Getting a namecheck for your hotel in the title of a book is pretty special. Unless it’s accompanied by the word ‘Babylon’. Over a decade ago, the collective heart of the hotel industry prematurely skipped a beat when Fay Weldon’s Bulgari Connection was published. It turned out that Italy’s jewels-to-hotel megabrand had simply paid cash for the title. £18,000 to be exact. Return on investment: a storm of high falutin literary controversy.
Back in the 80’s, the Hotel du Lac – a Swiss property of which no-one had ever heard – unexpectedly found itself catapulted to international fame after Anita Brookner’s novel of the same name appeared. Despite Martin Amis being that year’s shoo-in, it went and won the Booker Prize – bingo!
But hotel people should be careful what they wish for.
The real Hotel du Lac is an elegant summer destination in Vevey, a jolly little resort that sits quietly towards the eastern end of Lake Geneva. This is Europe’s largest expanse of freshwater, dividing Switzerland from France, with the diplomat enclave of Geneva at one end, Montreux at the other. Montreux is too Monegasque for me, its shuttered apartment blocks looking as if they’re owned by the same people who’ve bought Knightsbridge, and don’t live there either, but Vevey just sits there, accommodating happy families who splash about in the lake’s clear waters.
It was only ever really famous for two things: Charlie Chaplin lived in exile for 25 years after the Americans wouldn’t allow him to return to Hollywood during the McCarthy era; and Nestle, the chocolate to powdered milk conglomerate, was founded there and still thrives today. The book attracted further attention.
But when Anita Brookner turned up to write her novel, about a writer called Edith Hope staying in the hotel, it didn’t seem to be quite so pleasing to the eye
On a bright sunny day, lounging by the pool, I dipped in for a read. I should have gone for a swim instead. I didn’t expect a guide book, but Brookner’s narrative is grey, deliberately so, mulling over deceits and mores, drawing succour from the foibles of fictionalized guests. It’s no accident that events take place as winter is setting in, swaddling the characters in cold, dank mists, contrasting sharply with my summery outlook.
The Hotel sits on the lakeshore, its proper name now ‘Grand Hotel du Lac’ after a couple of refurbs to rejuvenate the elegant decor. But when Anita Brookner turned up to write her novel, about a writer called Edith Hope staying in the hotel, it didn’t seem to be quite so pleasing to the eye. Across the water from me were the mountains of the Chablais Massif, a dramatic landscape indeed, but one which Brookner describes as unrelentingly monochrome. “It’s not”, I thought, looking out over the sparkling blue waters.
Throughout the day, every day, brightly restored paddle steamers pootle by from the past, tooting and puffing to signal that it’s not only Swiss trains that run on time. They’re paid scant attention by Brookner, her storyline too bleak for jolly nautical maneuvers, (save for one rather belated romantic tryst). Pity really, the vessels are a century old; elongated, sleek, as sharply pointed as stilettos, resplendent with Belle Epoque frippery, as if Tim Burton had been given a small navy to makeover.
By page nine, Brookner is laying into her surroundings. “Veal-coloured”, she says, whatever that might be. In fact the place is a riot of sunshine colours blended with exotic antiquery and golden baubles hither and thither. It’s all very tasteful, not like veal at all.
She goes on, damning with faint praise its serenity and restrained taste as a “mild form of sanctuary”. Hmm… The hotel is a prop, the backdrop to a comedy of manners, the most important aspects of which actually take place in London. The characters, and the hotel itself, are foils for the writer’s worries, dilemmas, misgivings.
I stepped out on to my little balcony several times to view the water and distant mountains, and not once was the air like milk. Not even the condensed stuff, which I like
At mealtimes (which feature a lot), the fictional menu couldn’t have been further from reality: succulent, meaty, roast lobster served in an absinthe sauce; tender lamb chops in a crunchy nigella crust; and a variety of expertly crafted dishes not dependent on expensive ingredients, prepped by Switzerland’s Chef of the Year. What the heroine Edith had is irrelevant, as mealtimes were only a stage set for never ending melodrama. Although at one point she was “ladling chips of sugar, coloured like bath salts, into her coffee”.
It was all another era, one where Nestle powdered creamer was probably popular, although Brookner did cause me to start when she stepped “out on to her balcony, and the air was like milk”. I stepped out on to my little balcony several times to view the water and distant mountains, and not once was the air like milk. Not even the condensed stuff, which I like.
I didn’t expect Charlotte Bronte to be in the drawing room reading extracts from Jane Eyre, but it was all too distant and grey, a time where social disgrace in London society required one to absent oneself to, er, Switzerland. At least Anita afforded Edith the conceit of “looking like Virginia Wolfe”, despite very obviously being Brookner herself, thinly disguised, as we discover by accident on page 158.
“I could have stayed in and spent the entire day writing, she thought to herself, but the mere thought of it made me feel ill.”
It’s beautifully written, but despite a front cover blurb declaring it “will be read with pleasure a hundred years from now” I only wish I had decided to read it somewhere else. All that slightly dated gloominess was too sharp a contrast to the bright effervescence of the real thing.
Grand Hotel du Lac, Rue d’Italie 1, 1800 Vevey. Switzerland
+41 21 925 0606; hoteldulac-vevey.ch