attending the entertainment but 'a stranger to such elaborate games of make-believe'.

'Suddenly', writes Edith, 'I had the uncanny feeling that this was all for show, that everything was a pretence, that this had been a dinner of masks, that no one was ever, ever going to tell the truth again.' The lightly comic ironic tone of much of the novel so far begins here to be undermined. 'Unsound elements seemed to have crept into [Edith's] narrative,' comments Brookner. David, we are told, likes to be amused by Edith's 'news from Cranford', a reference to one of the most charming and delightful works in the whole of English literature.

The chapter finishes on a note of true sobriety. Edith is at last ready to review in her mind the events that led to her exile at the Hotel du Lac. The novel's revels, it seems, are at an end.
The careful pretence of her days here, the almost successful tenor of this artificial and meaningless life which had been decreed for her own good by others who had no real understanding of what her own good was, suddenly appeared to her in all their futility.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 7

Interviewer: Despite their subtlety and variations, all your books so far have been basically about love. Do you think you will go on writing about love?
Brookner: What else is there? All the rest is mere literature!
Interviewer: Where do you see yourself in the tradition of English literature?
Brookner: I don't know anything like that. I'm a middle-class, middle-brow novelist. And that's it. It amuses me. 

'You write about love,' says Mr Neville. 'And you will never write anything different, I suspect, until you begin to take a harder look at yourself.' Anita Brookner, in interview, purported to be on Edith's side, even to the extent of pretending she herself was Edith's kind of novelist. Yet in none of Edith Hope's novels would we find the sort of exchange that takes up much of chapter 7 of Hotel du Lac. The conversation is a deconstruction of the terms that underpin Edith's writing, and more widely of the romantic life her writing advocates. It is by far the best scene in the novel so far, not least for its challenging metafictional qualities.

Mr Neville, depicted as the Duke of Wellington in the previous chapter, is here commended for his 'eighteenth-century face'. There's something rigorously antique about the whole encounter. We might recall Brookner's comment in her interview with Olga Kenyon in Women Writers Talk (1989):
Probably this is the first time since the Regency that men and women can converse on equal terms.
So what does Brookner believe? Is she on Mr Neville's side, or on Edith's? I don't think we'll ever decide, and this is a central tension - though she also told Olga Kenyon she shared 'practically all' of Edith's characteristics, that Hotel du Lac was a very personal story, and that she 'meant it. Every word'.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 6

Followers of this blog will know I recently read, with great pleasure, Lotte in Weimar by Thomas Mann. Another largely hotel-focused story, the novel takes place in the early nineteenth century but reveals its modernist credentials towards the end, when Mann gives us Goethe's thoughts and feelings in a long stream-of-consciousness chapter. Edith Hope, in Hotel du Lac, though she may look a little like Virginia Woolf, is no modernist, and nor is her creator. Chapter 6, though reflective, introspective, and set deep in Edith's consciousness, nevertheless could have been written by Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope.

Not least because Brookner gives us Edith's letters to her lover. This is a successful and fitting technique, and there will, I recall, be a smart pay-off at the end of the novel, when Edith reveals she hasn't sent any of the letters. But it is old-fashioned. But again, perhaps fittingly so.

***

Some additional points:

1. Balkanization
[Mrs Pusey and Monica] are not on good terms and use me as a buffer state [Edith writes]. I am subject to a certain amount of balkanization.
Brookner uses metaphor sparingly, and speaks of politics even less frequently. Talk of buffer zones and the Balkans is arresting, dragging the narrative slightly awkwardly into the here and now.

2. Haffennegger's

This seems to be a cafe in Vevey, although I can find no mention of it on Google. It will be something to investigate during my visit. I shall also be interested to see whether the Grand Hôtel du Lac has a room 307, Edith's room.

3. The Duke of Wellington

Mr Neville 'looks rather like that portrait of the Duke of Wellington that was stolen from the National Gallery some time ago'.

Goya's portrait was in fact stolen in the early 1960s, when Edith would have been a very young woman. In early Brookner, Brookner's protagonists are often much younger than their creator.


4. Kindle highlighters

There's a line about emotional incontinence that has been chosen by no fewer than 43 'highlighters'. Who are these people? Why can't they be more continent? Is there any way of switching off this irritating function?

5. Time Revealing Truth

David is seen in his auction room, selling a work called Time Revealing Truth, attributed to Francesco Furini. Hotel du Lac is plainly a populist effort, but it is interesting to see Brookner's wider intellectual concerns and interests intruding on the text. This seems to be the theme of an academic article from 2010, 'Anita Brookner's Visual World'.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 5

Anita Brookner could never be accused of an over-slavish adherence to the notion of the classical unities. She plays fast and loose with her time-schemes, she sends her characters on vacation at a moment's notice, and not a few of her novels contain several disparate plots. None of which need be considered criticisms.

Chapter 5 of Hotel du Lac is an exception, as well as being a rather satisfying and exceptional chapter in its own right (at least in an 'early Brookner' sort of way - and I'm really trying to get over my mild prejudice against her early work).

The chapter takes place in the hotel over the course of a day, and it centres solely on Edith's viewpoint. Edith wakes from a series of dreams, a typical Brooknerian device (see an earlier post on the topic of dreams), though here the dreams are 'disjointed' and 'half dream, half memory'. As such they have a narrative function, introducing us further to the hotel guests, especially the 'man in grey' who will soon be known as Mr Neville.

A migraine follows, which confines Edith to the hotel for the day. Migraines and other such eclipses have their place in the Brookner repertoire. The speed of the novel, never exactly breakneck, slows, allowing for some passages of fine writing. We see the view in its late-summer glory and the scene on the hotel terrace in its Sunday somnolence.

We also get to watch the hotel guests in greater detail. The woman with the dog is named - Monica - and Mme de Bonneuil's history is sketched in. There's a degree of class-based comedy at the expense of the Puseys ('Ma Pusey', as Monica calls her). Mr Neville and Edith have one of their combative conversations. And the sound of a door shutting in the night - a plot point, as I recall - begins and ends the chapter.

But Brookner isn't a naturally dramatic writer. Here she observes the dramatic unities, but she is perhaps writing against the grain. She much prefers narrative that is interiorised, psychological, and, if the world must be shown, painterly. Not for nothing does Edith describe herself as a 'lay figure ... useful to a painter'.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 4

'Are you a writer?' he enquired, in a voice very slightly tinged with amusement.
Brookner is to be applauded for writing so rarely about writers. I can think of only a handful of writer-protagonists: Edith, here; Frances in Look at Me; and Jane in A Family Romance. None is quite a Brooknerian artist. Edith is a romance novelist; Frances writes Barbara Pym-style comic short stories for the New Yorker; and Jane is a children's writer.

Brookner was ambivalent as to the attractions of a writing life. It was a penance for being unlucky, she said in Look at Me (chapter 6). Later, in interview, she said writing had reprieved her from the despair of living. In Hotel du Lac Edith's work is 'obscure and unnoticeable', though her 'labours' are said to 'anaesthetise' her.

The Puseys are again a focus in chapter 4, and a note of seriousness is gestured towards. Their presumed ages are getting steadily higher; and 'in a way she could not define [the Puseys] were both out of date'. But it's men who take centre stage now, the man in grey (Mr Neville) in the present of the hotel, and David in another of Edith's reminiscences.

David is presented initially as an exotic figure. He talks of 'the Rooms' in which he works, and rather than auction rooms Edith imagines opium dens, Turkish baths, a tiled hammam, the Moorish paintings of Delacroix.

But his exoticism is really of another order, as John Haffenden in his early interview with Brookner pointed out:
The men in your novels ... have the common denominator of being staunch Christians...
- and therefore distinct from the implied Jewishness, certainly foreignness, of the classic Brookner heroine. To which Brookner replied:
They are conservative, establishment creations, aren't they? And as such impervious to these dark imaginings, these brooding midnight fantasies.
Novelists in Interview, Methuen, 1985

Delacroix, Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement
Louvre

Monday, 12 June 2017

Hotel du Lac, Chapter 3

'Incidentally, although I have been thinking of Mrs Pusey as a lady, I have adjusted this downwards: Mrs Pusey is definitely a woman ... And the woman with the dog has to be adjusted upwards to lady, or rather Lady.'
Brookner's is a conservative imagination. Characters, however individual, are fitted into established roles and types. The boy Alain, who brings Edith's breakfast, has 'the set expression and also the expertise of a much older servant, a gentleman's gentleman'. Later, in town, there's a reassuring scene in a cafe, with 'sturdy-looking women' drinking coffee and eating cakes, and 'flushed waitresses' hurrying between tables. Brookner, or Edith, looks for the eternal, the unchanging in the human scene.

The chapter proceeds once more through reflection and flashback. Edith wakes; then her mind returns to yesterday evening, and we see how her meeting with the Puseys developed. This is occasion for some high comedy, subtly of a class nature. Of a different, more typically Brooknerian sort, are Edith's memories of her disappointed mother. We find ourselves in heavy Viennese interiors, and later in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, looking at a painting that could be Bruegel's Land of Cockaigne (but that's in Munich) or else The Harvesters (which is in the Met, New York).

One further point: the 'veal-coloured' decor of the hotel. Veal is an unEnglish meat; I never ate it until I went abroad. In the Eighties and Nineties, UK involvement in the European veal industry was roundly condemned in the British tabloids, and I think there was legislation as a result. 'Veal-coloured' is therefore a peculiarly Continental choice of words.