D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas, D(onald) M(ichael) (Vol. 22)


D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas 1935–

British poet, novelist, translator, editor, and critic.

While Thomas's reputation for narrative poetry, particularly for science fiction poems, is secure, critical response to his novels, especially The White Hotel, establishes Thomas as an important new novelist. Another novel, The Flute Player, evidences his background as a translator of the Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Throughout his work, sexuality and death are central concerns.

(See also CLC, Vol. 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Nicholas Shrimpton

D.M. Thomas is a notable translator of modern Russian verse and [The Flute Player] is an imaginative meditation on the themes and landscapes of that literature. Against a dream-like background of wars and purges we watch a generation of artists struggling to survive. The setting is never specifically identified as Russia, and there are times when we appear to be in Berlin rather than Moscow. But our contemporary image of the artist's life as heroic endeavour is derived almost entirely from the unofficial writers and painters of the Soviet Union, and it is that image which the book celebrates.

The narrative is a simple chronicle of endurance, centred upon the enigmatic flute player…. Through her room pass the soldiers and state functionaries, the religious fanatics, painters, actors and writers of the book's imaginary city. The artists especially are nourished by her preternatural beauty and endurance. She inspires, supports, and eventually memorises, the work of a whole family of poets. Though symbolic significances obviously tremble on the tongue, the novel never dwindles into allegory…. At times of course, The Flute Player seems secondhand, an envious borrowing of other men's literary clothes. But its method is confessedly that of collage and, as collage, it achieves a delicate distinction. (p. 922)

Nicholas Shrimpton, "Love of Flying," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 97, No. 2518, June 22, 1979, pp. 922-23.∗


[The Flute Player] is one of the most skillfull, moving and imaginative pieces of fiction I have read in years…. [Mr Thomas] has written a tremendously moving book dedicated to Mandelstam, Pasternak, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, a fantasy based sometimes loosely, sometimes very directly upon their lives and works, and above all on the survival of poetry, love and humanity in an imaginary city that bears a striking resemblance to Leningrad.

We are taken through a series of revolutions, NEPs, purges and thaws: history being re-written as myth. Although it uses Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs, and various poems, notably Akhmatova's 'Requiem' with its shattering epigraph, this is in no sense a roman à clef, and nor, more to the point, is it either pretentious or an act of hubris. The central character …, model, muse, nurse, prostitute, becomes something very close indeed to the spirit of music, and her survival through a series of ordeals that might appear exaggerated to those unfamiliar with 20th-century history is the story of the survival of poetry itself. (p. 21)

Alex de Jonge, "July SF," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 243, No. 7877, July 7, 1979, pp. 21-2.∗

Peter Kemp

[The Flute Player is] a fantasy about art and totalitarianism. The setting for this is an unnamed, vaguely representative city where pogroms, purges and plagues are unleashed upon the populace as temporary despots crash up and down on the switchback of power. The characters are vaguely representative as well—and none more so than the central figure, Elena, who has a 'flawless, rather enigmatic face' and appears to embody Love and Inspiration…. [She] is obviously on the side of life-enhancing creativity…. Disseminating her productive influence amongst the novel's arty personnel—'the poet', 'the painter', 'the sculptor' etc—Elena gives rise to numerous masterpieces, but can also fall prey to those whose relationship to the creative urge is more crooked….

Lurid inconsequentialities of narrative abound. But, trailing behind the novel's high-flown fantasies, are pedestrian, not to say lame, conclusions: 'the more the authorities glorified equality, the more unequal people obviously were.' And, under all the violence and kinky bizarrerie, naive and sentimental views of art nestle cosily.

Peter Kemp, "Older Wife's Tale: 'The Flute Player'" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), in The Listener, Vol. 102, No. 2620, July 19, 1979, p. 94.

Ron Kirke

It is only in the last few pages of this awkwardly impressive novel [The Flute Player] that the heroine, Elena, at some sort of peace at last, begins to play the flute. Before that she plays, with a sort of resigned zest, every passive female part to the friends and husbands that come and go through the unnamed city she inhabits. People appear and disappear, are feted, sacked, imprisoned, released, rehabilitated, and arrested again. The populace, denied any political initiative, trims its sails to the veering winds, celebrating liberalization and gritting its teeth through repression….

D. M. Thomas is a distinguished translator of Soviet poetry, but his city is a metaphor for more than Moscow; all modern European history comes to it—exterminations and sieges, purges, war, truce, a dividing Wall (with equal discontent on either side). Likewise the characters speak the words of Frost or Plath as much as those of Mandelstam and Akhmatova. It is a work with a most original savour, one which will annoy ideologues of most persuasions by its dreamy insistence on poets as legislators.

Ron Kirke, "Pipe Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4002, November 30, 1979, p. 77.

Andrew Motion

By making the central character [of Birthstone] a split personality [D. M. Thomas] attaches his book to a long line of doppelgänger fictions, and thereby applies for a certificate of profound intent. Conrad's The Secret Sharer, Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are obvious ancestors, and behind them—stretching right across Europe—stands a host of others. But while Thomas implicitly refers to them, he seldom allows himself to make the most of their example. Where they are expansively fanciful he is inhibited by a fear of seeming absurd; where they are chillingly analytic he is rather ponderously explanatory; and where they successfully blend fantastic with realistic worlds he wanders uneasily between the two.

Saying so makes Birthstone's uncertainty sound a debilitating weakness. Given the mental state of its heroine and narrator, Jo, it is in fact the novel's greatest strength. By shifting between past and present, dream and fact, and opacity and clarity, the novel enacts her vain search for a firm sense of identity. The confusion is increased by Jo's tendency to be unaware of herself at crises in her life—and consequently to withhold information about the story upon which her existence depends. Even when relatively stable she is an unreliable witness, with the result that she persistently baffles and alienates the reader. Although her condition arouses sympathy, she is too perverse to elicit much affection.

It does not take Jo long to evoke this paradoxical response….

[Much] the same kind of ambivalence is provoked, finally, by the action which revolves round her. Thomas manages its deceitful twists and turns with a good deal of skill, and the end product is impressively unlikeable.

Andrew Motion, "Cornish Pastiche," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4016, March 14, 1980, p. 296.

SeáN Wyse Jackson


Around [the] unpromising hokum [of the plot in Birthstone], D.M. Thomas weaves a tale full of symbolic and lyrical poetry—he is, after all, primarily a poet—leaving room for a weft of wry humour and a woof of humanity to adorn the fantasy. Speech and description, particularly of Cornwall, that oddest of English counties, are handled in a clear and fluent style…. On the whole a disappointing follow-up to the author's acclaimed Flute-Player.

Seán Wyse Jackson, "Warring Fictions," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2557, March 21, 1980, p. 44.∗


(The entire section is 99 words.)

Brian Martin

D. M. Thomas gives himself many problems in The White Hotel. The novel, part epistolary, part poetic, part narrative, tells the story of the half-Russian, half-Jewish singer, Lisa Erdman. She becomes a patient of Freud, after the first world war, in order to cure herself of hysterical sexual fantasies, which she envisages taking place in a white hotel. Psychoanalysis with Freud enables her to take up her operatic career again and return to Stalinist Russia, only to be trapped by the Nazis at the beginning of the next war. Her fate at Babi Yar is the same as that of so many Jews consumed in the holocaust.

Several problems arise. Thomas represents—first in poetry and then in prose—Lisa's...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Anne DuchêNe


[The White Hotel] is extremely complex, ambitious and demanding. Freud himself is a central character—in itself a fair index of earnestness—and the book is largely an act of homage to the "discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis". The title-page, however, quotes Yeats … and the author does himself less than justice in describing the novel's territory as "the landscape of hysteria". He in fact moves his story beyond the Freudian confines—into a modern world where public horror can eclipse private nightmare, and finally on into a vision of an after-life. His essential concern is how we may learn to bear the contrary loads of the pleasure- and...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Paul Ableman

The White Hotel is a work of vast ambition and impressive achievement. It aspires to being little less than a comprehensive synthesis of the forces of life and death operating on this planet in the context of a civilisation that apparently obeys quite different laws but in which their influence is always present. If that sounds forbidding it should immediately be added that it is also a gripping human story. The White Hotel transcends the parochialism of most contemporary English novels and shows that fiction, when it escapes the dead convention of the 19th century and, of course, when written by a major talent, is still full of vitality.

Paul Ableman, "Major...

(The entire section is 129 words.)

Robert Taubman

[The White Hotel] is a short and comprehensive novel, and ingenious in suggesting connections between its different narrative levels—psychoanalytical, historical and moral.

Anna G.'s sexual fantasies centre on the events of a lake-side holiday at Bad Gastein. Anna herself attributes to the white hotel and its polymorphous satisfactions a certain moral value: 'the spirit of the white hotel was against selfishness.' In Freud's more clinical terms, what is expressed is 'her longing to return to the haven of security, the original white hotel—we have all stayed there—the mother's womb.' But the fantasia of Anna's poem and journal contains almost as much horror as pleasure…. The horror,...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Leslie Epstein

What "The White Hotel" sets out to perform, clearly, is the diagnosis of our epoch through the experience of an individual; and the highest praise I can give it is that for some time it comes close to achieving that goal. Indeed, the opening sections of the novel are so authoritative and imaginatively daring that I quickly came to feel I had found the book, that mythical book, that would explain us to ourselves. The letters among the analysts (Ferenczi, Sachs, Freud), for instance, are themselves quite fine: playful and somber, full of information and suffused with a sense of high, shared purpose.

But it is in the first of Lisa's compositions that Mr. Thomas comes closest to realizing his high...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Edith Milton

[In The White Hotel D. M. Thomas's] interweaving of psychological symbols and cultural myth, of prophetic intuition and the dismal truths of twentieth-century history, did not seem to me merely the fabric of a convincing fiction, but the brilliant representation and clarification of some troubled and important mystery at the heart of my own world.

The novel is built quite simply as an expanding spiral of explanation that centers on a single fantasy: the obsessive dream of Lisa Erdman…. She is introduced through some fictional letters between Freud and his colleagues as one of Freud's patients….

The first four sections of the novel are a marvelous exercise in antithesis:...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Beverly Lowry

[The White Hotel] is an amazing book. While … [the] and then method of retelling a book's story in order to assess its worth is not always satisfactory, in The White Hotel it seems particularly fitting, as the how of the story—the way in which it is told—merges with such fluidity with the tale itself, and as well, with its vision. Freud's letters tell the story, as do Lisa's poem and journals, Freud's case history, Lisa's dreams.

The white hotel is Europe before the wars. The white hotel is consciousness itself, before Freud. The white hotel is innocence. The white hotel is purity, and also inhumanity. Lisa Erdman cannot become altogether good, any more than she can...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

[The White Hotel] begins as a straightforward fictional re-creation of a Freudian case history [and] ends as an apocalyptic vision of life beyond the realm of psychological science. [D. M.] Thomas' Freud brings to the lyrical, erotic fantasies of his sexually-obsessed, hysterical patient the rational science of the case study. We join in the analytic enterprise as intellectual thriller to discover, with Freud, the death instinct beyond the pleasure principle. But Thomas takes us beyond Freud, beyond Eros and Thanatos, and thus challenges the very substance of the Freudian text. Within the analysand, he suggests, buried within her individual neurosis, is the subtext of history—the Final Solution. And beyond...

(The entire section is 177 words.)

Pearl K. Bell

In The White Hotel, the British poet and novelist D. M. Thomas demonstrates his literary virtuosity…. Though Thomas himself stands outside the novel, and scrupulously excludes his own emotions from the story,… [his theme is] self-discovery. But Thomas has a genuinely intellectual imagination, and has had the audacious idea of dramatizing the exigencies of the self not merely in the context of psychoanalysis, but within the history of psychoanalysis. To carry out this scheme with the immediacy a novel must convey, Thomas has boldly appropriated the voice, personality, and therapeutic method of the genius who revolutionized the modem conception of the self—Sigmund Freud. (p. 58)

As we read...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Penelope Lively

Reading The White Hotel is like reading a Bergman film. You are battered with symbolism, in perpetual pursuit of images, of references, of bizarre surrealist objects—a flying breast, a petrified embryo, a gliding womb. I'm not sure that I enjoyed it, but I am certainly respectful; this is a powerful piece of writing, highly complex, carefully structured. Its meanings and intention fall gradually into place; I suspect that it would improve still further on subsequent readings….

Sex and death pervade the book. Lisa herself says, in the fantasy in the white hotel: "'If I'm not thinking about sex, I'm thinking about death…. Sometimes both at the same time'"; and the remark is bitterly apt,...

(The entire section is 368 words.)