Saturday, January 14, 2017

Anita Brookner

I must admit, I'd not heard of Anita Brookner until she passed away last year. I read her obituary in the New York Times

After Brookner passed away, I'd tried to buy a copy of Hotel du Lac, but was unable; her death, as so often happens, had breathed fresh life into her work and reputation. 

But after a recent trip abroad, I was able to find a copy, the updated Penguin edition. Let me say at the start: I'm so glad I did.

Hotel is beautifully written; it's even and well paced; it's clean and confined to what it knows. This isn't a novel that reaches for too much: instead, it's a study in restraint, a story told with a handful of characters, over the course of a month. There's an exacting quality to Brookner's novel: a quiet sense of something very well done. 

But then, there's an emotional intensity here as well. Hotel is a book about an emergent sort of femininity: a quest for self-determination in a world dominated by male ambition (and by lingering vestiges of custom and manner). There's a piercing line in Hotel about the choice afforded to women of a certain age and intellect: about how their options swing from "overwork" on the one hand to "half-hearted idleness" on the other. This is the choice laid bare in Brookner's novel. 

There's so much to like in Hotel: convincing characters, humorous exchanges, realistic depictions of deceit. What surprised me most, though, was the ending: the sorrow it manifests, the unwillingness of Brookner to tie a bow. 

While Edith Hope -- Brookner's central character -- succeeds in preserving herself (from defeat, from social imprisonment), she does so without the happiness I'd expected. It's the "ambiguous" smile of men that Edith can't reconcile. Her freedom is tinged with constraint; like her view of the lake, Edith must navigate the mists. But navigate, we hope, she will...

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