It was quite a surprise, on finishing Hotel du Lac, to learn that it was probably set around the time it was written: in the 1980s. It has the feel of a much older time – just after the Second World War perhaps – and not a contemporary one. It was difficult not to identify with Edith, packed off on a ‘holiday’ by her friends after causing a disturbance and encountering a number of other women taking the air as the season draws to a close in the old-fashioned hotel by the lake.
An autumn sun, soft as honey, gilded the lake; tiny waves whispered onto the shore; a white steamer passed noiselessly off in the direction of Ouchy; and at her feet, on the sandy path, she saw the green hedgehog shape of a chestnut, split open to reveal the brown gleam of its fruit. The café with the clouded windows, now transparent and bathed in an afternoon light, was almost empty. Seated at a silent table, Edith closed her eyes momentarily in a shaft of sunlight and tasted pure pleasure.
I suspect opinions of Edith – a writer of romances under a pen-name – may differ depending on where on the introvert-extrovert spectrum you sit. To my mind, she seemed to have organised her life perfectly, with plenty of sitting in the garden and an aspirational amount of tea-drinking, until the well-meaning friends intrude to direct her future. Following an ‘indiscretion,’ they decide for her that she needs time away and instead of telling them where to go, she obligingly gets on the plane.
Her fellow guests at first amuse and delight her, as with a writer’s eye she creates backgrounds and motivations for them. Her attention is most drawn by an extravagant mother and daughter who adopt her, determined to stop her being lonely. Mrs Pusey and Jennifer were so over-the-top that I was a bit disappointed to learn that they weren’t confidence tricksters or cat burglars, just the kind of unlikely acquaintances you make when travelling alone. But like the friends back home, they don’t seem to be able to resist the temptation to manage Edith’s life.
‘I think you have an admirer,’ said Mrs Pusey with a light laugh.
The other women are all somewhat becalmed, adrift from husbands, sons or lovers, sent to the Hotel du Lac to wait. The men are mostly fairly monstrous – either drips or tyrants – but again, incapable of letting Edith pass without pointing out How She Could Do Better. It is perhaps testament to her stiff upper lip (or fear of confrontation) that she doesn’t tell any of these intruders where to get off. She also pairs up with Monica, who I could get on very well with for her caustic nature, but for the fact of its destroying her from the inside out. Mme de Bonneuil, who has become an inconvenience to her daughter-in-law and son, doesn’t project a very confident glow to Edith’s possible future on the one hand, but neither does marriage offer much redemption unless, as with Mrs Pusey’s fella, he leaves you alone to the shopping and spending.
Apparently, Hotel du Lac caused some controversy by beating Empire of the Sun to the Booker Prize as it wasn’t considered a worthy winner, which perhaps shows up how crazy it is to pit books against each other like racehorses. It is also quite telling as to how stories about women by women are viewed when compared to those about men by men. Not much happens in Hotel du Lac, it’s true, especially if viewed side-by-side with Ballard’s wartime adventures, but I would argue that this kind of story is more difficult for a writer to pull off successfully. Hotel du Lac is a book of small moments, glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. Of well-observed characters and their slowly revealed struggles that cause intense upset but don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
Edith, in her veal-coloured room in the Hotel du Lac, sat with her hands in her lap, wondering what she was doing there. And then remembered, and trembled. And thought with shame of her small injustices, of her unworthy thoughts towards those excellent women who had befriended her, and to whom she had revealed nothing. I have been too harsh on women, she thought, because I understand them better than I understand men.
As with a hotel out of season or a closed-up seaside town, the charms of Hotel du Lac are not obvious, but they are many. Edith’s battles with that most English of perils – embarrassment – and attempts to determine who the woman behind the pseudonym is and what she will and won’t put up with from those around her are compelling and perceptively drawn. An enjoyable read and one I am sure I will be returning to.
Picture of boats on Lake Geneva by HGolaszewska, via Creative Commons