Anita Brookner's novels: old moral choices without the old rhetoric

Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner. New York: Pantheon. 184 pp. $13.95. Recommending novels can put the reviewer in the position of the boy who cried wolf. Like the sensitive, cautious, stubbornly romantic heroines of Anita Brookner's novels, I have been saving my enthusiasm for the genuine article. Ms. Brookner's novels (she has written four so far) are that indeed.

With each new effort, the sheer beauty of her prose grows more transparent, while the complexity of her vision deepens, her distinctive, spellbinding voice -- elegant but passionate, funny but oddly earnest -- remains a constant, yet reveals fresh inflections with each new book: the voice of a storyteller who also manages to consider and reflect as she tells. And while her vision deepens, it is not merely the kind of growth we expect from a writer acquiring maturity but rather the depth that comes from the ability of a master artist to keep discovering new patterns and nuances in the same picture.

Brookner's novels deal with questions that have perplexed and fascinated novelists from Jane Austen and Charlotte Bront"e to George Eliot and Henry James: the shifting balance between appearance and reality, the conflict between desire and restraint, the corruption of innocence -- as well as its triumphant persistence. Not surprisingly, these themes often touch upon questions that almost coincide with recent feminist concerns: how should a woman behave, how should she expect to be treated -- more specifically, how should she behave toward men and expect them to behave toward her? And how should she evaluate her behavior: in the eyes of men? Or other women? In her own eyes? If it is the last, how does she know where to set her sights?

It is Brookner's genius that she is able to treat such questions, bearing in mind the concerns feminists have voiced, but without allowing her own imaginative formulations of these themes to be cast into the preexisting molds of feminist and anti-feminist polemic.

Brookner's first novel, ``The Debut'' (``A Start in Life'' in Great Britain), gave us Ruth Weiss, waiting in vain to win a young man's regard. Kitty Maule of ``Providence,'' Brookner's second novel, tries to take a more active role, but all her intelligence, care, foresight (pro-vidence) are mocked by a Providence that seems more inclined to provide for her careless, duplicitous lover.

In Brookner's third novel, ``Look at Me,'' the narrative shifts to the first person and, more surprisingly, the focus shifts from a sexual to a social situation (though here, as before, the two are almost inextricably entwined). The chief object of Frances Hinton's desire is not to win a man but to enter what might be called a ``faster'' social set, transforming herself in the process from a shy, neglected person into a selfish, satisfied one.

The heroine of Brookner's fourth novel, ``Hotel du Lac'' (winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, Britain's most distinguished award for fiction), is Edith Hope, a writer of romantic escape novels. In the wake of what they consider to have been unseemly behavior on her part, Edith's putative friends bundle her off for a stay at the eponymous Swiss hotel.

There she encounters temptation of a very curious sort in the person of an elegant, well-heeled, slightly sinister man who is looking for a woman who will not -- or cannot -- humiliate him. Mr. Neville, whom the other ladies at the hotel consider a ``catch,'' seems to value Edith for the very virtues that have led other men to take her for granted. Yet he also offers her the temptation to live more selfishly.

Altruism, Mr. Neville informs Edith, is not a very attractive quality: People feel more at home in the company of those with ``low moral standards.'' Neville's arguments in favor of the self-centered life echo Edith's own insights about the myth of the tortoise and the hare: ``In my books,'' she explains to her agent, ``it is the mouse-like, unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress . . . retreats . . . never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. . . . In real life . . . it is the hare who wins. Every time. . . . It is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. . . . Hares have no time to read.''

Is selfishness the sine qua non for winning, even at the game of love? Is love a game? Should it be? Attracted but appalled by the possibility of transforming herself from a tortoise into a hare, Edith comes to realize that selfishness may be vulnerability's last -- and most hopeless -- defense. But can one continue to hope in the face of a reality that resists one's best efforts? Edith's answer is suggested in a letter she writes to her lover back in England, a married man who will not leave his wife for her:

``You thought, perhaps, like my publisher and my agent . . . that I wrote my stories with that mixture of satire and cynical detachment that is thought to become the modern writer in this field. You were wrong. I believed every word I wrote. And I still do, even though I realize now that none of it can ever come true for me.''

Like Henry James, Anita Brookner deals in ambivalence and ambiguities, the mysteries of the human heart, but unlike James, she never writes a sentence merely to increase the reader's sense of ``mysteriousness.'' Her prose is swift, transparent, unflinching, her plotting ingenious but never contrived. Her theme in ``Hotel du Lac,'' more powerful perhaps for the extent to which it is submerged, is the great Romantic theme of hope in the face of despair. Novels like hers are why we read novels.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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