D. M. Thomas’ third novel The White Hotel (1981), which brings Freudian fantasy to the theme of Nazi extermination of the Jews, became a publishing legend. When first released in the author’s native Great Britain, the novel did not receive much more notice than that which had been accorded Thomas’ two previous novels, Birthstone (1980) and The Flute-Player (1982). The American edition, however, was soon enormously successful, outselling everything, including novels that were far more accessible and conventional. Thomas, an obscure Cornish don better known in literary circles for his poetry and his translations of Russian verse than for his fiction, was transformed into a celebrity, the object of lavish attention, both positive and negative—several critics noted that long passages in The White Hotel and other works by Thomas were appropriated from the writings of others.
Ararat, Thomas’ latest novel, has been reviewed widely and prominently in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Although it has not been the best-seller that The White Hotel was, Ararat likewise has provoked strong and disparate reactions. Some have praised its spare construction and narrative inventiveness, while others have denounced it as a self-indulgent and gratuitously unpleasant game. In Ararat, Thomas once again makes use of other authors’ texts, most notably of Alexander Pushkin’s poetry-prose fragment “Egyptian Nights,” which Thomas translates and completes. Ararat marshals Thomas’ talents as Slavicist, translator, poet, and novelist and recapitulates his preoccupations with genocide, sexuality, and the nature of creativity. An improvisation on the theme of improvisation, it is in part a rejoinder to those critics who have stigmatized Thomas’ work as derivative and contrived.
The intricate plot of Ararat resembles a Russian matrushka, a set of dolls within dolls within dolls, except that it is impossible to determine with absolute certainty which of the book’s several story lines frame which others. The novel begins with a visit by Sergei Rozanov, a Russian poet of Armenian descent, to the city of Gorky in order to meet and bed a blind admirer, a doctoral student named Olga. Rozanov is soon disappointed with her, and, unable to sleep, he agrees to while away the rest of the night in the hotel room by improvising a story for her. He begins by recounting the tale of three authors—a Russian poet, an Armenian-American writer of romances, and an Armenian storyteller—who, thrown together at a congress, agree to improvise on a common theme.
The next section of Ararat recounts a ship voyage to the United States by Victor Surkov, who may or may not be the Russian poet who is vying with the Armenian-American and the Armenian in the improvisational competition that is the premise of Rozanov’s frame tale. Surkov does, in any case, have much in common with Rozanov, including a considerable reputation and an ambivalent relationship with the authorities. Like Pushkin and Boris Pasternak, whom Surkov imagines himself to be, both Rozanov and Surkov are torn between a wife and a mistress. Extratextual speculation suggests that Surkov also derives some...
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