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QUINTESSENCE

Review: Anita Brookner's HOTEL DU LAC

The day seemed interminable, yet neither was in a hurry to have done with it. It seemed to both of them in their separate ways that only the possession of this day held worse days at bay, that, for each of them, the seriousness of their respective predicaments had so far been material for satire or for ridicule or even for amusement. But that the characters who had furnished that satire or that amusement were now taking on a disturbing life of their own, were revealing capacities for command or caprice that threatened, although in a very obscure or oblique way, their own marginal existence. We both came here to get other people out of trouble, thought Edith; no one considered our hopes and wishes. Yet hopes and wishes are what should be proclaimed, most strenuously proclaimed, if anyone is to be jolted into the necessity of taking note of them, let alone the obligation to fulfill them… All I learned I learned from Father. Think again, Edith. You have made a false equation. This is when character tells. Sad precepts of a lost faith.
- from "Hotel du Lac," by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, published in 1984, won Great Britain's Booker Prize in 1986, nearly twenty years ago. Materialism, Feminism, careerism, explicit film and writing defined the 1980s - a tumultuous time of "-isms" and their vocal, adamant defenders. Yet Hotel du Lac, written in that period, is a novel of another era, a self-contained, wrly observed bridge between the defined roles and mannerisms of Austen's literary women and the depressed self-definition of Doris Lessing's heroines. In this "no woman's land" between independence of means and thinking and social expectation and the demands of good character, Brookner gives us a woman named Edith Hope, whose last name anchors the trenchant theme of the novel. Edith is a successful romance novelist writing under a pen name who is herself awkward and unsuccessful at love. She finds herself caught in a scandal of her own inept making and forced to seek refuge in a grand but out of the way old European hotel. A hotel occupied by those who in eccentric and unpredictable ways are also refugees from their lives. It is here, dwelling on her options, that Edith is forced to confront what she really feels about love.

I found myself drawn in and occasionally at odds with this novel. Brookner's mannered language is what now might be deemed "overwritten." A contemporary critic might declaim such studied writing inserts itself between the reader and the narrative. Brookner's language colors and slows the narrative, deliberatively. Words such as inimical, penumbra, hitherto, veritable, estimable, propensity, etc., put us firmly in the thoughts of a woman of the nineteenth century, yet Edith Hope is very much living the life of an independent woman of the twentieth. Therein lies the root of the "wrong equation" Edith makes of love and what a woman is entitled to want, to hope for; her dawning awareness of the "sad precepts of a lost faith."

This novel is perhaps the perfect ironic anti-romance romantic novel. The observations and humor are fine; cutting, yet objectively drawn as Edith considers her situation and that of the (primarily) women around her, the elegant lost souls of the Hotel du Lac. Each guest in some way has made her or his own bittersweet pact with love - from the material and indulgent to the rebellious or marginalized. The novel's delicately observed truths about human relationships are centuries old. It is Edith who reminds us of this, even as she herself must decide what history she will choose.

Brookner adeptly lures the reader irrevocably into this novel of quiet desperation. A pattern occurs in the narrative, until it becomes obvious what the heroine thinks may not be true (Edith, you have made a wrong equation), or the predicted outcome is not the outcome at all. And so it with complete pleasure that Hotel du Lac ends on a gesture of rebellion. Edith may not know how to find what she seeks, but finally, she knows what is right for her. I found myself wondering at the novel's end how many of us like Edith live a century behind ourselves. Raised in our grandparents's or parents's value systems, influenced by the books and mythologies and manners of earlier times, perhaps like Edith it takes a turning point to force us forward. To leave behind a life inhabiting the expectations of others and define our own lives.
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Tree Called Life

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

- e.e.cummings

This poem by e.e. cummings was part of my own wedding ceremony, shared at sunrise on the crater's edge of Haleakala on Maui. These words capture for me the enduring, burrowing, all encompassing interiority of hearts in love. The supple binding and integration of identities and lives. The way in which love becomes us. Or perhaps it is how we become our love; the way we live in love.

Tomorrow I am leaving for a fabulous wedding in Austin, a gala barn dance. We are celebrating the marriage of the first child of my dearest friend Patricia. Patricia and I met in the basketball stands of our daughters's school, cheering on our girls on the JV team. We hit it off like chocolate and nuts, and hung together as we raised our children through the highs and lows of middle school, high school, the college applications marathon, and on through dating, career starts, and graduations (two college senior sons left to go). And now her amazing eldest, having taken the bar exam, is marrying her true love and fellow lawyer (and operatic baritone) under the old oaks of Austin. I am looking over my favorite vintage wines, thinking of our years as friends, as parents, choosing one to bring down with me for the two of us to share over a private celebratory moment this weekend. This is the first of our children to marry and it is hard to describe the huge feeling in my chest as I think of this.

Love, celebrated in the ceremony of a wedding, marks a transition: hingeing the world of both child and parent.
"the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life"

The families we ourselves began to build so idealistically decades ago divide and double, branch and flower. The child steps away and toward the future, laying the foundation stone of a family of his or her own. Beginning independent life with someone they love. It is a moment of long-anticipated arrival - the threshold of true adulthood - embracing the responsibilities of partnership, parenting, life. And to the parents that have nurtured, guided, suffered, celebrated, and loved their children to this threshold? A sweet, nuanced emotional collision. Swells of accomplishment, great joy, and the twinged melancholy of missing the "days our children were little." Yes. I believe this moment needs a good - no great - old wine. Also something nuanced, complex. Satisfying, but the wish for that half glass more.

I will lift my glass this weekend to you, my friend. To your glowing, gorgeous daughter.
To us. To the glorious years as parents that bond us.
And finally to parents the world over, as they kiss their children and see them through a thousand doors.
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Where Are You Leading?

ii.
Old thread, old line
of ink twisting out into the clearness
we call space
where are you leading me this time?
Past the stove, the table,
past the daily horizontal
of the floor, past the cellar,
past the believable,
down into the darkness
where you reverse and shine.

- Margaret Atwood, from Down

At a recent creative writing workshop I held, a gristled middle-aged man wearing a cabled fisherman's sweater, bagged at the elbows, and smudged half-glasses, lifted the nicotine-stained fingers of his right hand and asked with a bit of a hesitancy in his speech, "How do you know you have an idea worth writing about?"

The pat answer, the one you always hear repeated at conference panels, is the question flipped back on itself. "Does it inspire you? Do you feel passionate about your idea? If you do, then dive in and write what only you can." I have no real problem with this response because, in most ways, it is true. Our best ideas are almost always the ones we believe in with all our heart. Only passion will lift an idea from flat ink on the page to construct that three-dimensional vision in your mind, the one you write out fleshed in the senses, in time and drama for your readers. But writers are a hardy lot, self-disciplined; committed to work even when inspiration fails. Driven to drum up enthusiasm when inspiration lags. I knew my gentlemen with the pipe was asking more than what subjects to consider. He tapped his laptop then, asked, "What works?"

In truth, the business of writing occurs one level beyond what is a good passionate story on the page. An acquisitions editor reads for more than the well-executed novel or short story. The editor's interest in a manuscript is often a phenomenon of timeliness, of fresh and unexpected writing, innovative storytelling. Many editors are actively searching for something they can love - that undefinable word magic. That "something extra" that takes a work of private solitary imagination and lifts it into the world of published books. The answer to my gentleman's question, what follows "Are you passionate about your story?" is the simple not-so-easy qualifier, "Can you write this idea so that others will feel about your story as you do?"

At the end of reading a novel submission, the editor has his or her answer in hand. On this basis proposals are judged as well. If you are fortunate to have your "yes," what follows is the amazing, important, book to hand build of industry interest in your fledgling story. Old-fashioned word of mouth enthusiasm is the way your editor wins advance support within the publishing house, amongst book reviewers, bookstore owners, and those whose opinions influence what we read. That your agent loves your work, and your publishing editor loves your work, success still depends on other readers falling in love as well. It's quite the journey your unique story, the idea you were so passionate about, undertakes to arrive in Aunt Edna's hands.

Margaret Atwood's imagery of inked lines flying from the table, past the believable to that point words shine, is one I return to frequently when I think how grateful I am to the professionals in publishing. They hear our words. And pass the magic on to readers, everywhere.
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By Silence, By Gold

Flowers of October, Gutenberg
IX
A lingering day was enveloped by water,
by fire, by smoke, by silence, by gold,
by silver, by ashes, by passing and there
it lay scattered, the longest of days:

the tree tumbled whole and calcified,
one century then another hid it away
until a broad slab of stone forever
replaced the rustling of its leaves.

- Pablo Neruda, Stones of the Sky

Dark before the dawn and I am on the road. Making the airport run, nose to tail-light in a stream of red chasing the silver arrows. On my way back home I drive into the mouth of clouds spitting fire. The dawn so huge it swallows the still plateau, the pines dusted in frost, the concrete highways stirring to life. The glow of morning chases the night all the way to my quiet street.

Coming in the door, I hang up my keys and pull on gloves and head back out for my morning walk. I shake the stiffness out of my bones, feeling as rounded and rooted as the thousand year rocks and grandfather trees. After 45 years of running, one knee is bone on bone and today walk is better than run, better than not moving at all. Life reminds us of the non-negotiable passage of time in the most prosaic ways.

Along the bluff fog rises up the valley. Dense, colorless, chill. The breath of earth stills as it turns from the sun. Around me deciduous trees shriek noisily with color, their crimson and persimmon and curry yellows the most festive of chorales to sing the cornucopia, hint the barren that will follow. My breath explodes in small puffs before me as I part the dried grasses, feet crunching stiff wild oat. Bright sun penetrates through the fog here and there, god of somnolent things, warming the stones and snakes awake. It is here, the world cries. The beauty of fullness. The fall. Do you see?

Home, I remove my gloves and embrace the settledness of an empty house. Around me the quiet and still shoulder in, I am wrapped in the waiting. The pure that gestates creative impulse. Today I vow to mute the whispers of the busy world, silence the phone, turn off the devices, cloak the fretful television, the news and melodies and playlists bursting to entertain, saturate. My gift today? Colors of quiet.
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