AT a crucial point in ''Hotel du Lac,'' the winner of England's 1984 Booker Prize, a rich and attractive man leans toward a woman and says, ''You may feel better if you tell me about it.' '' '' 'Oh, do you think that is true?' she enquired, breathing rather hard. 'And even if it is, do you guarantee that the results will be immediately felt? Like those obscure advertisements for ointment that help you to 'obtain relief.' One is never quite sure from what.' ''
It's a conversation that might have come straight from a Barbara Pym novel: the man all intensity, the woman devastatingly down-to- earth. In fact, Anita Brookner has often been compared with Pym - less because of style, one supposes, than because of her cast of players. Her central character is invariably a mild-mannered English spinster, pleasant to look at, if not very striking, and impeccably dressed. She is so correct, so self-controlled and punctilious, that weare surprised to learn how young she is - not yet out of her 30's. Not too old to look up in a quick, alert, veiled way whenever an unattached man wanders past.
But what she sees when she looks at the man - well, till now, that's where she differed from most of the women in Pym's books. Pym's heroine would generally see someone appealing but comically flawed (as all men are, she would reflect with a smile). Miss Brookner's always saw a rescuer. Pym's heroine would be rueful, self-mocking. Miss Brookner's was seriously hopeful, and seriously cast down when her hopes failed to materialize.
In Miss Brookner's first novel, ''The Debut,'' the heroine was induced by a literary tradition of filial duty to give up all claims to a personal future and settle dismally into the role of faithful daughter. In ''Look at Me,'' an unmarried librarian befriended by a glittering Beautiful Couple was eventually dropped, abandoned to a lonely middle age. In ''Providence,'' a woman in love with a professor discovered that the professor did not love her back, and the story ended abruptly with her disillusionment. The final mood has always been bleak, even accusatory - a sort of ''Why me, God?'' that left the reader slightly alienated.
But in ''Hotel du Lac,'' Miss Brookner's most absorbing novel, the heroine is more philosophical from the outset, more self-reliant, more conscious that a solitary life is not, after all, an unmitigated tragedy. Edith Hope receives two proposals of marriage during the course of the story. Both would-be husbands are flawed - one is too dull, one too pragmatic - but the earlier heroines, we suspect, would have settled for one or the other nonetheless. Edith ends up accepting neither. Ironically, it is she, the producer of pulp novels (''a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name''), who is the first of Miss Brookner's heroines to arrive at a nonromantic, wryly realistic appreciation of her single state.
The hotel of the title is a conservative family establishment on the shore of a Swiss lake, and it is here that Edith has been packed off to reassemble herself after committing an ''unfortunate lapse.'' What this lapse was we're not told immediately, but when it is revealed - at just the right moment - it turns out to be entirely in keeping with her character, as well as with the tone of the book: oddly detached, very small-scale, faintly humorous. Edith's real sin, when you get right down to it, is that she has failed to adhere to the path that officious friends have mapped out for her.
Read more >>