A women walks into a hotel….Sounds like the first line of a joke. In this case, it’s the pivotal event in both William Trevor’s Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel (1969) and Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac (1984).
Trevor is an Irish novelist and short story writer. His novels, including Mrs. Eckdorf, have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times. Mrs. Eckdorf, an Englishwoman transplanted to Germany, assembles coffee table books that record other people’s despair and misfortune. When Mrs. Eckdorf receives a tip about a mystery associated with the rundown O’Neill’s Hotel, she smells scandal and travels to Dublin. Once a flourishing establishment, O’Neill’s has decayed into a sometime brothel. Mrs. Eckdorf thinks this all has to do with an unknown event that occurred 28 years earlier when the daughter of the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Sinnott, fled the hotel. Mrs. Sinnott is herself a mystery. She’s ninety-two years old, completely deaf, and communicates in writing, handing visitors notebooks in which to share their thoughts. The Sinnott family convenes once a year for Mrs. Sinnott’s birthday, the only day when Mrs. Sinnott leaves her room.
Mrs. Eckdorf is an ambiguous figure. She’s brash, cruel, and manipulative. She compensates for an unhappy childhood and two failed marriages by using “a camera like a weapon, her mind respecting no privacy, cruelty coming from cruelty.” But Mrs. Eckdorf also repeatedly preaches about the importance of human connection. When told that her work is exploitive, Mrs. Eckdorf insists that all people must be concerned with one another.
Mrs. Eckdorf does not solve the mystery of O’Neill’s Hotel, but she makes some educated guesses about what led to the hotel’s demise. She also arrives at a sort of epiphany. For Mrs. Eckdorf, the assembly on Mrs. Sinnott’s birthday is proof of the power of forgiveness, the participants in an ancient heinous act setting aside their differences. Mrs. Eckdorf views Mrs. Sinnott as the embodiment of godliness and the engineer of absolution. But Mrs. Eckdorf can’t communicate what she feels. She craves connection but can’t connect and it drives her to madness.
What Mrs. Eckdorf really sees in Mrs. Sinnott is the power of kindness and compassion to connect people. Mrs. Sinnott reads her visitors’ thoughts and responds in turn. Her nonjudgmental silence is more comforting than the self-righteousness of the priest, Father Hennessey, who is too bound up in writing about the lives of saints, to see that kindness binds people more effectively than religion.
In Anita Brooker’s Booker Prize winning novel, Edith Hope, an evocative name if there ever was one, is dispatched to the Hotel Du Lac in Switzerland for a reset after she has caused a bit of a scandal. Like Mrs. Eckdorf, Edith is a writer. She churns out bland romance novels under a pen name. There’s nothing racy or feminist in Edith’s books. Also like Mrs. Eckdorf, Edith’s childhood has been marred by the self-absorbed unhappiness of her German mother and her father’s early death. Her blighted childhood leaves Edith feeling like an outsider.
Edith divides the world between tortoises and hares. In Edith’s novels, the mousy girl gets the man, but Edith insists that’s not a true to life ending. “The hare is always convinced of his own superiority; he simply does not recognize the tortoise as a worthy adversary.” Edith’s duality is an inapt metaphor because the hares she encounters among the other guests at the Hotel Du Lac have more in common with predators than with hares. Edith has not been blessed with an artist’s power of perception. She knows she’s a tortoise, but she can’t immediately distinguish the hares among the few other guests who are staying at the Hotel Du Lac during the off-season. As a result, our opinions of these other characters constantly shift. In a contest in which matrimony remains the prize, Edith receives a proposal from a suitor for a marriage of convenience that will elevate her to a hare status. Mr. Neville is so convinced of Edith’s tortoisehood that he knows she will not embarrass him or object to his extra-marital affairs. Edith is one mouse that finds a spine and rejects the proposal, knowing it will condemn her to being a tortoise forever.
Brooker was an English writer who passed away earlier this year. An art historian until she was 53, Brooker has a prolific second career, turning out two dozen novels of which Hotel Du Lac is the most well-known. Her focus upon marriage and status earned her comparisons to Jane Austin. Brookner’s writing is exquisite and frequently droll. Describing the bitterness of Edith’s mother and aunt, Brookner writes, “When the sisters found each other again, many years later, together with their cousin Resi, it was to outbid each other with stories about horrific boredom, of husbands become too puny to interest them, of pointless days which it seemed beneath them to try to fill.” Describing Edith’s closest friend, Brooker states, “She was a handsome woman of forty-five and would remain so for many years.”
When Hotel du Lac won the 1984 Booker Prize, it stirred some controversy since many in the literary community believed J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was more deserving. When it comes to literary awards, readability and small landscapes are not always virtues. It doesn’t mean that Hotel Du Lac isn’t a good book. Both it and Mrs. Eckdorf deserve second chances.