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“Love imposes obligations…” #astartinlife #anitabrookner

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As I mentioned in my Flaming June post, I have finally made a start on reading Anita Brookner properly! I say properly, because up until now I’ve only ever encountered “Hotel du Lac” which I’ve read twice; once, back in 1984 when it won the Booker Prize, and more recently when I re-read in 2013. Both times, the book really didn’t work for me, but I *have* been told it isn’t necessarily her best and I’ve been determined to have another go. So I’ve picked up a couple of early novels, and decided to go with her first – “A Start in Life” from 1981. Reader, I can report that this was a much better experience!!

As well as being a novelist, Brookner was also an art historian and academic, specialising in 18th century French art and later the Romantics. I do in fact have a couple of her non-fiction books, one on the artist David from 1980 and one on Romanticism from 2000; she did have a long and varied career! Anyway, “A Start in Life” opens with the uncompromising line “Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature“, and goes on to explore the early days and upbringing of Ruth Weiss. Born of a German emigre father and a flighty actess mother, Ruth’s lynchpin during her young years is her solid German grandmother. The literature that ruins her life starts early, with the fairy tales told to her by her grandmother; Cinderella never does go to the ball… Ruth ends up an expert on Balzac’s women, having made her way through school, university and even a spell studying in Paris. Meanwhile, her selfish parents act, frankly, like children; once Ruth’s grandmother has died, they employ a housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, and the three adults have a rackety, chaotic existence while Ruth tries to carve out her own life. But can she escape her past?

There is no need to hide one’s inner life in an academic institution. Murderers, great criminals, should ideally be dons: plenty of time to plan the coup and no curious questions or inquisitive glances once it is done.

I shan’t say more about the plot, because I enjoyed watching it unfold without any real pre-knowledge. However, I will say that I absolutely loved the book and have definitely become a Brookner convert. I tried to approach the book with no expectations and was completely seduced by her prose; that was one of the positives I took from “Hotel du Lac” and here it’s just marvellous. She writes beautifully, and although the story is bleak (yes, the word I applied to HDL) it’s also darkly humorous and very atmospheric; she captures place and people brilliantly. Interestingly, too, although Ruth is in many ways the focus of the book, Brookner explores the rest of the characters quite deeply so that we understand why they’re behaving quite the way they are. Taking that focus away from Ruth at times certainly keep me interested in reading on, and also led me to sympathise with almost everyone in the story!

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her disseration on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can be more easily appraised when they are dead and gone. Dead in life and dead on the page.

Running through the book, of course, are some wonderful literary references, quotes from Balzac and Ruth’s desperate attempt to understand, in the end, why her life took the path it did. Her conclusion may well be that it’s better to be light, attractive and engaging, rather than intelligent and interesting, but she was never given the tools to go in that direction. In the end, what she has is her career, the books she’s writing and a friendship group; whether she’ll ever have any more is not something we readers will ever know. Certainly, she cherishes her independence and her academic career and they may well be enough for her; although interestingly I did sense a passivity in her, much the same as there was with Edith in HDL, and it may be that Brookner is deliberately engaging with characters who are buffeted by events, reacting to life rather than taking an active part.

Inevitably, it’s possible for the book to be considered as some kind of autofiction, as the kind of background portrayed here does accord a little with her own life (although more perhaps in concept than in fine detail). Whether or not that’s the case doesn’t really matter though; what does matter is that this is a wonderful novel, exploring a woman’s life and choices in the mid-20th century. I got truly involved in Ruth’s story, in the fate of her friends and family and although this is a short, concisely written book it certainly provokes a lot of thought. So I count my first proper read of Anita Brookner to be a real success and I’m happy that I have many more of her novels through which to make my way!

Flaming June – and onwards into July!!

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When I say ‘flaming June’ I could of course be implying two different meanings! Flaming as in it was very hot, which it was; and flaming in the sense of the British English use to express annoyance! June for me was both of those things; too hot, because I’m not good with high temperatures, and busy again so I didn’t get to read as much as I wanted to. What I read I loved, though, and here they are:

No disappointments at all and quite a variety, from short stories (crime and modernist), novels new and old, non-fiction and translated lit. The re-read of “Gormenghast” was pure joy and kept me sane when things were very manic at work!

I have, of course, now completed the #Narniathon, which was great fun, even if I found “The Last Battle” a bit sad. Others will be going on to read an interesting sounding work about the Narnia books, but I am going to pass on that as I don’t have the book and I’m trying to avoid acquiring more; though I will follow their thoughts with interest!

As for what I *do* plan to read, well, I’m going to keep that as loose as possible. Annabel has an Italian Fortnight coming up at the end of the month, and so I shall try to join in with that. There is, I think, a Paris in July event knocking about somewhere online, but it will depend on my mood as to whether I take part. Also Stu usually hosts a Spanish/Portuguese Lit event so if that’s going ahead I may try to take part. What I *do* want to do is to make a dent in the mountainous TBR as on the imminent pile are some very interesting titles:

First up, an inviting pair of review books – Orwell and Golden Age Crime are two of my favourite things to read, so I hope to get to these soon.

Spark is also a huge favourite, and I’m intrigued by Lange – I love interesting women authors, so either of these would be a great choice for July.

Irina Mashinski’s book sounds quite marvellous, and I can’t wait to get to it – it’s definitely one title I’ll be prioritising in July!

I’m currently reading the Letters of Basil Bunting alongside whichever other book I have to hand and it’s a fascinating volume; so far much of the correspondence has been addressed to Ezra Pound, and this really is something of a treasure trove.

My current read, along with the Bunting is this:

Yes, I’m finally making an attempt to read Brookner properly! Only a little way in but so far I’m impressed – watch this space for progress reports!!!

Apart from that, I’ll just keep on picking up the books which take my fancy as that’s what works for me. I hadn’t *planned* to re-read “Gormenghast” in June, for example, but when the reading mojo calls, you just have to follow it! Do you have any plans for your July reading??

Recent Reads: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

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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!

Brookner in July Reading Event

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I’m pleased to say that I shall be joining in as best I can (my current reading commitments are getting very behind!) with HeavenAli’s Brookner in July Reading Event – read her post here.

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I confess to having not read Anita Brookner since “Hotel du Lac” won the Booker Prize (yes, that long ago!) But as I’m finding that my view of books does change over the years, I plan to revisit this volume to see how I respond to it nearly 30 years later! I do hope lots of you will join in, and as Ali points out, Brookner’s books do turn up in UK charity shops regularly – that’s where my copy came from! – so there is no excuse not to read her! Happy July reading!

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