HeavenAli has been hosting a month of reading Brookner in July, and I decided to join in with a re-read of “Hotel du Lac”. This is probably Brookner’s best-known novel and I read it just after it won the Booker in 1984. However, I could remember very little about it apart from the fact I found it bleak – so a good time to revisit it!

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Edith Hope, who writes romantic novels under a pseudonym, arrives late in the season at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. She has been dispatched here by friends and colleagues to recover from some initially undisclosed indiscretion, considered so bad that she has been medicated and forced abroad. The hotel is an exclusive one, quiet and with only a few guests still remaining this late in the year: Mrs. Pusey and  her daughter Jennifer; the slender Monica and her dog Kiki; deaf Mme de Donneuil, put out to grass by her family; and an assortment of passing businessmen, including Mr. Neville (Phillip).

As the story progresses, we come to learn more about Edith’s fellow guests, and also why Edith herself is here in Switzerland. Initially, we think it is because of an affair with David, a married man, but a later twist reveals that this is in fact not so. The book ends with Edith actually appearing to become a little decisive – which is unexpected, to say the least!

So what did I make of “Hotel du Lac” nearly 30 years on? My reactions are inevitably different – I didn’t find it particularly depressing or bleak, but it feels underdeveloped in many ways. Brookner’s prose can be exquisite, and the book is beautifully written – but in the end, hollow. The problem I feel is with the central character – Edith is undefined, almost transparent whereas the other characters are vividly painted and alive. Brookner really makes the Puseys and Monica stand out, so much that Edith is almost incidental. It may be that this, with the hint of tranquillisers and vagueness, is what Brookner intended, but it creates a heroine who has no substance and who it is impossible to care for.

“Edith reflected, with some humility, that she was not good at human nature. She could make up characters but she could not decipher those in real life. For the conduct of her life she required an interpreter.”

Likewise with David – we learn very little about him, and to be honest get no real sense of what he is like or why Enid loves him so (apart from the fact he has a healthy appetite!)

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There is a similar problem with Neville – again a very imprecise character who never takes shape properly, exhibits unpleasant traits and whose proposal to Edith is just unrealistic. There is a sense of absence emanating from Edith: she drifts from situation to situation, with no real control of her life, and had she not witnessed Neville coming out of Jennifer’s room, would have made a dreadful marriage to him. Her final decision to take some kind of control and return to her home and to a David who may or may not care for her is no kind of victory, simply a decision made by default.

This is all very frustrating as some of the writing is quite lovely:

“The beautiful day had within it the seeds of its own fragility: it was the last day of summer. Sun burned out of a cloudless blue sky: asters and dahlias stood immobile in the clear light, a light without glare, without brilliance. Trees had already lost the dark heavy foliage of what had been an exceptional August and early September and was all the more poignant for the dryness of their yellowing leaves which floated noiselessly down from time to time.”

However, the inconsistent characterisation and the lack of a good plot structure undermines this and I ended up really not bothered about any of it. I didn’t hate the book, but it just didn’t come together for me. The narrative is too fragmented; the revelation of Edith’s indiscretion just thrown in at the end, which actually came as something of an anti-climax. I’m not sorry I revisited “Hotel du Lac”, but it’s not a book for me – I ended up feeling it was thin and underdone, and now I just want to pick up something I can get my teeth into!