24 July 2019

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann, this 1984 Booker Prize winner is an absolute gem from start to finish.  In the isolated setting of a boutique Swiss hotel, Anita Brookner takes the reader around its dining room, lounge and hallways.  Only half-filled before closing for the winter, late season stragglers gather to associate with others needing respite more than holiday.   No glance goes unnoticed, alliances are noted, and the descriptions of soft furnishings are extremely satisfying.  You could stop reading here to rush out and find a copy, but I'll continue for those who might need more coaxing.

Edith Hope is a writer of romantic fiction, exiled to the Hotel du Lac by her friend, Penelope.  She's been told to sort herself out after a fall from grace but what exactly has happened isn't revealed until later in the story.  The month is September;  the more 'showy' guests would never acknowledge that this is also the time when the hotel's rates begin to dip.  And who says that Brookner's books can lean to the bleak side?  Halfway through the first chapter I was laughing out loud......

'She walked with a stick and wore one of those net veils on her head covered with small blue velvet bows.  I had her down as a Belgian confectioner's widow, but the boy carrying my bags nodded vestigally and murmured  'Madame la Comtesse' as she rocked past.'

Most people can identify with the feeling of being the latest addition to an established group.  As the newcomer, Edith is greeted with warm smiles as she makes her first appearance in the dining room.  Placing herself away from the others on the pretext of reading a book she sizes up her fellow diners.  The guests that fascinate Edith most are Mrs Pusey and her daughter, Jennifer.  Edith ventures a guess at their age, but it's difficult to discern through the jewels, feathers, wraps, handbags and gilded hair.  I can easily imagine Brookner having the time of her life while taking a dig at women who count shopping as an accomplishment.  Iris Pusey dramatically pinches her nose with her eyes closed as she talks about her dearly departed husband.....

   'Oh, but you can't think how I miss him,' she confided to Edith.  'He gave me everything I could possibly want.  My early married life was like a dream.  He used to say, "Irish, if it'll make you happy, buy it.  I'll give you a blank cheque.'  

In contrast to the social comedy at the hotel there are some troubling issues.  Edith writes letters to her married lover David, and cries when she thinks of him with his wife and children.  Another guest, Monica, has an eating disorder and is frequently seen feeding her dog far too much cake.  At one point the dog becomes ill, in a strange way creating a bulimic companion.   She, like Edith, has been exiled to the hotel but in Monica's case it is to 'deal' with her anorexia so her husband can realize the fulfillment of having an heir.

Another guest at the Hotel du Lac is Mr Neville.  Abandoned by his wife for another man three years ago he spends his time, it would appear, trying to soothe his ego.  He hones in on Edith....

'You are shivering.  That cardigan is not warn enough; I do wish you would get rid of it.  Whoever told you that you looked like Virginia Woolf did you a grave disservice.  As to vice, there is plenty to be found if you know where to look.'

Mr Neville is a wolf in sheep's clothing sort of person and I couldn't help but worry slightly about Edith in his presence.  Her heart is broken and she contemplates the remainder of her life spent alone. The image of spinsterhood looms large but Edith is no shrinking violet and knows her worth as an independent woman and author.  I had to trust that Anita Brookner would make it right.

Hotel du Lac is a book for close reading, so brilliant is the character study and underlying currents.  Reading this book is every bit as much fun as watching a Noel Coward play.   And if you enjoyed Elizabeth Taylor's wonderful Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont for its hotel setting I am confident you'll thoroughly enjoy this book.  I loved it!!

Chateau de Chillon et la Dent du Midi

10 July 2019

To The River by Olivia Laing

During a staycation a couple of weeks ago, I went to Toronto for an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The air was thick with humidity that day, the sun was blazing, and I felt sorry for those suited in business wear because I was hot in a light dress.  During the fifteen minute walk from the train station to the gallery I made two stops to cool off.....one for a yogurt berry parfait and the other at Ben McNally Books.  Buying a book is a necessary souvenir while on a day out and I was going to leave with one, no matter what.  My eureka moment arrived in the Literary Travel section.  Having just finished reading The Years by Virginia Woolf it felt like a bolt of serendipity to turn the book over for the blurb and read....

Over sixty years after Virginia Woolf drowned in the River Ouse, Olivia Laing set out one midsummer morning to walk its banks, from source to sea.  Along the way she explores the roles that rivers play in human lives, tracing their intricate flow through literature, mythology and folklore.

To The River was such a perfect find that I pushed aside the book I'd planned to read and just dove straight in (bad pun, sorry).

After a sad parting of ways between the author and her longtime partner, as well as a job loss, Olivia Laing planned a solo adventure along the River Ouse.  Describing herself as a 'hydrophile' the lure of water always held both fascination and a sense of calm.  What better way to distract yourself from the anxieties of what's to happen next than to focus on something you both love and have no control over.

Booking rooms in the small villages that dot along the river, Olivia used ordnance maps to carefully plot her route.  Packing a rucksack and counting on cheese and oatcakes to fend off hunger between stops she set off for a week-long journey.

   'The swifts were there when I woke, rising as if from deep water, rinsed clean by sleep for the first time in months.  The swifts were there, and a fox in the car park of the hospital, a scrawny, mottled orange-grey fox, who sat and scratched in the sun and then slunk back into the shadows of the old incinerator.  It was 21 June, the longest day of the year, the sky screened by fine cloud, the sea swaddled in mist.  My pack was ready at the bottom of the bed, stuffed with neat layers of clothes and maps, the side pockets bulging with bottles of suntan lotion and water, a battered copy of The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe and a rusty Opinel that no longer locked.'

Beginning with a train ride, then a cab to Slaugham to check in at the Chequers, Olivia heads out into the nearby field through wildflowers and fence lines.  There are laws about trespassing on certain plots of land but sometimes you just have to duck under a fence and hope for the best.

I can't say enough about how much I loved this book for the beautiful writing,  both lyrical and straightforward in turns.  On one page I was learning about the bloody Battle of Lewes and King Henry III, and then further on about the burning of martyrs during the time of Marian persecutions.  Laing also paints beautiful mental images of the trees, flowers and wildlife bordering the river and the birds that fly past.  I had no idea that a hawk's vision is 20/5 or that the author Kenneth Grahame's life was dotted with such sadness.  And while we should all be concerned about climate change, coastal villages have experienced rising sea levels, erosion and devastating storms since the Middle Ages.

After feeling as though I too had spent an afternoon hiking in the sun alongside Olivia, I smiled with satisfaction at the flask of hot milk and homemade truffle that Olivia was handed at one stellar B&B.  Although, I can't say that stepping into the sucking mud for a refreshing swim had the same effect.

Having taken the train from London to Lewes myself in 2017, I so enjoyed the anticipation of Laing's journey eventually taking her to Rodmell.  Virginia and Leonard Woolf are frequently mentioned but in a tender and thoughtful way; this is not a book that acts as a backdrop to Virginia's suicide.  While I was visiting Monk's House another visitor asked if I wanted to join her for a walk to the place where Virginia walked into the river.  That wasn't an experience I felt I needed so the offer was politely declined.  The River Ouse is more than the place where Virginia Woolf ended her life, it has a fascinating history that's worth exploring for its own sake. 

I didn't just like this book, I loved it.

The River Ouse
(photo credit here)