Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac Anita BrooknerI haven’t read many of the early winners of the Booker Prize but ‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner is one I have been meaning to read ahead of the Golden Man Booker Prize celebrations later this year. It tells the story of Edith Hope, a novelist of romantic fiction who is staying at a hotel near Lake Geneva in Switzerland by herself. A keen people-watcher, she has some unusual encounters with various eccentric guests including a rich widow Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, as well as Monica and her dog Kiki. However, it is Philip Neville, a divorced man also staying at the hotel who makes the most significant impression on the other guests. 

It is difficult to imagine this sort of book winning the Man Booker Prize today, and even at the time ‘Hotel du Lac’ won in 1984, it seems to have been viewed as a rather old-fashioned novel. Ironically, its apparent gentleness caused a fair amount of controversy – according to the Guardian, Brookner “half-apologised that her books are “quite nice but unimportant” and suggested it might have been better if Empire Of The Sun (by J. G. Ballard) had won in its place.” The setting of an off-season hotel makes for a melancholic atmosphere and it’s fair to say that not a great deal happens in terms of plot until the very end. Nevertheless, ‘Hotel du Lac’ is quietly subversive in its own way and underneath Brookner’s elegant turns of phrase lies some cutting humour and social analysis.

The behaviour of the guests and the roles of men and women in relationships are astutely observed by Edith, who we later learn is staying at the hotel more or less in exile after having an affair with a married man and breaking off her engagement at the last minute. Brookner’s portrayal of Edith’s spinsterhood is particularly interesting. She has a comfortable, satisfying and independent life but it is clear that the other guests immediately have certain expectations of Edith after discovering her status as an unmarried woman approaching middle-age, even though in many ways they experience far more loneliness themselves.

‘Hotel du Lac’ is a short and subtle novel, which reminded me of Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, another Booker Prize winner from the same era which is very similar in style. I’m not sure if it is going to stand out enough to be shortlisted for the category of 1980s winners for the Golden Man Booker Prize, but understated novels of this type often end up being underrated and I’m pleased that it has been recognised by at least one set of judges.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

  1. It’s rare to find people reading Brookner now (indeed, I had to give up on her later books as they got so depressing as I got older!) but lovely to do so. I think this is a very subtle book and I like your comparison with Offshore.

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  2. I read this last year and felt fairly indifferent to it. I agree Brookner’s style is similar to Fitzgerald’s, but I feel like the power of their short, subtle books mostly passes me by. I read two books by Beryl Bainbridge last year, who strikes me as of their same type but more to my liking.

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  3. I agree, Hotel du Lac and Offshore would stand very little chance in today’s Booker Prize, the novels chosen now are much meatier, often more violent and stuff happens and has to happen or they don’t make the shortlist. The wondrous thing about those novels written quietly by women in the 70s was the perceptiveness, the layers of meaning which often took two or even three readings to absorb. Actually, I thought Empire of the Sun would win that year and was slightly puzzled by the committee’s choice. In those days, only the short list was published anyway, but I came to see subsequently, that Hotel du Lac was a much more subtle offering.
    I have continued to read Anita Brookner, but find the later books very tough going, her 2002 novel Making Things Better could hardly have been less true! I don’t see AB in the short list for the Golden Man Booker, honestly.

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  4. I’ve read quite a few books by Brookner but not this one (yet!). Funnily enough, I’ve put myself on a Brookner-break for six months or so because the last two I read were so depressing and so similar (to each other and to what unfolded in Brookner’s own life). I get the feeling that she was writing the same story over and over toward the end and they certainly lacked the dry wit that you sometimes see in her earlier work.

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  5. Annabel (gaskella)

    Apparently Brookner herself had backed JG Ballard (Empire of the Sun) to win!

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