Thomas, D. M.
D. M. Thomas 1935-
(Full name Donald Michael Thomas) English novelist, poet, dramatist, translator, biographer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Thomas's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 22, and 31.
English writer D. M. Thomas attracted a large audience and widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic with the publication of his third novel, The White Hotel (1981). This unanticipated best-seller explores archetypal themes of sex and death in the graphic, and often shocking, context of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the Holocaust. In this and other works, Thomas employs metafictional literary techniques, including hallucinatory temporal shifts and a combination of poetry, prose, and verbatim texts by other authors, to challenge conventional notions about genre and authorship. Thomas has also won distinction for his earlier poetry and subsequent “Russian Nights” series of novels, though he remains best known for The White Hotel.
The descendent of generations of Cornish tin miners, Thomas was born in the coastal village of Carnkie, England, in 1935. At age 14 Thomas moved with his parents to Australia, where his older sister had relocated upon her marriage. The family lived there for two years, after which they returned once again to England, where Thomas completed secondary school and then entered two years of compulsory national service. During this time he was assigned to an army intelligence section involved with producing Russian-speaking interrogators. While he scored poorly on his final examination, the experience sparked his interest in Russian literature and inspired his future translations of Russian works. He went on to study English at Oxford University, where he received a B.A. in 1958 and an M.A. in 1961. He taught at a grammar school in Devonshire from 1960 to 1964 before joining the Hereford College of Education as a lecturer in English. A large portion of Thomas's early poetry involved science-fiction themes and was published in related magazines. A sampling of the writer's poetry was published for the first time in a book in Modern Poets 11 (1968). His first individual collection of poetry soon followed with the release of Two Voices (1968). While still at Hereford, Thomas published several more collections of poetry as well as his first translation, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem and Poem without a Hero (1976). There he also began the novel Birthstone (1980), but interrupted its progress to quickly complete The Flute-Player, (1978) for which he won a Gollancz fantasy-novel contest. Thomas was head of the English department at Hereford when the college was closed in 1978. Deciding to make writing a full-time career, Thomas returned to Oxford to write The White Hotel. Initially regarded with little enthusiasm in Britain, the novel proved a major critical and popular success in the United States. He was invited to lecture at American University in Washington, D.C., but, unwilling to be perceived as a “successful author,” he returned after just a week to Cornwall, where his children and two former wives resided. Since his return, he has remained in Cornwall, continuing to compose poetry, translate Russian-language works, and write novels. He published a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1998.
While Thomas is best known for his novel The White Hotel, he is also an accomplished poet. Following the publication of Modern Poets 11, the author quickly began to reject the conventions of science fiction to include images of contemporary life. The collection Two Voices includes the ten-poem sequence “Requiem for Aberfan,” which tells of the deaths of more than one hundred children and adults in a landslide in the coal-mining village of Aberfan. The sequence juxtaposes Thomas's poems with actual prose accounts of the event, a technique he would also employ in later works. Thomas continued to experiment with literary styles and images in the poetry collection Logan Stone (1971), after the publication of which he began to move away from elaborate poetic constructions. The Shaft (1973), for instance, found its focusing image in the reopening of the Cornish tin mines. The volumes Love and Other Deaths (1975) and The Honeymoon Voyage (1978) explore the themes of death and sexual attraction. The poems of Love and Other Deaths range from “Lilith-prints,” in which Lilith is Eve's apocryphal rival, to poems about his dying parents. The title poem of The Honeymoon Voyage, in turn, explores his mother's death through his newlywed parents' trip to California. The controlled form and simple images for which Thomas strove in his poetry is reflected in his appreciation for the works of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. He has translated several original volumes of her poetry, as well as her Selected Poems (1983). Akhmatova became the inspiration for the protagonist in Thomas's novel The Flute-Player. Elena is a beautiful young musician who helps a group of persecuted artists survive in a totalitarian state. Thomas's second novel, Birthstone, involves an American woman and her son who travel to Cornwall in search of their ancestry. Their guide is a Welsh woman with a split personality who moves between the past and present. His next novel, The White Hotel, is divided into six sections, preceded by a prologue involving a fictional correspondence between Freud and his colleagues about one of his female patients. The first section is comprised of a graphically sexual and violent poem in which the patient describes her fantasy of an affair with Freud's son at a white hotel, an image of both innocence and death. The following section is a prose version of the fantasy. The fourth section, a pastiche of actual Freud case histories, consists of Freud's analysis of his patient, who is revealed to be Lisa Erdman, a Russian-Jewish opera singer. The next sections depict Lisa, after her treatment by Freud, moving to Kiev with her Russian husband. Following her husband's disappearance in the Stalinist purges, she and her stepson are killed along with thousands of other Russian Jews in the massacre at Babi Yar. (Thomas inserts into this portion of the novel the testimony of the massacre's sole survivor, taken from Anatoli Kuznetsov's book Babi Yar.) The final, surreal section of the novel finds Lisa reunited with such figures as her mother and Freud in the new Jewish paradise of Palestine.
After The White Hotel, Thomas began what would become the “Russian Nights” quintet of novels. This series of books on storytelling begins with Ararat (1983), in which a Russian poet named Rozanov improvises a story about three writers who meet at a conference and agree to collaborate on their own improvisation. Among them is a poet named Surkov who invents alternative endings for an unfinished story, “Egyptian Nights,” by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. (Thomas translated and inserted an actual fragment of Pushkin's “Egyptian Nights” in the novel.) The Pushkin story involves a poet named Charsky who befriends an Italian storyteller, who has his own tale to tell. The subsequent novels in the series—Swallow (1984), Sphinx (1986), and Summit (1987)—continue the trend of improvisations and stories within stories until concluding with Lying Together (1990), in which the earlier fictions are found to be the work of a British writer named Don Thomas and his Russian friends. Among Thomas's more recent novels is Pictures at an Exhibition (1993), a novel set during the Holocaust, in which, like The White Hotel, Thomas combines dreams and Freudian analysis, mass murder, and the textual use of historical documents. Thomas's other novels include: Flying in to Love (1992), which revolves around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Eating Pavlova (1994), an imaginative depiction of Freud in London shortly before his death; and Lady with a Laptop (1996), a satire on writing workshops and New Age therapy.
Thomas was a little known poet and translator of Russian verse before writing The White Hotel, which remains the work for which he is most famous. Critical response to his writing reached its peak with that novel, and reviews of work subsequent to The White Hotel rarely, if ever, fail to mention his magnum opus. His pre-White Hotel poetry has been commended for bringing together different textures and texts, reflecting the author's fascination with eroticism, dreams, and death. These same observations were made regarding The White Hotel. The novel initially attracted little attention from local reviewers in Britain, but when it arrived in the United States it became a bestseller. American reviewers lauded it as a brilliant tour de force, praising its adroit series of narrative voices and thematic consideration of psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, and female sexuality. The frank depiction of sexuality seen in Thomas's earlier work received reactions ranging from “pornographic” (mainly from British reviewers) to “erotic” (mostly American). Thomas, however, received a significant amount of negative criticism for his use of outside texts in The White Hotel, including passages taken directly from Freud's writings and testimony taken from Kuznetsov's book on the massacre at Babi Yar. Thomas has received similar criticism for relying too heavily on previous translations for his own translation of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (1982), and for inappropriately incorporating Nazi documents into the narrative of Pictures at an Exhibition. Since The White Hotel, critical reaction to Thomas's novels has been more reserved. The “Russian Nights” quintet was praised for its intricate layering of stories within stories, but generally thought to lack substance. While his more recent work has failed to duplicate the success of his breakthrough novel, The White Hotel is still regarded as a remarkable accomplishment, and it continues to receive much critical interest and ongoing scholarly evaluation.
Modern Poets 11 [with Peter Redgrove and D. M. Black] (poetry) 1968
Two Voices (poetry) 1968
Logan Stone (poetry) 1971
The Shaft (poetry) 1973
Love and Other Deaths (poetry) 1975
Requiem and Poem without a Hero [by Anna Akhmatova; translator] (poetry) 1976
The Flute-Player (novel) 1978
The Honeymoon Voyage (poetry) 1978
Way of All the Earth [by Anna Akhmatova; translator] (poetry) 1979
Birthstone (novel) 1980
Dreaming in Bronze (poetry) 1981
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Michele Slung (review date 28 March 1981)
SOURCE: “A Freudian Journey,” in New Republic, March 28, 1981, pp. 35-37.
[In the following review, Slung offers favorable evaluation of The White Hotel.]
“The psyche of an hysteric is like a child who has a secret, which no one must know, but everyone must guess. And so he makes it easier by scattering clues.”
In this beautifully imagined novel by British poet D. M. Thomas, Sigmund Freud is a character and utters the above words during the course of an analysis. The year is 1919, his patient a 29-year-old woman whom he calls, in customary fashion, by a false name in her case history. Thus the cellist “Frau Anna G.” is actually one...
(The entire section is 1680 words.)
Thomas Flanagan (review date 2 May 1981)
SOURCE: “To Babi Yar and Beyond,” in Nation, May 2, 1981, pp. 537-39.
[In the following review, Flanagan offers positive evaluation of The White Hotel.]
This novel by the English poet D. M. Thomas is a book of extraordinary beauty, power and audacity—powerful and beautiful in its conception, audacious in its manner of execution. It is as stunning a work of fiction as has appeared in a long while. If it falls short of its ambitions, as I believe it does, this is because those ambitions are so large.
Its most obvious, although not its deepest, originality is one of form. The novel is an account of the life and death and the state of being after...
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John H. Barnsley (essay date Fall 1982)
SOURCE: “The White Hotel,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, Fall, 1982, pp. 448-60.
[In the following essay, Barnsley comments on the popularity of The White Hotel and provides a summary of the novel's plot, characters, and central themes.]
I must confess to being an avid, if often disillusioned, reader of bestsellers. Popularity does not imply merit, of course, and academics tend to assume it never does: the esoteric article in a limited-circulation, “prestige” journal is more their acme of success. But some recognized stylists achieve bestsellerdom—Updike, Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Murdoch, Burgess. Further, there are some books—we might cite...
(The entire section is 5448 words.)
Lore Dickstein (review date 23 April 1983)
SOURCE: “Elaborate and Perverse,” in Nation, April 23, 1983, pp. 516-18.
[In the following review, Dickstein offers unfavorable evaluation of Ararat.]
The reader opens Ararat with a mixture of expectations. D. M. Thomas's third novel in four years, it comes in the wake of the literary and commercial success of The White Hotel, and the more equivocal reception accorded his translations of Pushkin's poems, The Bronze Horseman, which Simon Karlinsky and others have called a plagiarism of other translators. While Ararat will do little to dispel the doubts that hang over Thomas's literary reputation, it may help clarify what he considers to...
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Mary F. Robertson (essay date Winter 1984)
SOURCE: “Hystery, Herstory, History: ‘Imagining the Real’ in Thomas's The White Hotel,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 452-77.
[In the following essay, Robertson examines Thomas's effort to reconcile postmodern literary aesthetics, myth, and psychoanalysis with the horrific realities of twentieth-century history and female identity in The White Hotel.]
The proper relation of art's forms to social facts has been a pressing problem for artists in this century, and so also has been the relation of psychoanalysis to political explanations of human behavior. For all their acute sensitivity to the society around them, the great...
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Boyd Tonkin (review date 6 June 1986)
SOURCE: “Russian Salad,” in New Statesman, June 6, 1986, pp. 26-27.
[In the following review, Tonkin offers unfavorable assessment of Sphinx.]
A sequel to Ararat and Swallow, the third part of D. M. Thomas's planned quartet of Russian novels begins with an unlikely fantasy. In a Soviet mental hospital a tortured dissident claims to the guard that he works for the New Statesman. The orderly has other ideas and a cosh to support them: ‘You're Kravchenko, a fucking terrorist, and a raving loonie. Learn some fucking respect.’
Ever since The White Hotel, Thomas has given his public Kravchenko's strange delusion in...
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George Stade (review date 18 January 1987)
SOURCE: “Isadora's Scarf and Other Secrets,” in New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1987, p. 6.
[In the following review, Stade offers positive evaluation of Sphinx.]
American readers know D. M. Thomas best for The White Hotel (1981), a novel remarkable for its tragic sense of recent history, its resolute humanism, its formal virtuosity. As much may be said for Mr. Thomas's new novel, Sphinx, “the third of four improvisational novels,” as he describes them in a note. The first of the three we have is Ararat (1983): the second Swallow (1984). Mr. Thomas dedicates the quartet to Pushkin—many of the characters are Russian, and...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)
Richard Eder (review date 7 February 1988)
SOURCE: “The Superpower Superjoke,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 7, 1988, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder offers unfavorable assessment of Summit.]
When God rested on the seventh day. He really did rest. No phone calls. No catching up on the mail. No reorganizing the files. And no fooling around with little toy worlds after working all week on the big one.
In his Soviet trilogy—Ararat, Swallow, and Sphinx—the novelist D. M. Thomas built a complex, bravura game of narrative Chinese boxes. His characters turned into characters written or related by other characters who, in turn, dissolved into the dream...
(The entire section is 889 words.)
Helen Dudar (review date 2 October 1988)
SOURCE: “Canonized and Analyzed,” in New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1988, p. 13.
[In the following review, Dudar offers unfavorable assessment of Memories and Hallucinations.]
The distinguished English writer D. M. Thomas interrupts the last chapter of Memories and Hallucinations with a brief review of his book by his cat. Kitty has complaints: there are inaccuracies and omissions, there is the absence of pattern to the narrative. “In short,” concludes the cat, which is also named Thomas, “I can't recommend this book.”
Clearly this was meant to be funny, a pre-emptive attack on anticipated surly notices. But employing a...
(The entire section is 642 words.)
Rowland Wymer (essay date Winter 1989)
SOURCE: “Freud, Jung, and the ‘Myth’ of Psychoanalysis in The White Hotel,” in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 55-69.
[In the following essay, Wymer examines Thomas's incorporation of classical Freudian theory, particularly themes surrounding the concept of the death instinct, in The White Hotel,and mythic aspects of psychoanalysis and opposing elements of Freudian and Jungian psychology in the novel.]
D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel is a book which polarized the responses of its first readers and reviewers to a remarkable degree. Now that the initial controversies over...
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Robert D. Newman (essay date Summer 1989)
SOURCE: “D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel: Mirrors, Triangles, and Sublime Repression,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 193-209.
[In the following essay, Newman provides analysis of recurring symbols, metaphors, and narrative techniques in The White Hotel that underscore the paradoxical dualities of truth, history, and psychic experience. According to Newman, “Through repetition of images we experience no erasure; instead we have memory and revision of memory.”]
When Discord has fallen into the lowest depths of the vortex concord has reached the center....
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Lars Ole Sauerberg (essay date Fall 1989)
SOURCE: “When the Soul Takes Wing: D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Fall, 1989, pp. 3-10.
[In the following essay, Sauerberg examines Thomas's problematic incorporation of imaginative lyricism, psychological fantasy, and historical reality in The White Hotel. Sauerberg notes that, where concerning the Holocaust, the intermingling of fictive reality and historical reality raises serious moral questions.]
In the years that have passed since the publication of D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel in 1981, the book has lost the best-seller status it enjoyed when it first...
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Angeline Goreau (review date 8 July 1990)
SOURCE: “The Characters Are in Charge,” in New York Times Book Review, July 8, 1990, pp. 3, 19.
[In the following review, Goreau offers unfavorable evaluation of Lying Together and Thomas's “Russian Nights” series. Goreau finds fault in Thomas's preoccupation with theory and ideas over plot and characters in these novels.]
In his extraordinary novel The White Hotel, D. M. Thomas introduced a succession of apparently disparate “documents”—an exchange of letters between analysts; the violently erotic imaginings of a young woman recorded in blank verse between the staves of Mozart's Don Giovanni; a prose journal written by the same...
(The entire section is 1365 words.)
T. J. Binyon (review date 7 February 1992)
SOURCE: “Dreams of Death,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 1992, p. 18.
[In the following review, Binyon offers unfavorable assessment of Flying to Love.]
“Ten thousand dreams a night, a Dallas psychologist told me, when I dined with her and her black lover, are dreamt about Kennedy's assassination.” The journalistic flavour of the first sentence of Flying in to Love, with its fake numerical accuracy and hint of a prurient leer, sets the tone of the novel and also provides its form. It is to be a dream sequence about that day in November 1963, a series of random, disconnected, chronologically dislocated episodes, mingling past and present, real...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Robert Houston (review date 11 October 1992)
SOURCE: “Death in Dreamtime,” in New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, pp. 13-14.
[In the following review Houston offers positive assessment of Flying to Love.]
Near the end of this novel based on the murder of John F. Kennedy, D. M. Thomas has one of his characters, a psychologist, comment on the many thousands of people who are haunted by the assassination. For all of them, she writes, it “occupies a kind of dreamtime. Kennedy is dead, he is not dead. He is being taken back for burial at Arlington; he is flying on to Austin. A physicist said to me that those few seconds carried too great a burden of event, of shock, and it was as if that weight caused...
(The entire section is 858 words.)
Bryan Cheyette (review date 29 January 1993)
SOURCE: “A Pornographic Universe,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 29, 1993, p. 20.
[In the following review, Cheyette offers negative assessment of Pictures at an Exhibition.]
The key to Pictures at an Exhibition, D. M. Thomas's tenth novel, can be found in the themes and content of his best-selling third novel, The White Hotel (1981). The earlier book generated a great deal of controversy, largely because of Thomas's shameless plundering of Anatoli Kuznetsov's account of the massacre of over 70,000 Jews in Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev, in September 1941. Thomas's reworking of Kuznetsov's Babi Yar so as to include the sadistic rape...
(The entire section is 796 words.)
Sean O'Brien (review date 7 May 1993)
SOURCE: “Gift with a Will,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 7, 1993, p. 26.
[In the following review, O'Brien offers tempered assessment of The Puberty Tree.]
It can seem that there are two D. M. Thomases. On the one hand, there is the poet of memorable lyrics and dramatic pieces, formally various, moving readily between tradition and modernity; on the other, a writer with a broken thermostat, his poems marred by the effort to force significance on their material. The two poets can be found at work on facing pages through most of this collection.
At times, the division between the products of a gift and those of the will recalls some of the work...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
Juliet Fleming (review date 3 October 1993)
SOURCE: “Living with Evil,” in Washington Post Book World, October 3, 1993, p. 5.
[In the following review, Fleming offers favorable assessment of Pictures at an Exhibition.]
Pictures at an Exhibition is a fiercely intelligent book, and a shattering experience to read. It opens with a brilliantly bizarre therapeutic relationship. Dr. Lorenz, surgeon, administrator and expert on gassing at Auschwitz, is troubled by headaches and nightmares. Choosing a couch from the prison “stores,” he instructs Chaim Galewski, a Czech prisoner, communist and Jew, with one year's psychoanalytic training, to attempt a cure.
In the novel's first instance...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
Frederick Busch (review date 31 October 1993)
SOURCE: “The Man From Auschwitz,” in New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1993, pp. 13-14.
[In the following review, Busch offers tempered evaluation of Pictures at an Exhibition, which he describes as “alternately horrifying and annoying.”]
In Pictures at an Exhibition, D. M. Thomas returns to the world of The White Hotel, his third and most celebrated novel. In that earlier book, as in Pictures at an Exhibition, Freudian analysis figures significantly. In each, unhappy sexuality drives the dreams of patients, and in each the novel feels like a dream (or nightmare). In each, death oppresses doctors and patients (and readers)...
(The entire section is 1236 words.)
Rosemary Dinnage (review date 22 April 1994)
SOURCE: “Sigmund's Our Guy,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 22, 1994, p. 21.
[In the following review, Dinnage offers favorable assessment of Eating Pavlova.]
Freud had no use for the Surrealists, though they thought they were his true disciples; his artistic tastes were conventional, classical, Goethean. What would he have made of the novels of D. M. Thomas? The White Hotel, in particular, seemed to be the first truly Freudian novel, both in subject-matter and style. Now, in Eating Pavlova, Thomas, in the same rich and cloudy manner, has produced a set of variations on the life of Freud himself.
An old Jewish refugee (his name...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
James R. Kincaid (review date 23 October 1994)
SOURCE: “Freud Terminable,” in New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1994, p. 28.
[In the following review, Kincaid offers positive evaluation of Eating Pavlova.]
In 1824 Sam Goldwyn, recognizing that “there is nothing really so entertaining as a really great love story,” set out to comb the world for the really greatest love story of them all. In pursuit of this majestic quest, he resolved to call on “the greatest love specialist in the world,” Sigmund Freud, and induce him to “commercialize his study and write a story for the screen.” Freud responded with a one-sentence letter: “I do not intend to see Mr. Goldwyn.”
(The entire section is 1115 words.)
David R. Slavitt (review date 21 July 1996)
SOURCE: “So You Want to Be a Shaman,” in New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Slavitt offers positive assessment of Lady With a Laptop.]
The conceit is quite lovely. What D. M. Thomas apparently dreamed up was a jokey mystery he could write in which Ruth Rendell comes in as a character to reveal the motive and identity of the murderer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of Lady With a Laptop, Simon Hopkins, a grumpy midlist novelist, can make entertainingly snotty remarks about the holistic holiday center on Skagathos, an imaginary island in the Sporades, where he is a workshop leader. Mr. Thomas, the English novelist, has...
(The entire section is 868 words.)
Lesley Chamberlain (review date 15 February 1998)
SOURCE: “Homo Sovieticus,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 15, 1998, p. 8.
[In the following review, Chamberlain offers positive assessment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.]
Alexander Solzhenitsyn has been an outstanding figure of the century, despite current attempts in Moscow to reduce him to a pop icon or dismiss him as a relic. He is not a joke or a legend, but a real, extraordinary man whose fate, as D. M. Thomas shows, reveals complex truths about his country. That alone would earn him a place in the pantheon of Russian writers whose art has been molded by exile, imprisonment and the experience of Russia in turmoil.
In 1945, a complaint...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)
Josephine Woll (review date 1 March 1998)
SOURCE: “Russia's Stern Conscience,” in Washington Post Book World, March 1, 1998, pp. 4-5.
[In the following review, Woll offers negative evaluation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.]
D. M. Thomas, prominent poet and novelist, has a longstanding interest in Russia. His early, controversial novel The White Hotel grew out of Anatoly Kuznetsov's impassioned fictional account of the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar near Kiev. He has translated Russian poetry, and he loops together five of his novels under the title “Russian Nights Quintet.”
All the less reason, then, for him to undertake this biography. He knew the pitfalls. Solzhenitsyn's work...
(The entire section is 1024 words.)
Batchelor, John Calvin. “The Story That Won't Go Away.” Washington Post Book World (11 October 1992): 4, 14.
A positive review of Flying to Love.
Blake, Patricia. “Collaborations.” Time (25 April 1983): 114-15.
An unfavorable review of Ararat.
Carlson, Ron. “J.F.K. and the Beautiful Democrat Nun.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 November 1992): 3.
An unfavorable review of Flying to Love.
Cohen, David. “On His Tod.” New Statesman and Society (13 May 1994): 40.
A positive review of Eating...
(The entire section is 425 words.)