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Hotel du Lac (1984) By Anita Brookner – A Charnel House with 24 Hour Porterage

February 2, 2011

One of the numerous themes drifting through David Fincher’s exquisitely realised but biographically off-target The Social Network (2010) is the idea that social networking assumes an understanding of human interaction that is both unnaturally stilted and unhealthily reductive.  The fact that Sorkin’s script depicts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as a social spastic, a high-functioning autistic and a ruthless bastard conveys the idea that Facebook does not so much replicate the college experience online as reduce it down to its component parts as understood by someone who, at some fundamental level, does not understand the beautiful complexities social interaction.  Facebook, we are lead to believe, is what our social lives would be like had Mark Zuckerberg coded human psychology.  The difference between Facebook friends and real friends is the difference between the way that Zuckerberg sees the world and how the world really is. While my viewing of The Social Network left me feeling that Aaron Sorkin simply does not understand where the founder of Facebook is coming from, I find it hard to disagree with the suggestion that social networking casts humanity in quite an ugly light.

Take a long hard look at your Twitter feed or your Facebook friend updates and you will most likely find not the carefree banter of people exchanging ideas and pleasantries but a lot of different people working a lot of different angles: Please RT! New Press Release! New Blog Post! Nominate My Stories For This Award!  Someone is Saying Something Wrong, Go Shower Them With Hate!  Spend enough time on Twitter and you start to wonder whether Sorkin’s Zuckerberg might not have been on to something when he boiled human interaction down to a simple numbers game.  Are those pleasantries and ideas ever anything more than currency in a game of self-advancement?  Do we have friends or do we have allies?  Do we do anything that is not motivated purely by the pursuit of power, prestige and pleasure?

Anita Brookner’s Booker prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac (1984) is a book that paints a similar portrait of human interaction. The novel suggests that beneath the genteel façade and old world charm of an off-season luxury hotel on the lake of Geneva lurks a hideous charnel house in which the modest and the self-effacing are dismembered and devoured by the greedy, the ambitious and the selfish.

 

Book cover

 

 

Brookner introduces us to Edith Hope as she is settling into the Hotel du Lac.  A moderately successful romance author who writes under the more romantic name of Vanessa Wilde, Hope has been forced to leave London by her friends for some unspecified social crime.  The sleepiness of the town, the emptiness of the hotel and the coolness of Brookner’s prose all lend the novel’s setting an almost purgatorial feel.  Edith is in exile; she cannot go home and yet she cannot relax.  She is trapped between two worlds.

 

Driven to the airport by her friend and neighbour, Penelope Milne, who, tight-lipped, was prepare to forgive her only on condition that she disappeared for a decent length of time and came back older, wiser and properly apologetic. – Pp. 8

 

The Hotel du Lac is situated on the shores of the lake of Geneva a place that, during the summer months, attracts a decent number of tourists.  However, Edith arrives at the hotel just as the tourists are going home and the staff are starting to shift down through the gears into the state of quasi-hibernation that the hotel inhabits during the long winter months.  By the time Edith has moved into the hotel, there are only a few guests remaining.  Guests that Brookner describes with consummate wit and insight.

 

 

Irene Handi as Mme de Bonneuil in the BBC adaptation of the novel

 

 

Madame de Bonneuil is deaf but hugely wealthy.  Mother to a son who hardly visits her, she displays the carelessness and self-absorption of advanced age but her wealth and her dignity speak of a time in her life when she not only cared but knew how to get what she wanted.

 

 

Googie Withers and Julia McKenzie as Mrs Pusey and Jennifer in the BBC adaptation of the novel

 

 

Mrs. Pusey is a wealthy British widow travelling with her daughter Jennifer. Edith initially believes the pair to be comparatively young but, as the novel progresses, she soon finds herself raising their estimated ages as their youthful façade soon gives way to a reality grounded in expensive tailoring, artful girlishness and frequent trips to the beauty salon.

 

 

Patricia Hodge as Monica in the BBC adaptation of the novel

 

 

Monica is the astonishingly thin wife of a wealthy man who has sent her to the hotel in order to get over an eating disorder that has her refusing to eat anything except for cakes and sweets.  Desperately lonely but venomous in her opinions of other people, Monica seems to embody two completely incompatible modes of existence.

 

 

Denholm Elliott as Mr Neville in the BBC adaptation of the novel

 

 

Mr Neville is a successful businessman humiliated by a wife who ran off with a servant.  Elegant, discrete and well turned out, he haunts the salons and dining rooms of the hotel as though searching for something.

Exquisitely structured, Hotel du Lac moves both forwards and backwards in time from the moment of Edith’s arrival.  Moving forward in time, the novel introduces us to the other inhabitants of the hotel, slowly unravelling their lies and making their true natures abundantly clear.  Moving backwards in time, the novel uses both flashbacks and letters written by Edith to her lover back home to slowly reveal the nature of the crime that sentenced Edith to her stay in the hotel.  With consummate grace and flawless technique, Brookner weaves these two chronologically divergent strands together to explain the true nature of life at the Hotel du Lac.

 

The terms of engagement are set early in the novel when Edith has lunch with her publisher.  Edith, we are repeatedly told, has a thinness that invites comparisons with the fleshless fragility of Virginia Wolfe.  Edith does not eat and does not wear anything other than comfortable cardigans.  She is a portrait of self-control, restraint and reasonable expectations.  When her publisher suggests that she might want to consider writing fiction that spoke more directly to the lifestyles of her readers, Edith responds with acidic wit:

 

I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle. What does it mean? It implies that everything you own was bought at exactly the same time, about five years ago, at the most. – Pp. 26-27

 

Women, explains Edith, do not want the truth.  They want the old myths.  Myths like the hare and the tortoise.

 

In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins.  Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. (…) Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation. Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth, (…) the hare is always convinced of his own superiority; he simply does not recognize the tortoise as a worthy adversary. That is why the hare wins. – Pp. 27-28

 

For Edith, there is only so much pleasure to be had in the world and it is invariably the hares that get all of it because they get there first.  They get there first because they feel entitled to it and this sense of entitlement means that they have no qualms about shoving people out of the way in order to get to the front of the queue.

However, while Edith is merciless in her assessment of the nature of human social interaction, she seems to struggle to bring this critical acuity to bear when it comes to making sense of her own relationships with the people around her.  Indeed, Edith reminds us repeatedly that, despite being a writer, she has little insight into other people’s characters.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in her dealings with David.

 

 

Barry Foster as David in the BBC adaptation of the novel

 

 

David is a happily married man who travels in many of the same social circles as Edith.  The pair meet at a party and Edith soon finds herself head-over-heels in love with a man who does not recognise her socially and who seems to drop by her home purely in order to get what he doesn’t get at home, namely extra sex and great big fry-ups.

 

But those lovely meals that she had cooked for David, those heroic fry-ups, those blow-outs that he always seemed to require when they eventually got out of bed, at such awkward times, after midnight, sometimes, leaving it till the last minute before he raced back to Holland Park through the silent streets. – Pp. 29

 

While Edith may have been exiled from her home, she has not been exiled from the rules that govern the human world.  Slowly edging her way into the reduced social world of the Hotel du Lac, Edith soon sees the same processes at work in the hotel as she outlined to her publisher over lunch.

The Puseys are not just hares, they are predators.  Forever feeding, the mother and daughter team devote their days to the sensualist indulgence of their consumerist urges before retiring to the hotel where they seek out people who will pay them court.  Quickly realising that the parsimonious Edith is one of life’s tortoises, the Puseys summon her to their table where they begin to leach the life out of her.

 

Edith perceived avidity, grossness, ardour. It was her perception of this will to repletion and to triumph that had occasioned her mild feeling of faintness when she watched Mrs Pusey and Jennifer eating their dinner. She also perceived a difference of appetite, one that seemed to carry an implicit threat to her own. – Pp. 39

 

The Puseys are not content to indulge themselves; they also need to indulge themselves at other people’s expense. They need a stage on which to perform and an audience to subdue.  One of the more intriguing sub-plots in the book involves the relationship between Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer and the way in which Jennifer moves from a position of tortoise-like support of her mother to one of heir-apparent to Mrs Pusey’s skills and appetites.  Knowing when to ask for more coffee, when to seduce a waiter and when to pretend to be innocent, Jennifer learns not only the tricks of the trade but also the sociopathic indifference to the feelings of others that is required in order to get ahead.

Painted as a target by the Puseys, Edith gladly accepts the friendship of Monica when it is offered to her.  Painfully thin and aggressively disdainful of the vulgarity of the Puseys, Monica initially presents herself as a fellow-tortoise but the complexity of her nature reveals itself in her bizarre eating habits.

 

But she was puzzled by Monica’s insistence that they visit the café for more coffee and cakes. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime,’ she protested. A fleetingly oblique look crossed Monica’s face. ‘Oh, come on,’ she begged. ‘It’s Sunday. And I’m sick of that awful fish.’ – pp. 71

 

Monica is a hare acting like a tortoise.  Denying herself food and decrying the Puseys’ desire to climb the social ladder and enjoy themselves, she binges on cakes and revels in the capacity to land and keep the right type of husband.  One of the book’s more entertaining set-pieces sees the predatory Monica is roused from her slumber for long enough to try and spoil Mrs Pusey’s birthday party by making it clear that not only is she a player but she is a player whose knowledge and command of the game far outstrips that of mere ‘trade’ like the Puseys.  Monica’s display of Dostoyevskian snobbery poses an interesting question: would a truly skilful hare not realise that by pretending to be a tortoise one might lull the real tortoises into a false sense of security?

Part of what makes Hotel du Lac such an enjoyably misanthropic read is the way in which Brookner intentionally muddies the waters of her initial taxonomy. Indeed, while Brookner’s compartmentalisation of humanity into hares and tortoises is reminiscent of attempts to split the world into haves and have-nots, the good and the evil or introverts and extroverts, Brookner’s taxonomy is never straight-forwardly moral or psychological.  Brookner seems to suggest that even if there are only two sorts of people in the world, these categories are neither fixed nor particularly clearly drawn as many predators hide their spots and many tortoises either fail to recognise their true natures or try to escape them. Edith is one such tortoise, she not only struggles to recognise the predators that surround her, she also fails to realise her own basic nature.

 

The mild and careful creature that she had been on the lake shore had also disappeared, had dematerialised in the ascent to this upper air, and by a remote and almost crystalline process new comportments had formed, resulting in something harder, brighter, more decisive, able to savour enjoyment, even to expect it. – Pp. 91

 

Edith’s confusion as to her true nature is laid bare through the institution of marriage.  Towards the end of the novel, we learn that Edith’s exile is the result of her having agreed to marry a man only to stand him up at the church.  It is telling that it is not the jilted fiancé who demands Edith’s exile but her far more predatory friends.  Edith’s crime was forgetting her place.  Tortoises do not use other people to service their psychological needs.  They are there to be used, not to use and they cannot be allowed to compete, particularly when they do not know the rules.  Edith is never forthcoming about her reasons for refusing to get married but one can piece together the outline of a woman with a clear idea of what she wants from life:  She wants David, she wants her garden and she wants to write.

 

She would miss the garden most, she thought, although she was not really a gardener.  – Pp. 120

 

While her fiancé is a passionless man, he does not approve of Edith’s writing and wants to take her away from her little house in order to live in his much larger flat.  This offer of a ‘better life’ seems to echo the offer made to Edith by fellow hotel resident Mr Neville. Quiet, unobtrusive and recovering from a messy divorce, Mr Neville initially presents himself as a tortoise.  Luring Edith up to a mountain station, he sounds out her opinions on marriage and morality before proposing to her.  The offer he makes is simple: she will return to England with him and live in his home with all of its beautiful things.  She will turn a blind eye to his affairs, she will support him in his social aspirations and she will be utterly faithful to him and his desires.

 

Think, Edith. Have you not, at some point in your well-behaved life, desired vindication? Are you not tired of being polite to rude people? – Pp. 167

 

What is most telling about Mr Neville’s proposal is neither its cynicism nor its bloodlessness, but its arrogant assumption that Edith wants exactly the same things from life that he does. It is he who is tired of being pleasant to rude people and it is he who finds who feels his misdeeds are vindicated by social status.  Edith only wants to sit in her garden, writing with the sun on her back.

 

Where they saw luxury goods, she saw only houses of detention. – Pp. 45

 

As with the first proposal, Edith flirts with the possibility of giving up her dreams for social status and wealth only to decide, in the end, not to let go of what it is that she really wants from life, but the book’s final lines capture the very impossibility of these wishes.

 

When the requisite form had been found, she sat down at a small glass table in the lobby. ‘Simmonds, Chiltern Street, London W1,’ she wrote. ‘Coming home.’ But, after a moment, she thought that this was not entirely accurate and, crossing out the words ‘Coming home,’ wrote simply ‘Returning.’ – pp. 184

 

Edith has decided to return to her home and her garden but she is aware that the cutthroat world of London society is not for her.  Even if she does return and never leaves the safety of her garden, she is there thanks to the tolerance of her ‘friends’; predatory hares such as David and Penelope who happily turned their back on her when she stepped out of line and refused to do as she was told.  One of the few insights Edith has into her situation comes just before the final denouement:

 

She had thought that by consenting to this tiny exile she was clearing the decks, wiping the slate, and that she would be allowed to return, suitably chastened, in due course, to resume her life. ‘I am clearing the decks, Edith,’ she remembered her father saying as he tore up the papers on his desk. ‘Just clearing the decks.’ He had smiled but his eyes were full of sad knowledge. He had known that nothing would be the same for him again, that his stay in the hospital was not to be the brief interlude he had bracingly told her mother it would be. And he had not come home. – Pp. 117

 

The mistake that Edith made was in thinking that her friends had cast her out into the outer depths of limbo only for a short period of time.  The truth is that Edith stepped out of line and so became unreliable.  Tortoises who do not realise that they are tortoises pose a threat to the hares.  They create turbulence.  Edith was not placed in exile at the Hotel du Lac, she was sent out for slaughter.  A fact delicately hinted at by Brookner’s description of Edith’s hotel room:

 

She contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal – pp. 9

 

Edith transgressed the laws of human social interaction and so was there to be slaughtered.  The Hotel du Lac is not an oasis but a watering hole to which elderly and injured predators come to feed.  It is a charnel house.  A killing floor.  An abattoir cloaked in lace and velvet just as human social interaction is cloaked in pleasantries and ideas.

 

***

 

At this point, I feel that I should make a proper disclosure of my interests in this book.  As a child I spent many summers by the pool at the very Hotel du Lac that inspired Brookner to write this novel.  I even remember the veal-coloured interiors.  The more I read of Brookner’s book, the more I realised the fundamental truth of her perception of the place.  In fact, the Vaudois author Jacques Chessex has also written of Vaud as a sort of open-air slaughterhouse.

 

Book Cover

Book Cover

Towards the end of his career, the Swiss author Jacques Chessex turned his attention to his hometown of Payerne in the canton of Vaud.  Like many discontented souls, Chessex enjoyed a love-hate relationship with his hometown, a relationship that he attempted to vocalise and explore through two thematically linked novels Le Vampire de Ropraz (2007) and A Jew Must Die (2009).  Though seldom spoken of as connected, both novels deal in actual historical events.  Moments when the good burghers of Payerne decided that they required human sacrifice.  A scapegoat for their collective ills. In 1903, the townspeople reacted to a wave of corpse desecrations by singling out and persecuting a mentally handicapped labourer.  An act of persecution so hideously effective that the man was forced into committing acts of genuine depravity for which he was later tried and imprisoned.  In 1942, the cycle repeated itself when a charismatic Protestant preacher drew on unhappiness created by wartime unemployment to whip up a wave of anti-Semitism that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of a much-respected Jewish cattle farmer.

Aside from their historical and thematic subject matter, both novels share a similar shape, beginning with almost Lovecraftian meditations on the nature of life in the Canton of Vaud.  A life of plenty lived in penury:

 

Here we don’t have big businesses, factories or manufactures, we only have what we gain from the ground, which is to say nothing. That’s not a life. We are so poor that we sell our cows for meat to the butchers in the big towns, we make do with pig and we eat so much of it in all its forms, smoked, fileted, hached, salted, that we end up looking like it, pink faced, red nosed, far from the world, by darkened vale and forest.  In this lost countryside a young girl is a star that magnetises madness.  Incest and rumination, in bachelor shadows, the hunger is always for meat and yet it is forbidden.

 

And

 

The emblem of the pig dominates the town, lending it an amiable, contented air. With rustic irony the inhabitants of Payerne are called “red pigs”.  But dark currents flow unseen beneath the assurance and business bustle.  Complexions are rosy or ruddy, the soil is rich, but covert dangers lurk.

 

When I first read these passages, I did not recognise my childhood holiday destination.  This is partly because Chessex was writing about a different part of Vaud.  My Vaud is a lakeside resort that is forever out of season because the season ended with the Second World War when the British stopped visiting the lake in order to take the waters.  My experience of the canton of Vaud is of a mausoleum constructed to service a constipated vision of happiness that has long since departed from the scene. However, as I read more of Chessex’s work, I came to realise that this disconnect was well known to the author.  As far back as 1969, Chessex produced a collection of short essays on his countrymen entitled Portrait des Vaudois.  In this, the rural Chessex railed against the inauthentic lake-clinging Vaudois of Montreux (the next town along from Vevey where the real-life Hotel du Lac is found):

 

Montreux has not been a Vaudois town for a long time now. She chose to be that image of a fake and advantageous Switzerland that we find in Gstaad, in Montana, in Crans, in Lucerne, in Engleberg, everywhere that merchants gave in to hoteliers, to the administrative advice of railroad companies and tourist offices, the ancient habitable lands, the fresh pastures that you have sullied and betrayed!  Do you not see that this ugliness is killing us?

 

It is telling that regardless of whether he is writing about the ‘authentic’ canton of Vaud or the chocolate box tourist destination, Chessex still writes of hypocrisy, ugliness and exploitation. The difference between the luxury mausoleums of the coast and those darkened forests filled with the stench of hog fat and semen is that the mausoleums are better at keeping their hideousness under control and out of sight.  Whether we are by the lake or in the hills, plenty and self-denial go hand in hand with but a thin strip of dishonesty separating them.  It is that strip of dishonesty that allows for human civilisation and it is that strip of dishonesty that both Brookner and Chessex write about when they write about the canton of Vaud.

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