‘Stroll round the deck with me,’ said Mr Neville. ‘You are shivering. That cardigan is not warm enough; I do wish you would get rid of it. Whoever told you that you looked like Virginia Woolf did you a grave disservice, although I suppose you thought it was a compliment. As to vice, there is plenty to be found if you know where to look.’
‘I never seem to find it,’ said Edith.
‘That is because you do not give yourself over wholeheartedly to the pursuit. But, if you remember, we are going to change all that.’
‘I really don’t see how. If all it involves is giving away my cardigan, I feel I should tell you that I have another one at home. Of course, I could give that away too. But I seem to be too spiritless for radical improvement. I am simply not fascinating. I don’t know why.’
observations: No, she really isn’t fascinating.
The case against the Man Booker Prize: Exhibit 1. This book.
On 18th October 1984, Hotel du Lac won the prize, from a shortlist that included JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun. Re-reading it nearly 30 years later you feel if it was in a publisher’s slushpile it wouldn’t even make it to the shops, let alone win a major literary prize. I never have much time for the Booker Prize anyway – it isn't trying to find the best book of the year (even though readers and booksellers persist in acting as if it did), it is trying to create publicity and sell more books.
But it’s to be hoped that the books might be somewhat deserving. This one isn’t.
Edith goes and stays in a hotel in Switzerland. She meets some people, and finds out some things about them. We find out what disaster in her personal life brought her to Switzerland. She sits around feeling superior to everyone else, and manages on p99 to drink her tea ‘fiercely’. The book feels as though it wasn’t re-read or edited: as an author she is a ‘modest but substantial seller’ (well, which?). A chapter starts ‘But sleep did not come easily’ a propos of absolutely nothing. The woman in the dining-room changes from looking like a pug to a bulldog.
About once every 15 pages there is a sentence that is funny, or striking or clever, a line to make you think maybe there is something there. But no, the opening line is “From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey” and that’s pretty much the book.
Links on the blog: William Golding’s Rites of Passage, Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils, and AS Byatt’s Possession all have blog entries and are all much worthier winners of the Booker, and best of all Hilary Mantel has won the prize (faith-restoringly) twice, with these books. Virginia Woolf, whom Edith is supposed to look like, has featured before, twice. (Princess Anne, whom she is also compared with, not so much.)
The lady in the cardigan comes from the vintage knitting pattern site, Virginia Woolf from Wikimedia Commons.