EDITH HOPE, the protagonist of this highly acclaimed novel from Britain, winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, has done an "apparently dreadful thing," although the reader does not know exactly what that thing is or how dreadful until two-thirds of the way through Anita Brookner's slim and elegant and rather Jamesian novel, her fourth. By that time, of course, the diligent reader is hooked. Which is more or less the idea.
Entertainment, after all, is a perfectly legitimate reason for reading, and to find out what happens next -- or, in the case of Hotel du Lac, what improper thing has already happened to precipitate Edith's flight from London to a fairly ghastly and very proper Swiss resort hotel at the end of the season -- is usually the first reason the common reader (and the uncommon reader as well) turns the pages, carried along by the teasing currents of the story, the mystery at its core, and the power of the writer's style. The reader wants to know the secret the writer is privy to and will, he trusts, reveal at the proper moment. Who did what and why? Of course, if that were all reading fiction was about, then we would have stopped at Agatha Christie or the equivalent.
Anita Brookner is no Agatha Christie; more of a Virginia Woolf, whom her protagonist looks like, or a Henry James -- although without their grandeur -- concerned less with the act itself, whatever that may be and it can usually be simply stated, than with the mystery surrounding it, the mystery of human relationships, which, in the classier fiction of which this is an example, can never be simply stated, only demonstrated. Often the writer doesn't know the real secret either, only that there is one. In real art as in real life, few things are ever all wrapped up. And this book -- austere, subtle, controlled, and reminiscent of the work of that French neo-classical painter Jacques Louis David -- is art of a small but special kind. (The author herself is an authority on 18th-and 19th-century painting and teaches at the Courtauld Institute in London.)
Edith Hope -- too intelligent to have an excess of that virtue and too human to have lost it altogether -- is "a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name" (Vanessa Wilde, which is indeed more "thrusting"), a woman approaching 40, in love with a married man who takes her rather for granted, capable and cool and reserved on the surface -- the kind of woman who might easily blend into the woodwork if the woodwork were of a very fine, classical quality. In her novels, a mixture as she says of "fantasy and obfuscation," she explores "the question of what behavior most becomes a woman." It's a question she herself is exploring as she spends her period of penance and exile at the Hotel du Lac, the setting of the novel, "a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing." Not the sort of place a person would go to to kick up his heels, in other words, or even for a very good time. One would like Edith to have a good time.
Like the women in her novels, she is a romantic and heartbroken. In her novels, however, broken hearts are mended happily. Edith believes in her novels, or would like to, where "it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. That is a lie, of course . . . . In real life . . . it is the hare who wins. Every time. . . . The facts of life are too terrible to go into my kind of fiction."
Some day, maybe. "She had told herself as much, many times, but had been able to dismiss her own verdict. Now she recognized the voice of authority, as if she had heard an illness confirmed, although she had almost succeeded in persuading herself that she was only imagining the symptoms." The voice of authority was the voice of a suitor who wants her as a wife but does not want the burden of her feelings, a man who believes that "the light touch sometimes, nearly always, in fact, is more effective than the deepest passion," and who when she weeps says, "Please don't cry. I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her." (Fortunately he doesn't, opting, I suppose, for the light touch.) Later Edith realizes: "When she had leaned against him and wept, and when he had put his arm around her, she had been aware that he felt nothing. That he had returned her to herself most gracefully, but he had felt nothing."
That, of course, is not enough. At the end of this intelligent, witty, carefully crafted and sometimes surprising novel, Edith has been ost gracefully returned to herself. That doesn't seem quite enough, either. One wishes that she had gotten a bit out of herself. There were times, in fact, when I wanted her suitor to belt her, or for her to belt him. A little less grace, perhaps, and a little more passion. As I said, one longs for Edith to have some fun, but perhaps that would not be true to the life portrayed here. It would, in any event, be another novel.
The facts of life may be too terrible to go into the kind of fiction Edith writes, but they are not too terrible for her creator's, and they are grim indeed, grim and gray. In fact, grayness is everywhere: in the garden, in the hotel, on the lake, in the mists of the season, in Edith's wedding dress, in her room "the color of over- cooked veal," in the man without feelings: everywhere. There are, of course, many, many shades of gray, and Anita Brookner has given us the full range. Still, one can't help but long for a splash of vivid color. CAPTION: Picture, Anita Brookner. Copyright (c) 1984 by Jerry Bauer