×
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Seething with quiet rage

If the Hotel du Lac was really not as good as the Booker judges made it out to be 40 years ago and if Brookner wasn’t such an accomplished stylist in her own right as much as Ballard was in his, it would’ve disappeared, hidden from view on dusty library shelves
Last Updated 03 March 2024, 00:20 IST

When the Booker shortlists are announced each year, I run my eye over the titles and blurbs and note the mentions of “quiet” or “contemplative” novels among those selected. Very often, these are the ones written by women, tend to be slice-of-life narratives and hide in their pages more than they reveal. These are the books that you let marinate over time, the ideas they grapple with eventually seeping through and staying in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page. In the rare instances that these books win the prize, there is usually some (male) dissenting voice demanding to know why the more experimental, more courageous (read male) voice didn’t win instead.

Something along those lines happened in 1984 when Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac bested J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Chests puffed up in indignation and much ink was spilled over this ‘insult’ to the genius of Ballard by rewarding a quiet story about a spinster who goes to stay in a Swiss hotel in the off-season.

If the Hotel du Lac was really not as good as the Booker judges made it out to be 40 years ago and if Brookner wasn’t such an accomplished stylist in her own right as much as Ballard was in his, it would’ve disappeared, hidden from view on dusty library shelves. Instead, Brookner’s (and the Hotel du Lac’s) reputation has only increased with time and new readers continue to find something deeply affecting in this story about a writer who defiantly refuses to follow the rules that society has set up as the standard for “good” women.

The novel opens in the eponymous lakeside Swiss hotel as the protagonist, Edith Hope, a romance novelist, surveys the grey weather from a window. It is, as mentioned earlier, the off-season. There are not many guests in this snobbish old-world establishment.

Edith, we are told, has been sent to this hotel to “…retrieve her serious and hard-working personality and to forget the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile…”. It is eventually revealed that while she might be writing stories about happily-ever-afters in her books, Edith’s love life is, to put it mildly, a hot mess. She’s carrying on an affair with a married man and had accepted a proposal from a kindly but rather dull fellow but then changed her mind at the last moment and ditched him at the altar.

As she walks around the lake and attempts to write her next book, Edith is gradually drawn into the lives of the other guests. The majority of those she interacts with are also women — there’s a rich mother and daughter who seem to spend time in various hotels across Europe, an older aristocrat who’s been effectively thrown out of her home by her son and daughter-in-law, and an alarmingly slender young woman with a small dog. The small tragedies in each of these lives, the manipulation, and the lies that hold up so much of the social order are gradually revealed to Edith and the reader.

Anita Brookner once said her heroines seem foreign because “…the contrast is more between damaged people and those who are undamaged.” Ironically, for someone who clearly wants to be left alone, Edith always seems to attract male attention and marriage proposals and it happens during her stay in the hotel as well.

At the heart of Hotel du Lac is a familiar, long-standing existential debate: humans are social creatures and yet some crave independence and refuse to conform — how does one balance the desire to be of society and be apart from it? It may be a novel without narrative fireworks and razzle-dazzle, but beneath its staid and grey atmosphere, Hotel du Lac seethes with quiet rage at the choices that limit a woman’s life and happiness and therein lies its power and the reason why its reputation has only grown with time.

(The author is a writer and communications professional. When she’s not reading, writing or watching cat videos, she can be found on Instagram @saudha_k where she posts about reading, writing, and cats.)

That One Book is a fortnightly column that does exactly what it says — it takes up one great classic and tells you why it is (still) great.

ADVERTISEMENT
(Published 03 March 2024, 00:20 IST)

Follow us on

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT