D. M. Thomas

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Michele Slung (review date 28 March 1981)

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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 Elisabeth Erdman, an opera singer who has come to 19 Berggasse because she has been suffering from a variety of debilitating ailments believed by the doctor referring her to Freud to be psychogenic.

At this time the real Freud had published such works as The Interpretation of Dreams, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and Totem and Taboo. He had broken with Jung. His standing in the Viennese community, as well as in the international medical community, was assured, his years of “isolation” behind him. Freud's private practice, which had grown smaller during wartime, was again busy. The Freud Thomas gives us, viewed through the lens of fiction, does not seem to be different from the Freud of contemporary witnesses: he is kind, diplomatic, tolerant, insightful, self-assured.

Frau Anna, or Lisa, as she is known outside the pages of Freud's notes, is, on the other hand, a paradigm. Though the etiology of her case is Thomas's, there are components that derive from Freud's own work. For example, Lisa walks bent forward from the middle, as did one of Freud's classic studies, Fraulein Elisabeth von R. Her breast and ovarian neuralgia, her anorectic appearance and respiratory difficulties, her recurring hallucinations—all of Lisa's symptoms are taken from the literature of hysteria.

When she comes to consult Freud, Lisa professes to feel certain that he will diagnose her disturbances as organic. Freud, of course, intuits otherwise. His treatment of Lisa goes on for some months as he extracts her memories, dreams, and fantasies, all the while probing determinedly, like a psychic dentist, for the infected spot. In the later stages, however, she becomes resistant and Freud, exasperated, contemplates terminating her analysis.

Suddenly, to Freud's amazement, Lisa returns from a holiday at an Alpine spa, having gained weight and confidence. “Here in short,” he comments, “was not the painfully thin, depressed invalid I expected, but an attractive, slightly coquettish young lady, bouncing with health and vigour.” To a colleague he describes this startling transformation as “A genuine pseudocyesis!” for Lisa has delivered herself of a manuscript, a surreal portrait that is a sublimely erotic fantasy of her visit to Gastein, and Freud rightly believes that the key to her neurosis will be found in it.

The White Hotel is a novel in seven parts, including a prologue. Five of them are directly concerned with Lisa's psychoanalysis; two are not and take place a number of years later. Yet the interior landscape of Lisa's mind is the essence of the book; as Thomas's poetic transformations show us, it is both a personal and a collective phenomenon. The clues that Freud unravels, finding his way through the maze to Lisa's secret, lead him to both specific and general conclusions, the latter reinforcing his desire to complete a work he has been in doubt over, Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Specifically, the “white hotel” is the stopping-off place for Lisa's imaginary journey....

(This entire section contains 1680 words.)

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There, as in any dream world, the most disparate events are equalized. Disasters occur—a flood, a fire—but the survivors absorb the horrors and carry on as before. Repression does not exist in the environs of the white hotel, and Lisa's concupiscence, once freed from restraints, gains such momentum that her breasts, “so endlessly had they been sucked on,” give out enough milk to fill wine glasses for others to drink.

Lisa's vision of the white hotel is seen by Freud and the reader in two versions. One recounts the fantasy in an almost rollicking near-rhyme, its sensuous lilt like water slapping on a dock. The second appears after Freud requests that she analyze her own material “in a restrained and sober manner.” What he then receives is “an inundation of the irrational and libidinous,” a magnificent primer of psychiatric symbolism, “thrown off with all the belle indifférence of an hysteric.” From this, and his subsequent questioning of Lisa, Freud realizes that, though there is a “‘good’ side of the white hotel, its abundant hospitality. … the shadow of destructiveness cannot be ignored for a single moment, least of all in the times of greatest pleasure.” He also sees

the tragic paradox controlling Frau Anna's destiny. She possessed a craving to satisfy the demand of her libido; yet at the same time an imperious demand, on the part of some force I did not comprehend, to poison the well of her pleasure at its source. She had, by her own admission, an unusually strong maternal instinct; yet an absolute edict, imposed by some autocrat I could not name, against having children. She loved food; yet she would not eat.

Moreover, in his quest for synthesis, Freud begins to understand that Frau Anna/Lisa can shed light on his inchoate theory of the death instinct. He looks at the larger implications of Lisa's condition, “Eros in combat with Thanatos,” and starts to regard her “not as a woman separated from the rest of us by her illness, but as someone in whom an hysteria exaggerated and highlighted a universal struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct.”

At last Freud, telling Lisa he has cured her of “everything but life,” brings their sessions to an end. The conflicts raging within her, which, in addition to sexual ones, include feelings about her half-Jewish parentage, cannot be totally extirpated by Freud. Transmuting Lisa's “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” is sufficient success, however, and nine years pass in the interlude before we see her again.

Now having attained some European reputation as a singer, Lisa is on her way to Milan to take up an engagement substituting for an injured Russian diva at La Scala. Since The White Hotel is a novel of journeys and destinations, of process, this is, in fact, a route that brings both life and death, for, in Italy, she meets the man who will eventually become her husband and make her a stepmother. He also, being a Russian Jew, is the instrument by which fate brings Lisa to join the 30,000 dead in the hellish ravine, Babi Yar.

Marriage and assumed maternity allow Lisa to release her long-banked-up store of nurture; heretofore unthinkable evil, which even fiction cannot disguise as a mere historical event, then rapes her evolved womanhood. Thomas's evocation of the horror of the mass slaughter (“No one could have imagined the scene, because it was happening.”) is less than 20 pages long, yet it wipes from the reader's mind all that has gone before. It takes Thomas to draw us back, to remind us of the “white hotel” (the myriad interconnections of consciousness and the unconscious) that exists for every human being. Of the murdered masses, he says, for a moment assuming them able to speak about themselves, “If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.”

A coda brings Lisa to life again: she has traveled once more, this time arriving in a great, good place—Israel. She has previously had partial resurrections, by Freud, by her husband. This one is complete, and all the clues scattered earlier are woven together into a somehow reassuring unity, reassuring even in the aftermath of the agony.

The “compulsion to repetition” is one of the cornerstones of Freud's thought in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. And repetition, stunningly enacted in imagery that continually circles in on itself, is the method by which Thomas binds us to his prose. The white hotel is the leitmotif: it reminds us that Freud, in The Interpretation of Dreams, states that dream symbols “frequently have more than one or even several meanings, and, as with Chinese script, the correct interpretation can only be arrived at one each occasion from the context.”

The white hotel is the place where we are not; it is also eternally somewhere inside us. It is pre-birth and yet it is after-life. Speaking vulgarly, it can be seen as the place we check in when we check out, in either sleep or death. If, as Freud surmises, the white hotel is one's mother's body (“the original white hotel—we have all stayed there—the mother's womb”), then we must not forget that Lisa's mother perished while in a hotel. And, of course, the very word “hysteria” derives from “suffering in the womb,” and so. … each new idea carries us, swirling in ambiguity, further along.

In The White Hotel, Thomas once again reveals the obsessions with love and death, suffering and artistry that are to be found in his earlier work. (In his previous novel, The Flute Player, the heroine dreams of sexual exploration and writing verse, and she has premonitions of violent death; in his poem, “Vienna. Zurich. Constance,” Thomas shows his interest in Freud and Jung.) The richness of this book is reminiscent of a painstakingly woven tapestry; one can focus on the details but must be absorbed by the whole. Even the beginning of the world is here (“a very soft, sighing sound,” not a Big Bang), as well as the birth of Christ. Thomas's admiration for Freud, now a mythic figure, is such that he makes this shadow that looms so large over 20th-century Western civilization into a human-scale, wise man. But more importantly, Thomas bares his own humanity, as he searches in the ashes of the Holocaust for the soul of man, that “far country which cannot be approached or explored.”


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Thomas Flanagan (review date 2 May 1981)

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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 death of an opera singer named Lisa Erdman, but the account is not given in straightforward narrative. Thomas, however, is not one of those writers who, having been informed by the hum of the general culture that “narrative” has fallen from favor, has looked about for more modish equivalents. His form issues directly from his vision, is compelled by his vision, and has two distinct but closely joined consequences for the reader. It becomes literally impossible to respond to the novel without making crucial decisions as to the events and meanings of Lisa's life—without, that is, disentangling the submerged narrative from the manner of its telling, the shifting viewpoints and chronologies, the rich and shifting imagery.

Lisa Erdman's “biography,” told as straightforward narrative, would read something like this: she is born in Russia of a Jewish father and a Polish Catholic mother, becomes a singer, has an affair with a young radical, moves to Vienna and marries. She separates from her husband at the time of World War I and comes to experience hysterical pains in breast and ovary so debilitating that she turns for relief to psychoanalysis, becoming one of Freud's patients.

The pains are in the left breast and the left ovary, which puzzles Freud, for he knows that “the unconscious is a precise and even pedantic symbolist.” This puzzle aside, Thomas's imagined but authentic Freud explores Lisa's damaged psyche gently, resourcefully, peeling back layer after layer of screening memories and resistances, and bringing her at last to a childhood vision of mother, aunt and aunt's husband, locked in erotic union.

Freud obtains something like a partial remission of her symptoms, and she goes on to an undistinguished singing career, brightened by a solitary success at La Scala. Much later, the baritone with whom she had sung there in Eugene Onegin summons her back to Kiev, to marry him and to care for his young son, Kolya. He is swept away in one of Stalin's purges, and she endures in poverty. Then, in 1941, she and Kolya, with numberless thousands, are slaughtered by the Nazis in the dreadful ravine of Babi Yar. Her death is gruesome and obscene: an S.S. man crashes his jackboot into her left breast, and a Ukrainian guard ends matters by driving a bayonet into her womb in a travesty of intercourse. After that, though, she finds herself in a Palestine which is not quite the actual Palestine—peaceful and humdrum, despite olive trees and palms and oases, at once matter-of-fact and eerie—where she meets her dead mother and Kolya, and sees, at a distance, Freud himself.

But we experience the novel with the events ordered differently, and presented in a series of disparate textures. It opens with a series of letters by Freud and his younger colleagues, one written in 1909, others in 1920 after he has begun treatment of Lisa. One of these contains a kind of “journal” in verse, written by his patient after a brief holiday at the resort in Gastein, and set down between the staves of a score of Don Giovanni. It is accompanied by an “analysis” which he had urged her to write in “a restrained and sober manner,” but which is in fact a wild, lyrical, irrational embroidery upon her original fantasy.

These two documents create with hallucinatory energy and vividness a white hotel, within which the writer experiences moments that fuse an intense eroticism and an equally intense violence. They remain in our mind throughout what follows, not only because of their overwhelming immediacy but because they articulate images—of breast, leaf, blood, fire, milk—that appear and reappear later, with shifting yet accumulating significances.

They are followed in the text by Freud's study of his patient, Frau Anna G., which was to have been published in Frankfurt in 1932, to honor both Goethe's centenary and the fortieth anniversary of his own Studies in Hysteria. With the coming of the Nazis, however, the project was abandoned. A footnote reminds us that his works were burned on a bonfire in Berlin—one of the novel's many fires, some real and some hallucinated. The “study” is a model of affectionate impersonation, capturing both Freud's civilized, humane, even faintly philistine social attitudes and his daring, courageous understanding of the individual psyche. Within it, Lisa Erdman's fantasy of the white hotel, with its blissful images of oral gratification, its violently destructive counterimages, is artfully joined to her painfully remembered past. The white hotel unlocks for her what she perhaps remembers as happening long ago in a summer house in Odessa, and the “case” is “solved.” The hotel, which “speaks in the language of flowers, scents, and tastes,” is the place without sin, the body of the mother. From this study, the novel moves forward to a deceptively conventional third-person narrative that carries Lisa to Babi Yar and beyond.

By then, however, the reader has been made uneasily aware—by image, symbol, reference, by the novel's very structure—that far more has been at stake than Lisa Erdman's damaged psyche. The fate of our culture has been implied—a culture which has embraced a Mozart, a Goethe, a Pushkin, a Freud, but also a Hitler, a Stalin, the bayonet of a Ukrainian guard. Lisa has been presented as a woman of average impulses and affections—her history no more bizarre than the secret psychic history of any of us—and of only average, unreflecting intelligence. The history of our age has touched her life at each of its stages, indeed her life is destroyed by our history, but that history has not touched her conscious mind.

It has its image, however, within her unconscious, although, of course, neither Freud nor she herself is aware of this. The full weight of the novel rests upon this irony. Freud's insights, so the novel implies, can carry us to the very edge of what can be apprehended and conquered by the rational, humane intellect. But those very symbols that have yielded themselves to the rational intellect also bear meanings, significations, prophecies, which lie beyond the humane and must be called, for want of better words, spiritual, demonic, angelic. Neither Lisa Erdman nor her supremely rational physician can know that her breast and ovary ache not from a remembered sorrow but from a violation which lies waiting in her, and our, future. Still less can they know, or would they believe, that the mother's consoling breast, the white hotel, awaits her after death, by the waters of Jordan.

This expansion of imagery and structure from the fate of an individual to the fate of the culture itself is a dazzling accomplishment, but it has exacted a price. To persuade us of its authenticity, Thomas has gifted Lisa Erdman with what Freud calls telepathic powers. She herself calls it second sight—an ability to discern in others anxieties that lie below the level of consciousness, to foresee, without understanding, the future. By this device, Thomas hopes to validate the meanings of his symbols as not merely private but communal and, ultimately, apocalyptic. But the device remains a device, a willed literary artifice that demands, but cannot fully claim, our assent. And at the end we are left with a “solution” more esthetically satisfying, perhaps, than that of the rational psychologist, but just as arbitrary. Thomas is no less imprisoned by the conditions of his art than was Freud by his. His deepest theme, the joined threads of desolation and joy, is communicable only through images that are mute save in their power and their beauty, his “explanation” imperils both of these qualities.

The White Hotel seeks to fuse the sufferings of an individual with the horrors of this unspeakable century, and to suggest, by radiance of image and form, that all of them can be confronted. It is an impossible ambition, or at least so it must seem to those who, like myself, cannot accept, even as metaphor, a River Jordan flowing somewhere, somehow, beyond the sandpits of Babi Yar. But D. M. Thomas has come wonderfully close.

Principal Works

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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

Invisible Threads [by Yevgeny Yevtushenko; translator] (poetry) 1981

The White Hotel (novel) 1981

The Bronze Horseman [by Alexander Pushkin; translator] (poetry) 1982

*Ararat (novel) 1983

A Dove in Santiago [by Yevgeny Yevtushenko; translator] (poetry) 1983

News from the Front [with Sylvia Kantaris] (poetry) 1983

Selected Poems [by Anna Akhmatova; translator] (poetry) 1983

*Swallow (novel) 1984

Boris Godunov [by Alexander Pushkin] (drama) 1985

You Will Hear Thunder [by Anna Akhmatova; translator] (poetry) 1985

*Sphinx (novel) 1986

*Summit (novel) 1987

Memories and Hallucinations: A Memoir (memoir) 1988

*Lying Together (novel) 1990

Flying in to Love (novel) 1992

The Puberty Tree: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1992

Pictures at an Exhibition (novel) 1993

Eating Pavlova (novel) 1994

Lady with a Laptop (novel) 1996

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life (biography) 1998

*All part of the “Russian Nights” series.

John H. Barnsley (essay date Fall 1982)

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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 Doctorow's Ragtime and even Blatty's The Exorcist—which, though obviously geared for the mass market, do achieve a certain populist craftsmanship that gives pleasure. True, there are some distinctly unimpressive bestsellers: anything by Harold Robbins, or a book like Mario Puzo's recent Fools Die, which is an obviously exploitative, prurient account of the Las Vegas demi-monde and from which one turns to a decent sociological account of the same subculture with some relief. In fact, over-all, the experience of reading bestsellers is akin to that of watching television: one must wade through vast wastelands of uninspired dross to get to something really interesting.

Yet such reading has interest and justification. In La Nausée Sartre has Roquentin argue that to present human life as a narrative is always to falsify it. To say the least, this is counter-intuitive. For in actual life narratability is an important aspect of the intelligibility of action and event, and we are our own novelists in a stronger sense than we are our own philosophers and sociologists. We constantly, to ourselves and others, tell our own story: we “make sense” of ourselves through narration. It is not surprising, therefore, that the central—most popular, most influential—narratives of a society are an important clue to its culture, just as the Iliad and Odyssey are, albeit faute de mieux, to the understanding of early Greece. Moreover, the modern popular novel has probably a particular appeal and relevance to modern man's “homeless mind” (as sociologist Peter Berger puts it), because the evolving narrative of the individual is characteristically a search for meaning. The modern hero is normally en route, from one situation to another—like, in a different nomos, the medieval quest. The airport is one characteristic locale of the modern hero or heroine.

Unsurprisingly, then, our impression is that modern bestsellers tend to reflect consensual values, if in a partial and selective way. Most adopt specifically contemporary locales, and those set in the past—like Erica Jong's recent Fanny and, again, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime—tend to throw a distinctly contemporary light and evaluation on that past. Examples of such recurrent consensual values are materialism, “bourgeois” individualism, status, mobility (geographic and social), youthfulness, sexuality and sexual “frankness,” and machismo for men, beauty for women. The novels also reflect conventional ambivalencies toward such matters as technology and deviance. They reflect too, by omission, those values that seem to be on the wane, particularly among the young, a central example being the Victorian value of hard work—though as a partial counter-example one might cite Jeffrey Archer's Kane and Abel, which is, in large part, a retelling of Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories in modern context. In this sense most popular novels are conservative: despite occasional cynicism (now almost de rigueur in the spy genre), they do not significantly unmask or disrupt the status quo and insofar as they offer criticisms of institutions these are usually generally recognized ones.

However, occasionally a bestseller arises that holds special interest for us because it raises issues of central concern. One such case is The White Hotel (Viking) by D. M. Thomas, a Cornishman born in 1935. This is a current bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, and the film rights (a necessary rite of passage for full bestsellerdom) have been sold for a half-million dollars. The book has received a variety of plaudits: “a reminder that fiction can amaze” said Time magazine; “heart-stunning” said The New York Times and “Precise, troubling, brilliant” said the British Observer. The book is distinctive (like, say, the lightweight Jonathan Livingston Seagull) in not having been designed as a bestseller. Its author has rather been surprised and embarrassed by its success: he said in an interview that the book had for him “lost its virginity” as a commercial product and that it was now “The Off-White Hotel.”

For a complex, literary work like this, which operates on several levels and embodies various ambiguities, it is difficult to give a brief, adequate summary. However, the main themes may be outlined before discussion.

The book begins with a number of letters, dated 1909, 1920, and 1931, some from Sigmund Freud to fellow analysts, in which we learn of patient's writings that are to be published. The writings concern a “white hotel” and Freud describes them as “obscene” but revealing and a fellow-analyst depicts their content as “like Eden before the Fall.” Our appetites thus whetted, we are introduced to the writings themselves—an erotic and imaginative poem and “The Gastein Journal,” which spells out the theme of the poem. Briefly, the writings tell of a young woman who meets a soldier (and ex-prisoner of war) on a train. The soldier is Freud's son and the two begin an erotic relationship leading to a stay at an unspecified “white hotel” where much lovemaking occurs, some of it involving other guests—for instance, at one point the diners take it in turn to suckle the girl's lactating breasts. The “white hotel” is a hospitable place, with efficient staff and good food, and is set beside a lake in the mountains. But curious, apocalyptic events occur there: particular guests see lightning striking the lake, falling stars, red elm leaves, a school of whales; a Lutheran pastor witnesses a breast flying through the yew trees; another, a petrified embryo floating in the lake; another, a womb gliding across the lake. The lovers see an orange grove fall into the lake and there is a mysterious flood and fire in which several are killed and then an equally mysterious earthquake and avalanche buries the mourners. Later, snow falls to bury the hotel and a cable-car suddenly breaks, causing a number to fall to their death. No explanation for these events is given, though a nun comments cryptically, “Nothing is sinful here because of the Spring.”

The book then turns to a case-history by Freud. His patient, “Frau Anna,” the writer of the “white hotel” poem and journal, is, like the heroine of her writings, a twenty-nine-year-old opera singer separated from her husband. Her extended analysis begins in 1919 and her complaint is that she has suffered for four years with severe pains in her left breast and ovary, as well as having a chronic respiratory condition, anorexia nervosa, and visual hallucinations. Freud diagnoses her pains as psychosomatic products of sexual hysteria and explores her childhood in Russia (she moved to Vienna in her late teens). From this, Freud finds grounds for neurosis in the early loss of her mother (at age five) and her father's neglect, but is unsure of the “hidden factor” producing her hysteria. He comments apropos this: “What she had in her consciousness was only a secret and not a foreign body. She both knew and did not know. In a sense, too, her mind was attempting to tell us what was wrong; for the repressed idea creates its own apt symbol. 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 must make it easier by scattering clues. Clearly the child in Frau Anna's mind was telling us to look at her breast and her ovary: and precisely the left breast and ovary, for the unconscious is a precise and even pedantic symbolist.”

Still, no progress is made for many weeks. “Anna” is reticent and evasive, though at one point she recalls a dream that Freud is able, to his own satisfaction, to interpret symbolically: a train journey and bridge are both symbols of dying, a drying-out umbrella in a hall is symbolic of a discharged penis (!), and so on. Freud says her dream “could not have been clearer”—it expresses her desire to be her brother. But then Freud's daughter dies, and “Anna” claims her dream was a premonition of this, being “cursed with what is called second sight.” Freud replies that she must have discerned his subconscious anxieties about his daughter.

“Anna” then visits Gastein, an Austrian health resort and spa, and returns in a carefree mood. Freud suggests she write down her impressions of Gastein and this produces her “white hotel” writings. Freud sees the journal especially as an uncensored, “courageous” document, holding the key to her self and her maladies. Rejecting (unlike some of his followers) a rigid classification of the symbols, he remarks on “the over-all feeling of the white hotel, its wholehearted commitment to orality—sucking, biting, eating, gorging, taking in, with all the blissful narcissism of a baby at the breast. Here is the oceanic oneness of the child's first years, the auto-erotic paradise, the map of our first country of love—thrown off with all the belle indifférence of an hysteric.” It enables Freud (and here fiction can exploit an autobiographical lacuna) to make a theoretical advance—to recognize Eros as in constant combat with Thanatos. As he comments: “The shadowy ideas of my half-completed essay, Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], began, almost imperceptibly, to take concrete shape, as I pondered the tragic paradox controlling Frau Anna's destiny. She possessed a craving to satisfy the demand of her libido; yet at the same time an imperious demand, on the part of some force I did not comprehend, to poison the well of her pleasure at its source. … I began to see Frau Anna, not as a woman separated from the rest of us by her illness, but as someone in whom an hysteria exaggerated and highlighted a universal struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct.” Shortly thereafter, Freud “stumbles over” the clue to “Anna's” hysteria: in brief, her father's harshness led her to idealize her mother and, subsequently aided by mother figures, she developed a suppressed homosexuality. Hence her symptoms sprang from her “unconscious hatred of her distorted femininity.” Freud is not sure why the pains occur specifically on the left side, but is able to judge that her journal is “really” about “Anna” and her mother and expresses a pre-Oedipal longing “to return to the haven of security, the original white hotel—we have all stayed there—the mother's womb.” (A footnote, analyzing the analyst, suggests Freud's emphasis on the mother's role may be due to the recent death of his own mother, on 12 September 1930.) The role of the journal for Freud is thus therapeutic: it shows the unconscious preparing the psyche for the eventual release of repressed ideas into consciousness, so moving the patient (“with moderate help from the physician”) toward psychological health, through acceptance of her mother's mysterious individuality (she had been traumatized by a childhood discovery of adultery between her mother and uncle).

The book then changes gear: from being a novel of ideas it becomes more a novel of events. We learn “Frau Anna” is Elisabeth Erdman—“Lisa”—and we follow her career as a “second-best” opera singer. She remarries, this time a widowed Russian opera singer, and acquires a stepson. Meanwhile her hallucinations, pains, and breathlessness recur—despite Freud's “cure”—in response to a variety of incidents—a friend expecting a baby, the same friend's death (of which she had a premonition), a lack of reply to a letter to Freud, a proposal of marriage. She also has an interesting correspondence with Freud, who writes for permission to publish her writings. In her reply she admits to having misled him on some incidents in her life (“you saw what I wanted you to see”). In particular, she retells, traumatically, her story of once being “captured” by sailors in Russia and taken to a ship where she thinks they are going to kill her (and where she saw a burning waterfront; hence, she says, the burning hotel in her writings). But instead the sailors abuse her and force her to commit fellatio as a “dirty Jewess.” It was the first time she learnt there was anything bad about being Jewish (she is actually half-Jewish), though she now remembers that there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Russia at the time, as well as revolutionary feeling. Since that time, raised as a Catholic, she has hidden her Jewish blood—hence her evasiveness and lies to Freud, knowing him to be Jewish. She says her father was afterwards good to her but to blame, in her eyes, for being Jewish. Further, she blames the breakup of her first marriage on this issue—because of her husband's fierce anti-Semitism whilst unaware that she herself was Jewish—and not on sexual problems, as she had first led Freud to believe. She suggests her asthma was initially because of her fellatio with the sailors (an event she found in retrospect arousing) and so “hysterical,” but regards her pains as organic and rejects Freud's theory of her homosexuality. Freud for his part continues to think her mother's situation is at the root of her troubles. But he accepts that she has had a correct premonition of his grandson's death and ascribes this to telepathy, a factor he says he would devote his life to investigating were he to live it over again.

The next and penultimate chapter finds Lisa and her stepson living in poverty in the Podol slum in Kiev, hoping to emigrate to Palestine. Her husband (also Jewish) has been interminably jailed for treason, though on trivial grounds. In 1941 the Germans enter the city and a week later a notice commands all “Yids”—the official term—to assemble near the cemetery. Once assembled, the Jews are assaulted, stripped, and then systematically shot in the ravine of Babi Yar. At first Lisa and her stepson escape by pretending not to be Jewish, but then the onlookers are ordered to be shot too. She jumps unharmed on to a pile of bodies but is found by an SS man, who kicks her in her left breast and pelvis. Earth is thrown over the bodies and there is a danger of being buried alive (claustrophobia was always one of her recurrent nightmares). Then she is found alive, raped and bayoneted in her vagina and left for dead. In all, a quarter of a million people are to die at Babi Yar.

The final chapter is mysterious—part life-after-death, part dream-of-Zion. It finds Lisa in Palestine with her stepson at an immigration camp. Freud, now infirm, is there too. She meets her mother, who “confesses” to her relationship with her uncle, and is eventually physically reunited with her by suckling at her breast.

This, in outline, is the story of The White Hotel. It is of course a tragedy: a melancholy, reflective, moving book that is well above average (not least in profondeurs) for a bestseller. Indeed, its bestseller status is something of a mystery: one doubts that it is solely a product of energetic marketing or the book's explicit sexual content, although these factors are no doubt part of the story. There are some flaws—for instance, Freud's case-history is rather “lighter” in style than the actual Freud's actual case-histories, and Lisa's imaginative writings seem rather too “professional” to be the convincing product of a neurotic opera singer—but the book “works” well because it raises questions both moral and interpretive.

The over-all “movement” of the book is from introspection to extrospection, from psychic realities to social ones, from, indeed, the province of depth psychology to that of social science. Thus, aside from the tragic ending, Lisa's revelation of her problems arising specifically from her status as a Jewess, with the anti-Semitic sailors (and so with her father) and with her first husband, suggest that ethnic factors, and not, as with Freud, purely sexual ones, enter into the etiology of her illness. (An implication might be that Freud too insufficiently recognized the relevance of his Jewish status and, further, of social variables generally.) In fact, on closer examination one finds that social realities do make brief entrances, in illuminating and usually ironic ways, in the earlier, introspective parts of the book. For instance, when Freud diagnoses anorexia nervosa from Lisa's meagre appearance, he has to add that few in Vienna at that time (1919) had enough to eat. Also, when able to make little progress in analysis with her, he has to note that “Partly the circumstances in which we worked were to blame; it was difficult to create an atmosphere of confidence, in an unheated room in winter, with patient and physician dressed in coats, mufflers and gloves.” (A footnote informs us that fuel for heating and lighting was in desperately short supply after the war.) Further, speaking of her journal, Freud comments that “I was now dealing with an inflated imagination that knew no bounds, like the currency of those months—a suitcase of notes that would not buy a single loaf.” Such incidental observations, of the world around patient and analyst, serve as a kind of ironic commentary on Freud's absorption with the psyche.

Secondly, we should note that, whatever her particularities, Lisa is a distinctly and recognizably modern character. Her life is like that of most modern heroes and heroines in fiction, and not least in best-sellers, in that it exhibits little moral unity, no over-all telos (as Marcuse says, an unfashionable but necessary concept), but is rather one of episodes and contingency and a prey to circumstance. In this it may well be true to much twentieth-century life as actually lived, and so she may be treated as a cultural type. She is a “homeless” heroine. Her constant train journeys, in reality and in dreams, serve as a metaphor of her rootlessness and she remarks at one point: “I'm not even sure where home is. I was born in the Ukraine but my mother was Polish. There's even a trace of Romany, I'm told! I've lived in Vienna for nearly twenty years. So you tell me what my homeland is.”

She is essentially an unexceptional character, even if her end is exceptionally tragic (albeit shared eventually with six million others). Her only exceptionality is really her “hysteria” (and clairvoyance). Hence, although the horrors of Babi Yar enter as a savage climax, the main focus of the book is the mysterious “white hotel” manuscript and Freud's response to it and its author. With its lapses of logic and strong, almost hypnotic symbolic content, the “white hotel” journal reads like a dream. Freud in fact treats it as such and the author, it is said, wrote it during a “storm in her head.” We thus have privileged entrée to Lisa's inner world and the book invites us to respond to Freud's understanding of that inner world. Freud's interpretive (and, one must add, moral) theory has, in the real world, proved attractive (if at first outré and surprising) to many people since it first appeared, and it is a merit of the book that it recognizes and expresses this enticing quality. But—as with unicorns or the Holy Grail or vitalism in the life sciences—attractive theories are not necessarily true theories. In fact, of Freudianism, as of any psychological theory, one may pose two central questions: is it valid and is it therapeutic (or otherwise useful)? These are independent criteria: the theory may possess either or both of these qualities. As for the former, there is, in fact, a dearth of rigorous evidence attesting to its validity and some clear evidence to the contrary: thus anthropological evidence strongly suggests that “Freudian conflicts” are not universal features of “the human condition” in the singular, and one careful study (by Alasdair MacIntyre) of the truth-claims of Freudianism concludes that it is “less well validated than witchcraft.” Similarly with therapeutic value: studies using matched groups of patients, some undergoing Freudian analysis, others an entirely different treatment or no treatment at all, show no special therapeutic merit inheres in the Freudian approach. Indeed there is evidence that it may lead some patients to get worse (possibly, of course, for good Freudian reasons). Questions thus arise as to why psychoanalysis proceeds as if it were both well founded and therapeutic, and why it continues to be popular. These are questions for the sociology of knowledge, but part of the answer to the latter one may lie in Freudianism's particular appeal to a liberal individualist society, with the flattering “depth,” drama, and apparent meaning it ascribes to the otherwise “homeless” individual's life. Modern America is just such a society, possibly more so than Britain (and certainly more committed to the personal therapeutic mode), and so one learns with interest that The White Hotel has been both better received by critics and more popular among the reading public in America than in Britain, its provenance.

We might read the book with these considerations in mind. But what is the meaning of the “white hotel” journal and poem? On this large theoretical issues hinge. For we may usefully compare Freudianism with the two other great idea-systems of the twentieth century: Christianity and Marxism. All three extend the frontiers of thought. All three are beguiling and have attracted singularly dedicated votaries. All three are polysemic, providing rich soil for sectarianism, yet also supplying a distinctive nomos that their adherents may inhabit. All three, notoriously, are “closed systems” in the sense that they offer specific reasons for the nonbelief or opposition of others. And each would propose a different interpretation of the “white hotel” sequence: to the Christian it might reveal the spirit's search for grace, even though carnality enters—hence, perhaps, the disasters in this Edenic “place without sin”; to the Marxist it would serve as an epiphenomenon of bourgeois false consciousness and “decadence”; and the psychoanalytic version—or one of them—is given in the book. How to decide between these claims? It seems one cannot, for the different traditions do not share a common epistemology. However, Freudianism and “common sense” at least accept a “sudden flash of insight” on the part of the patient to be a sign of the truth of an interpretation (a view that might be rejected by a thoroughgoing Marxist and is largely unavailable to, say, a Lévi-Straussian). So, for the record, we may note that this patient, Lisa, does accept Freud's overall exegesis of the womb-symbol as valid insight, even though she rejects his main diagnosis of her condition. But one might find this unsurprising in view of the fact that psychoanalysis was a popular way of viewing the world in middle-class Vienna in the 1920s and Lisa was presumably also impressed by Freud's distinguished status in the city. This leads one to note how modern social science would “interpret” the “white hotel.” It would do so, of course, in terms of cultural rather than purely psychic symbols, detecting, for instance, an extension of the 1920s air of permissiveness (at least among the beau monde), the characters as disparate culture-types of the era, the early stirrings of feminism, and so on. Such an account may be partial, but it is surely just as “valid” as psychoanalysis's version—indeed, probably more so because less tied to contestable theory.

For the purposes of discussion, we have been treating the “white hotel” journal almost as though it were the real product of a real patient. It is, of course, part of a novel, a work of fiction—if serious and plausible fiction—and moreover a novel that is not written as a roman à thèse (and by no means as a “social novel”), but one emphasizing the ambiguities and opacity of a person's life. One of the repeated quotations of the book once used by Freud in a letter (without full approval), is from Herodotus: “The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.” And a similar theme—of experience and events without interpretation—is found in other works of poetry and prose by D. M. Thomas. There are close parallels, for instance, with his first, award-winning novel, The Flute Player (1979). There the action takes place in a nameless city (and in a kind of “grey hotel”) in a nameless country (which may be Russia) where social conditions are Spartan and the authorities are arbitrarily brutal and oppressive and then relatively permissive in cycles. That book too has a central heroine, Elena, and recurrent themes of dreams, nightmares, and hallucinations, a sudden mysterious fire, a piece of psychoanalysis (by, ironically, a janitor, a retired psychologist), with which the “patient” pretends to agree, and it has the removal of Jews to a ghetto, which is “humanely” bombed because found riddled with bubonic plague. But in The White Hotel Thomas introduces the historical figure of Sigmund Freud (as Doctorow does, incidentally, in Ragtime) into a central interpretive place in the story and strives for accuracy in his portrayal of Freud, and so it is unlikely that he has no view himself of the validity of Freud's theory.

In fact, he comments in the preface on Freud “as discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.” This somewhat inconsistent statement indicates at least a partial acceptance of Freud's views. But the book's story, perhaps malgré the author, does not in fact validate such views; nor, realistically one might say, does it show them to be therapeutic: the patient is not cured, even though she praises Freud for the self-insight she has gained. Rather, it shows, we would argue, that social categories are at least a necessary supplement to, if not the central means of, understanding Lisa's life and problems. Here ethnicity is crucial: much of her suffering is simply (and of course irrationally) because she is Jewish. There is also the changing social definition of sexuality: much is made of Freud's response to Lisa's writings as “obscene” and “pornographic.” This is historically accurate. But were, say, Erica Jong to produce such writing today, as in effect she has done, neither would the response be so prudish nor would they necessarily be interpreted as “sublimations” of an excessive libido, as, indeed, symptoms of “illness.” So a moral and interpretive change has occurred and we must view Lisa's analysis in terms of cultural history. Possibly such a historical approach applies to her symptoms too: reflecting on the fact that she has had sex with five men, including her first husband, she comments “How many women in Vienna were so promiscuous, outside the lowest class who sold their favours?” (Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis.)

What, then, of her brutal death at Babi Yar, how to “interpret” that event? Do we appeal to social or psychological categories, or both? Does this not validate Freud's discovery (or invention) of Thanatos, man's death instinct, and so confer a hidden unity on the book? We think not (whatever the author's intent here): for Thanatos is, in reified form, an essentially self-destructive impulse and to claim that Babi Yar, and like cases, shows it being “projected” or “externalized” on to others strikes the present writer as the most facile and evasive kind of reductionism. The broad truth is that Babi Yar and the other numerous exempla horribilia of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, the Gulag Archipelago, recent Cambodia, and so on—come to be treated by the mainstream of modern social science as mere “deviant” cases, anomalies, caesuras from the normal, “messy” passages to be tucked away from consciousness. What we perhaps need is a sociology of bestiality that would take them as central and, in an ideal world, would help prevent their recurrence. In the case of D. M. Thomas, Babi Yar leads him to turn away from Freud (and social science) to reflect, with Herodotus, on the opacity of man. He comments on the heap of bodies as follows: “Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms). Though most of them had never lived outside the Podol slum, their lives and histories were as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Berenstein's. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.” To which one might add that there is, in retrospect, a particular poignant irony to Freud's valediction to Lisa after her analysis: “I told her she was cured of everything but life, so to speak.”

If, as we believe, The White Hotel is to be recommended, it is because it threads together social and psychological issues, and moral and interpretive ones, in a particularly rich and subtle way, and because these elements neatly culminate in Lisa's surreal arrival in Palestine—for this is surely the social equivalent of Freud's womb-symbol in his interpretation of the “white hotel.” The comparison is particularly apt because the country—that is, modern Israel—in actuality consciously recognizes and seeks to re-create the distant ethnic past of the Bible, while at the same time seeking to establish a secure “homeland” (physical and Bergerian) for the future. It is the natural endpoint of Lisa's wanderings, the social solution to her maladies, and, of course, the resolution of her ethnic identity. “Wonderful healing goes on over here,” says her mother, and among those to be healed is Sigmund Freud, the healer himself.

The Palestine sequence, then, deftly closes the dialectic between the social and the psychological in the story. But there is another element too: the parapsychological. Lisa has correct premonitions of the deaths of Freud's daughter and grandson and of a friend's death, among others, and the possibility is raised that her “hysterical” pains are not, as with Freud, symptoms of the past but of the future, socio-somatic stigmata-in-advance as it were, for they occur at the exact sites of her eventual assault and mutilation at Babi Yar. And the “thanatic” elements in her “white hotel” writings, her desire “to poison the well of her pleasure at its source” as Freud puts it, may also be seen as an inchoate premonition of Babe Yar; indeed, in retrospect, her whole inner life may be regarded (or re-cognized) as an unconscious preparation for the horror of its end. All this may be fortuitous or it may be the deepest mysterium of all: the book, wisely, leaves the matter open. Lisa has her premonitions in dreams and the true “meaning” of dreams, it seems, despite Freud's confidence in his own codex, will ever remain epistemologically opaque. (And biological reductionism will not resolve the issue. Even if we could, say, monitor individually all 12 million million cells that comprise the human brain and find out which ones are being activated when a person dreams and then correlate this with recalled dream content, this would still not wholly and incontestably decode the true “meaning” of the dream. Ditto with other physiological indices.) So cultural relativism has particular force here, and we may cite as examples the acceptance of dreams as prophetic by the ancient Greeks (though not Aristotle) and the Old Testament, the curious fact that in Borneo a man who dreams his wife has committed adultery has the right to ask her father to take her back, the Iroquois idea that dreams are prescriptive, to be enacted in waking hours, and the modern traditions of existentialism and behaviorism to which dreams are largely an irrelevancy bereft of meaning. Between these, and other, interpretations one must make one's choice and so it is with The White Hotel. It is indeed the multilayered, polysemic character of the book that is remarkable in the final analysis; and the underlying motivation of the author, primarily a poet, is, we suggest, a search for the epistemological status of poetic (or “literary”) insight. Meanwhile, those still looking for the moral “message” of the book need look no further than its opening text. It is from W. B. Yeats: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The Heart's grown brutal from the fare; / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love. …”

Lore Dickstein (review date 23 April 1983)

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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 be authorship.

The question here is not that of plagiarism but of literary license and influence. It is axiomatic that translators rely on the inspiration of their original authors, but Thomas seems to have based most of his fiction on this premise. As a novelist, he has taken the liberties of a translator, catapulting his books on the backs of other, more brilliant writers. In The White Hotel, he cited his sources openly, although not the extent of his borrowings. His fictional case study of the libidinous Lisa Erdman cleverly mimics Freud's writing style, but his evocation of the massacre at Babi Yar uses Anatoli Kuznetsov's Babi Yar with a directness for which it was criticized in England. In the acknowledgments to The Flute Player (1979), Thomas notes, “Quotations ascribed in this novel to two of the fictional characters are from: Akhmadulina, Akhmatova, Baudelaire, Chapman, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Lorca, Mandelstam, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Pasternak, Sylvia Plath, Pushkin, Rilke, Anne Sexton, Shakespeare, Gaspara Stampa, Tsvetaeva, and Yeats”—a literary pantheon which makes for some striking dialogue in an otherwise undistinguished novel. The author's note in Ararat mentions similar debts: the Russian poets Pushkin and Blok; the Armenian poets Nareg and Emin; the historian of Armenia Christopher Walker.

What Thomas does with his source material, how he creates a “new” work out of the works of others, is Ararat's subject as well as its method. This is a novel of improvisations, a set of variations on the theme of improvisation. Reading it is like being caught in one of those elaborate and perverse boxwood mazes favored by English landscape architects. It is intricately designed, all appearances and cleverness, yet ultimately lacking in rationale. The path keeps turning in on itself; the markings are confusingly similar; the reader exits impressed but reeling.

Bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue, Ararat is presented from the perspective of one Sergei Rozanov, a fictional Russian poet well known for his inventiveness. Rozanov is spending the night with a student, but disenchanted with the woman's fawning admiration and bored sexually, he spins out the thread of the novel: Three writers—a Russian, an American and an Armenian—each agree to improvise a story on a common theme, improvisation. “It's just a game,” Rozanov tells the student, discounting his facility “like doing crosswords.”

There are three main stories within Rozanov's improvisations, two of which lean heavily on Pushkin's unfinished prose-verse work, Egyptian Nights, which itself is about the art of literary improvisation. Rozanov begins with the Russian, a depressed and feverish poet, Victor Surkov, who is on an ocean voyage to the United States. On board ship are an assortment of female Olympic athletes, some of whom end up in Surkov's bed, and an ancient-mariner type named Finn, a spectral figure who claims to have been involved in every atrocity of the twentieth century: the Armenian massacre in 1915, Babi Yar, Dachau, Buchenwald and more. Finn is always eagerly plucking at Surkov's sleeve, interrupting the poet's fantasies and sexual activities with graphic tales of barbarity. As in The White Hotel, this intermingling of sex and death creates a heightened, surreal atmosphere in which eroticism and torture, orgasms and dying, blend into one another.

In one of the many shifts of identity in the novel, Surkov imagines he is Pushkin writing Egyptian Nights. Thomas's translation of Pushkin's fragment is included here in its entirety. At the last line, Surkov as Pushkin is interrupted by a visitor; this is a wonderful leap into the past, to that moment when Pushkin put down his pen. “It is irritating to be interrupted like this,” Pushkin/Surkov/Rozanov/Thomas remarks, “just at the point where inspiration failed before.”

Written in 1835, Pushkin's Egyptian Nights is the story of a Russian poet, Charsky, who is visited unexpectedly by an Italian improvvisatore, a sort of wandering poetic entertainer. Penniless and down on his luck, the Italian asks Charsky to set up a recitation for him at a wealthy home. Impressed by the Italian's skill at composing on command a verse on the theme of poetic inspiration, Charsky agrees. At the recitation, a number of topics are submitted by the audience; the one selected by lot is “Cleopatra and her lovers.” The improvvisatore, in verse, tells the story of how Cleopatra agrees to make love to three men, but the price for enjoying the Queen's favors is death. (Cleopatra's “bed of love and death” would be of obvious appeal to Thomas.)

In what is the best writing in this novel, Surkov picks up where Pushkin left off in Egyptian Nights and completes the improvvisatore‘s verse without losing a beat. In Surkov's completed version, Cleopatra's third lover, never identified in the Pushkin, is her son by her brother Ptolemy. (This little piece of incestuous pornography is not beyond the imaginative scope of Pushkin, who wrote a scandalous poem, “The Gavriliad,” in which the Virgin Mary, frustrated by the lack of sexual attention from Joseph, makes love to the angel Gabriel, God and Satan.) The improvvisatore’s poem completed, Surkov resumes the narrative of Egyptian Nights; the various turns and permutations of his plot, which mirror actual events in Pushkin's life, are a delightful sleight of hand. After this bravura performance the rest of Ararat pales considerably.

Surkov, dissatisfied with the way he has ended Pushkin's tale, starts again and concludes Egyptian Nights in just a few pages of prose. The second improvisation also uses facts from Pushkin's life, but this time the story seems arbitrary and contrived. The absurdist ending, in which the improvvisatore is beheaded during the Decembrist uprising (an event Pushkin fortuitously missed), feels as if the author—Thomas, Rozanov, Surkov?—had tired of the game and decided to finish his hero off quickly.

Rozanov then presents another version of Surkov's trip to America. In this utterly banal story, Surkov flies from Russia to Kennedy International Airport, where he is greeted by his hostess, an Armenian sculptor, and a goon squad of reporters. The press's inane questions—“Why do Russian poets have such good memories?” “How do you feel about being middle-aged?”—are matched by Surkov's crass answers. (One utterance by this thoroughly unlikable character, however, fairly leaps from the page. In response to a question about a novelist's supposed plagiarism, Surkov replies: “All art is collaboration, a translation if you like. But plagiarism is a different matter.”)

The rest of Surkov's story and the remaining pages of Ararat, which, as far as I can tell, are entirely of Thomas's invention, are disappointing and lifeless. The dialogue is flat; the plot meanders aimlessly. Thomas seems to do his best work in collaboration with other authors. Rozanov's two other improvisers—the American and the Armenian—are barely realized and are devoid of interest or motivation. The occasional allusions to Armenia and its dominant geographic feature, Mount Ararat, seem intended to hint at broader associations—a destroyed country, a people with a “problem” whose “solution” was used by Hitler as a paradigm—but they have no apparent relevance to the novel's form or content.

In The White Hotel, the variations of Lisa Erdman's story, presented in verse, in prose narrative and in case history echo hauntingly throughout the novel. The telling and retelling of Lisa's story is what gives the novel coherence. In Ararat, once Thomas leaves Pushkin, his prime source of inspiration, the writing seems tossed off, unpolished, like incomplete entries in a journal. It is as if knowing he has captivated us with his cleverness, Thomas holds us in contempt for our admiration.

Further Reading

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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 Pavlova.

Cowart, David. “Being and Seeming: The White Hotel.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 19, No. 3 (Spring 1986): 216-31.

Examines the complex interconnection of psychological processes, symbolism, myth, and Freudian analysis in The White Hotel, drawing attention to Thomas's provocative treatment of perception and reality in the novel.

Dalley, Jan. “A Shield Made of Words.” New Statesman (13 March 1998): 52-53.

A review of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.Dalley commends Thomas's subject though finds fault in his “free-form biographical style” and “over-heated” prose.

Eder, Richard. Review of Sphinx, by D. M. Thomas. Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 January 1987): 3, 9.

An unfavorable review of Sphinx.

Freely, Maureen. “Don's Party Tricks.” New Statesman and Society (22 June 1990): 49.

An unfavorable review of Lying Together.

Gray, Paul. “Beyond Pleasure and Pain.” Time (16 March 1981): 88.

A positive review of The White Hotel.

Levy, Ellen. “A Substitute for Imagination.” The New Leader (30 May 1983): 17-18.

A negative review of Ararat.

Olcott, Anthony. “Superpower Slapstick.” Washington Post Book World (24 January 1988): 11.

An unfavorable review of Summit.

Radin, Victoria. “Jack Junk.” New Statesman and Society (14 February 1992): 39.

A negative review of Flying to Love.

Rumens, Carol. “Inviting Confusions.” Times Literary Supplement (13-19 July 1990): 746.

A review of Lying Together.

See, Carolyn. “The Underbelly of the Literary Life.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 June 1996): 3, 11.

A review of Lady With a Laptop.

Steiner, George. “In Exile Wherever He Goes.” New York Times Book Review (1 March 1998): 9-10.

A positive review of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Storr, Anthony. “D. M. Thomas' Map of Love.” Washington Post Book World (2 October 1988): 7.

An unfavorable review of Memories and Hallucinations.

Tanner, Laura E. “Sweet Pain and Charred Bodies: Figuring Violence in The White Hotel.Boundary 2 18, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 130-49.

Examines Thomas's presentation of metaphorical violence in The White Hotel, which, according to Tanner, lures the reader in to an imaginative framework that suddenly becomes realistic, reflecting the reader's complicity and unconscious entanglement in acts of brutality.

Additional coverage of Thomas's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960-Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 17, 45, 75; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 40, 207; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1, 2.

Mary F. Robertson (essay date Winter 1984)

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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 modernist artists tended to give us survival by aesthetic escape into a contemplative and esoteric realm of imaginative creation. Yeats, for example, who is invoked in the epigraph of D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, often worried about his poetry's responsibility for actual destruction, but he always reaffirmed, though with increasing self-irony, that the purged fantasies of art were his most adequate response to the brutal fantasies ruining the social and political life of Ireland. Likewise Freud personally experienced discrimination as a Jew both in the matter of appointment to a medical professorship and when he fled the Nazis to England, yet his psychoanalytic theory privileges intrapsychic fantasies as the source of sickness in civilization; finally he did not put much stock in social facts as the cause of neuroses and psychoses. Modernist art and psychoanalysis in its classical form share the prejudice that significant reality is to be found not in empirical fact but in a complex inference drawn from mediating and disguising signs. They do not believe that it is possible to tell the significant story “straight,” the story, for example, of a person's identity or a genocidal campaign. Both typically translate from a temporal series of events into a conceptual structure of explanation which is at least one remove from empirical facts.

The postmodern artistic and historical temper is supposedly discontent with this consolation outside of history, but modernism in fact engendered two very different species of postmodern artistic reaction. On the one hand, certain “ludic” artists, or “surfictionists,”1 dissolve the boundary of difference between sign and fact by asserting, as the modernists did not, that what usually passes as “fact” is as much a sign or “fiction” as anything else; therefore, the writer can playfully incorporate facts on the same plane of significance as fictional details into a work whose raison d'être is its own self-admiring game-playing rather than traditional objects of representation.2 Whatever satirical force and social resonance this might produce is secondary to the self-reflexive purpose. Clearly this postmodern reaction is more an extension of modernism's aestheticist escapism than it cares to acknowledge. (However, the surfictionists' claim that their game-playing is also “historical” might imply that even they wish to be seen as incorporating the morality of truth to history into their art in their own way.) On the other hand, certain writers, like Saul Bellow or John Gardner, reassert the value of the representational, insisting that history's brutal fantasies result in part from art's elitist abdication of dialogue with the facts in power. If the distinction between fact and fantasy is not emphasized in this mode, it is only because art represents important social and moral content through transparent, not refractory, signs. Sometimes, as in Doris Lessing's late work, “fantasy” is given a prominent place only because the author is genuinely convinced of our untapped or evolving psychic and prophetic powers to extend the sense of the “real.” Ultimately this realistic fiction is traditional enough to uphold our commonsense understanding that there is an important moral distinction between aesthetic games and worldly facts, between sanity and schizophrenia, even between good and evil. It vehemently resists the absorption of reality into the autonomous structure of art, just as Marxists resist reduction of social ills to matter for the psychiatrist's couch.

The White Hotel is an interesting test case for whether, and how, certain serious artists of the late twentieth century are able to handle authentically the inherited problem of the relation between fact and fantasy, the empirical and the mediated. This novel seems to have touched a cultural nerve in the way that books that are both best sellers and respected works of art do. I suggest it does so because it embodies the excruciating predicament facing artists as legatees of the lunatic facts of recent history, of literary modernism, and of psychoanalysis. The book does not provide a solution to this predicament, though it inherently attempts one, nor does it provide much consolation, but it does take the measure of the dilemma more thoroughly and openly than most works of recent fiction.

The White Hotel3 opens with a series of letters among members of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic circle. In one letter from 1920, we learn that Freud is treating a young woman, Lisa Erdman, for “sexual hysteria” and that she has just given him an erotic fantasy poem full of the most blatant sexual imagery. The scene of this poem is an imaginary white resort hotel; the poem is written between the staves of a score of Don Giovanni. Freud of course counsels detachment and understanding toward this material. In the last letter of the series, written eleven years later than the others, we learn that Freud is about to publish Lisa's case history.

Next, in the first of many abrupt formal shifts in the novel, the long pornographic poem is presented to the reader, followed by another chapter that is simply an expanded prose version of the same imaginings. This version is Lisa's response to Freud's request that she annotate the poem during her therapy. In a third shift of form, we are then given Freud's case history of Lisa's “hysteria” and treatment, including his byzantine interpretive tracking of the meaning behind her symptoms. He concludes that her hysteria originated when, as a child, she accidentally witnessed her mother, her aunt, and her uncle making love on board her uncle's yacht. He also believes she has been sexually frigid with her husband because of this early trauma and because she is an unacknowledged lesbian. Subsequent to the therapy this woman resumes her musical career, which had been affected by her disease, and is able to function with only mild, undebilitating recurrences of her symptoms of breast and ovary pains.

In a fourth shift, the novel presents a chapter in the mode of mimetic realism that follows Lisa from 1929, eleven years after her therapy, through 1936, when she becomes an opera singer, marries a Russian Jew, and adopts his son, Kolya. In this section we have again a series of letters, this time between Freud and Lisa as he seeks her permission to publish her case history. At this later time, Lisa's reaction to her past therapy contains startling revelations of information she had withheld from Freud. The most important is that, as a girl and a daughter of a Jewish grain merchant in Odessa, she had been accosted in the street by sailors from her father's merchant ship and taken to the ship where, as she says, “they spat on me, threatened to burn my breasts with their cigarettes, used vile language. … forced me to commit acts of oral sex with them, saying all I was good for, as a dirty Jewess, was to—But you'll guess the expression they used. Eventually they let me go. But from that time I haven't found it easy to admit to my Jewish blood. I've gone out of my way to hide it” (p. 188). Ashamed of this episode and, more, of the fact that the memory of it had made her aroused, she had soon developed “asthma”—one of the symptoms of her “hysteria.” Lisa also now reveals that her frigidity with her husband, whose “family were horribly anti-Semitic,” was caused by her knowledge that “He said he loved me; but if he had known I had Jewish blood he would have hated me” (p. 190). Lisa explains to Freud that she had withheld this information out of delicacy about Freud's own Jewishness. On the other hand, she totally rejects these events as an explanation of her breast and ovary pains when she was a young adult. She insists that they were organic at the same time she tells Freud that in her therapy she “didn't always wish to talk about the past,” being “more interested in what was happening to me then, and … in the future. In a way you made me become fascinated by my mother's sin. … I don't believe for one moment that had anything to do with my being crippled with pain” (pp. 191-92).

Freud replies to her revelations:

I prefer to go ahead with the case study as it stands, despite all imperfections. I am willing, if you will permit, to add a postscript in which your reservations are presented and discussed. I shall feel compelled to make the point that the physician has to trust his patient, quite as much as the patient must trust the physician.

I call to mind a saying of Heraclitus: “The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.” It is not altogether true, I think; but success must depend on a fair harbour opening in the cliffs. (pp. 195-96)

But of course, psychoanalysis has also always claimed the ability to penetrate masks and defenses, and so Freud comes out of this looking considerably less authoritative than when the book started.

Lisa's protestations about her pains and the relevance of her remark about her concern for the future are further vindicated when, in the novel's next and fifth chapter, the story takes her to Kiev in 1941, where, because of her widowed fostering of her Jewish stepson, she is forced into the Podol ghetto and then marched along with the other Jews there to be shot at Babi Yar. She escapes the shots and falls into the huge pit full of bodies, surviving just long enough to be finished off by the bayonet rape of a soldier checking that everyone is dead. Thirty-three thousand people died in Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, and Thomas concludes this chapter by explicitly remarking on the individual complexity and dignity of each of them, explaining to the reader what happened to the pit full of bodies, and generalizing such demonic horror in relation to the Holocaust exterminations elsewhere. He closes the chapter by saying, “But all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem” (p. 253).

In a final astonishing modal shift we are then given the sixth chapter, “The Camp,” which is a fantasy written in a realistic mode. In this tour de force Thomas imagines Lisa, Freud, her mother, and many others in the previous cast of characters, alighting after a train journey into a transit camp which has simultaneously the sensory reality of Palestine after World War II and the surreality of an imaginary place after death. It is not beatific here; people still bear the marks of their worldly wounds—Freud's cancerous jaw, Lisa's limp, the British soldier's one arm. It is a place of healing and compassion, but also a place where, as in Lisa's earlier fantasy of the white hotel, sexuality is not regulated by formal ties like marriage nor decorum respected in such matters as when Lisa drinks milk from her mother's breast. The tone is tentative and hopeful and deliberately privileges Lisa's optimism. The book ends with Lisa realizing that her pelvis and breast have not hurt that day, and, in fact, the book's last word is “happy.”

Placing itself deliberately at the conceptual crossroads of all the contending factions mentioned above, The White Hotel takes huge risks. First, it risks the accusation that it sensationalizes both Freudian sexual themes and the pornography of Nazi violence. The charge of pornographic sensationalism is not hard to refute superficially; for Lisa Erdman is depicted overall with dignity and subjective empathy rather than reduced to an object from start to finish. Even the more subtly disquieting possibility that she collaborates in her own reduction to a psychoanalytic object4 is refutable because the story shows her moving beyond Freud's sphere of influence and even ensnaring him in a huge interpretive trap by withholding evidence that his psychoanalytic acumen could not reach. She progresses from a pitiable “hysteric” to a competent, brave, and independent woman, and there is at least the possibility that she does it in spite of Freud rather than because of him.

The charge of using sensational and even “sacred” facts for the sake of the novel as an art work, a use that some would consider a deeper pornography, is, however, more difficult to refute. When Yeats, in what Thomas uses as the epigraph of this novel, says, “We had fed the heart on fantasies / The heart's grown brutal from the fare,” he meant the Irish freedom fighters' crazy fantasies of fratricide and rebellion rather than his own poetic fantasies that were the “responsible” antidote. But by the end of Thomas's novel, we cannot be sure that the epigraph has not been turned against itself—meaning that the novel perhaps criticizes the modernist aesthetic and the psychoanalytic “solutions” as fantasies contributing to social brutality. Yet this is only speculation, since I hope to show that reading this novel as a reassertion of literary realism entails even more serious questions.

The problem this novel poses of the relation of social fact to aesthetic image is not merely one of literary history. One cannot read the grave and terrible penultimate chapter, “The Sleeping Carriage,” which describes the heroine's bayonet rape and death in the pit at Babi Yar, without thinking it intends to bear historical witness to the Holocaust. If nowhere else in the book, this chapter alone would seem to argue that Thomas renounces the surfictionist approach in favor of representing facts. That is, he seems to take up the challenge described by the psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, who, as a result of work with survivors from Hiroshima, the German camps, and Vietnam, believes it is essential to amend the Freudian model of the psyche from one of repression of sexual urges to anesthesia from historical trauma, and to recognize the crucial role of artists in enabling our race's psychic and physical survival. Lifton believes that contemporary culture has succumbed to “psychic numbness” as a result of peripheral or direct awareness of all such atrocities and that psychiatrists only intensify the problem by searching for familial or intrapsychic origins when the causes really lie in political and cultural fact. Lifton believes that such numbing results in “desymbolization,” an inability to reckon with and master psychologically the apocalyptic realities of the contemporary world:

The problem is less repression of death than an impairment in the general capacity to create viable forms around it, [to bring] imagination to bear upon the unpalatable existential-historical truths, to expand the limits of that imagination on behalf of species survival … to overcome psychic numbing and …, in Martin Buber's words, to “imagine the real.”5

In answer to those who believe that the Nazi atrocities should never be depicted in imaginative literature because one should not try to speak the unspeakable (and some object to The White Hotel on this ground),6 Lifton replies that it is necessary to do the vital symbolic work enabling us to face, not only our individual death, but the imminent threat to our species. For Lifton, artists who brave such subjects touch the “mythic or formative zone of the psyche”; for, “only by creating, maintaining and breaking down and recreating viable form are we capable of experiencing vitality, and in that sense we may say that form equals life.”7 A handful of writers have taken up this challenge—Lifton discusses Camus, Vonnegut, and Günter Grass. The White Hotel enters this company, although it makes its task more difficult by avoiding totally the satirical bitterness that accounts for much of the energy in the work of other writers cited by Lifton.

What does Thomas's book reveal about the difficulty now of revitalizing the cultural imagination of holocaust through creative form? The predicament might be summarized thus: To “imagine the real” in our times would involve a rejection of modernism's “ritual despair” or “Olympian detachment” in autonomous forms8 and a reassertion of the mimetic mode which requires that we respect the resistance of some facts to absorption into the purposes of self-reflexive structures. In a time when avant-garde formalism dominates high art, the really bracing gesture might be to describe the historically real with imaginative empathy governed by factual precision. Therefore, Lifton's prescription about “breaking down and creating form” should not imply modernist or surfictional escapism. However, if one does no more than portray the brutalities in a pseudo-factual style,9 one implicitly risks reinforcing brutishness—as if to admit that the free play of imagination and the limited optimism of psychoanalytic theory are mooted by the sordid spectacles of powerful fact. The artist cannot return to modernism's transcendence of life through ironic and “despairing” art, nor the psychoanalyst to his world-renouncing myths, but neither can they adopt the moral and psychological pessimism implied by mere accurate description.

To put the predicament this way may strike some as too much either/or thinking. Instead, we should perhaps speak of a “dialectical” relation between fact and imagination. This is a familiar critical stratagem, but I think it will not do for novels like The White Hotel that formally pose precisely the question of whether there can be a dialectic between imagined detail and historical facts as horrible as the massacre at Babi Yar. In terms of Lifton's task of finding “life” for the species through form, what must be demonstrated is the ability of art—and in this novel, also psychoanalysis—to affect potently the course historical facts will take, whereas in such hopeful formulas critics too easily slide into the term “dialectic” as a refuge from this demonstration. The images in such works must seem more than compensatory, evasive, or merely decorative (as the modernists' artifices often were) in order to fulfill the moral and psychological function Lifton envisions for them. It is hard to believe that Yeats's “artifice of eternity,” as described in “Sailing to Byzantium,” would qualify.

Again, this issue is not confined to discussions of the role of art toward brutal facts. An observer of a recent conference that gathered survivors of the Holocaust at Yale to refute the challenge that the event never happened remarks that even there it was difficult to concentrate on the facts:

Much of the … conference, in fact, was devoted to theorizing. From time to time a conference participant made a plea for memory itself—for its preservation and persistence in pure and unexplained form. But the relentless purity of memory was hard to sustain, despite the dedication of the participants to the problem of the Holocaust, despite their devotion to clinical history, and despite the fact that a number of them were survivors themselves … with Holocaust memories of their own. Psychological theory repeatedly intervened, studies were cited, cases were presented, and intelligence was applied. The tragic irony of the conference's limited focus was never articulated … the psychological damage that was inflicted upon those survivors, incomprehensibly brutal and massive as it was, was still less compelling a problem of human experience than the physical exterminations themselves.

To be sure, the exterminations could not be reversed, while psychiatrists could at least hope to help, if not cure, those survivors whose lives had been so defiled and whose memories so contaminated. … Still, in the end, it was the reality of history rather than the god of psychoanalytic theory that brooded over the conference, at the highest level. And it was that reality that drove out the theory when, in the midst of it all, videotaped interviews from the archives of the Holocaust Survivors Film Project were shown, interviews of survivors talking not about Freud but about the black and lifeless sun of Auschwitz. That talk was about memory, its life and its death, and it stunned the group into reverent submission.10

Surely the readers of the chapter on Babi Yar in The White Hotel will agree that it portrays a “reality that drives out the [psychoanalytic] theory” which dominates the first part of the book. The rhetorical force of that chapter is greater than that of the rest of the novel put together. A hush settles over one's reading like that of the stunned conferees. And the force seems to depend a great deal precisely on that simple clear-sighted difference between fact and fantasy accepted by the modernists but rejected by the surfictionists. Yet considering the novel as a whole, we cannot be certain; fantasy, art, and theory remain in problematic relation to history. Let us see how the problem is figured by tracing the book's rhetorical process.

For the first half of the novel, The White Hotel seems nothing so much as a piece of surfictionist formalist adventurism. Our reading displaces rapidly from letters to and from Freud, through a “primary process” erotic fantasy poem written by Lisa, on toward her prose version of the same events, and then to Freud's case history of Lisa's “hysteria.” Thus we speculate that we might have in hand another of those verbal artifacts designed to show the arbitrariness of forms and signs as does fiction by contemporary writers like Borges or Robbe-Grillet or Coover. The freewheeling manipulation of forms seems to say that such “realistic” content can be emptied of its ordinary significance and expropriated for use in the symbolistic verbal structure that is this book. This expropriation is an especially daring move with something as supposedly objective as a case history. The construction foregrounds the forms themselves and emphasizes the gaps, as if to say that there are many ways of “writing” the reality of a person, none more or less authentic, and that the reality of a person is always “written,” that is, mediated by an arbitrary discourse. The section of post cards from the different hotel guests recounting differently the same events depicts synecdochally this arbitrariness of authority in written signs. To the rather stale Faulknerian point about differential perceptions of reality is added here the typical postmodern point that such perceptions by consciousness are greatly and differently conditioned by the media through which they are expressed.11 The first part of the novel seems to confirm the often touted idea that every piece of “fact” is always already a “fiction.”

The subject matter of the Freudian hunt for the source of Lisa's hysteria seems an especially convenient peg on which to hang such a surfictionist performance, since for the classical Freudian these symptoms are signs of some deeper reality to be penetrated by always tenuous interpretive moves. The facts are not empirically available, but must be reconstructed, just as any narrative would need to be, from this displacing series of forms that Thomas uses. The game-playing spirit of psychoanalytic sleuthing correlates well with the game-playing of the novelist's art and the reader's fun. In this sense, quite apart from themes, Thomas and Freud are kindred spirits.

From early in the book when Lisa is Freud's patient, the reader feels her presence as a conventionally represented character because Freud and his correspondents discuss her that way in the opening letters; yet chapter four, in which Thomas for the first time begins the narrative account of the later period of her life, brings the reader up short because the formal emphasis shifts inexplicably from the different written forms that mediate Lisa's story to a narrative of the story itself. The earlier matter now becomes just “Lisa's past,” and she assumes interest as a subject rather than as an object of someone else's discourse. This shift to something nearer Lisa's own conscious self-understanding is what prevents the book from being a pornographic exploitation, but the principal effect of chapter four is to show the reader that Freud's cleverness was almost entirely off the mark. He had interpreted her hysteria as a fixation upon a girlhood fantasy in which she had witnessed her mother and aunt having intercourse with her uncle; out of polite concern for Freud's own Jewishness, Lisa had withheld from him the crucial facts about the trauma she suffered as a half-Jewess. Still, had the novel ended here, we might easily have seen this chapter as a culmination of the surfictionist view of facts I mentioned above. That is, Lisa's correction of Freud could read as one more demonstration that mere facts do not exist undistorted by interpretation. This would have had the main satirical effect of warning the reader against overweening confidence in one's theory and especially against the misplaced confidence of the psychoanalytic model, but it would not have damaged the surfictionist theory that “all fact is fiction.”

It is only with the introduction of the special subject matter of the massacre at Babi Yar that the book seems to swerve into an argument for the weightiness of the documentary discourse. The choice of subject here has the effect of making all the previous psychoanalytic sleuthing and artistic game-playing seem at the least morally frivolous, if indeed they are not somehow more directly responsible for history's nightmare. No longer are we left with Lisa's private joke on Dr. Freud and thus an affectionate swipe at psychoanalysis; we are now given a scene in which the previous mistaken interpretation of symptoms is shown to have dire public consequences. That does not mean that Freud's failure to penetrate to the ethnic trauma behind Lisa's hysteria is a direct cause of her being killed in Babi Yar. She might not have missed being sacrificed with her Jewish stepson even had she discussed the “Jewish problem” with Freud. Rather, Thomas reveals that the prescient “cause” of Lisa's “hysterical” breast and ovary pains was her premonition of something that would happen later to her in historical fact when the soldier gored her body in those places in the pit full of dying Jews at Babi Yar. Thomas seems to be arguing that Freud's larger failure to put himself in dialogue with real history is symptomatic of the failure of prominent analytical languages to make the world better by understanding what happens in history. Although Freud's failures are always treated gently in the novel, the Babi Yar chapter makes him, and implicitly anyone too caught up in such a tautological metalanguage, seem evasive of historical responsibility. In a letter early in the book, Ferenczi writes that while Jung was telling Freud about some “peat-bog corpses” in northern Germany that were “prehistoric men, mummified by the effect of the humic acid in the bog water, … Freud burst out several times: ‘Why are you so concerned with these corpses?’ … [and] slipped off his chair in a faint” (p. 5). When it comes, the action in the pit at Babi Yar—later filled by the Nazis with water to make a bog to hide the murders—seems designed as a brusque rejoinder: “Because, Dr. Freud, they are still there in the actual history of our own time. One should not shrink from it.”

The moment of Lisa's rape in the pit takes the reader's breath away. It is difficult to descend from such a rhetorical peak of rapt horror, and many readers are annoyed that Thomas did not end there. What could possibly be left to say after such a stark reconstruction of just one of our century's many horrible facts? The best “imagination” of such facts might be only to render them accurately. To make them “heroic” in any way, to attempt consolation, might be a betrayal. How can the artist's free imagination play “dialectically” with such facts? Evidently, Thomas thinks it can because he finishes the novel in a place set beyond history, “The Camp.” Since this chapter's place and action have no mimetic relation to history, the reader will treat the chapter as an example of the discourse of poetry or literature, the discourse of the poet's imagination. Up to that point realism had effaced or written over the formal games of the book, but in view of the final chapter we now must ask whether Thomas means us to have read the realistic chapter as “just one more possible discourse,” no more compelling than the others, and inserted just before the poet's own special “word” on the events and meaning of Lisa's history. Has Thomas resorted to the tired idealism of the modernists in the face of history? Can the material, historical horrors really have nothing to do with the spirit and soul?

Before exploring further the problem of the book's rhetoric in “imagining the real,” we must link the discussion more explicitly to the other equally major question of the book—the question of Woman. This is not just parallel to the problem of history's nightmare as embodied in the Holocaust. The two questions are deeply joined in this book, and we can justify Thomas's having joined them for at least two reasons. First, a literary reason external to this novel: woman and Holocaust victims are liable to a similar fate when portrayed in intellectual or literary history. Both tend to be pictured either as enmired or enslaved in a positivistic series of actions unassimilable to any ethos or ideology moving the real affairs and dominant spiritual preoccupations of the world, or as so sublime (in the case of the Holocaust, so sublimely terrible) that there is, again, no basis on which to join them to historically powerful ideologies or moralities. Lisa Erdman, while typical of her century, is not representative of the ideas that have dominated it. So also the Holocaust, if wrongly portrayed, appears marginal to the rest of our significant human experience. Woman as traditionally portrayed offers no image to emulate in significant action;12 at best she inspires men in history or poetry to gather their own quite different energies in her name. She offers no such image because she has no discourse traditionally associated with public power. When not vilified or condescended to for her unideological, pragmatic existence at the level of daily facts, she is praised as a muse figure—die ewige Weibliche—in both poetry and history. While substantively this is not the problem of the Holocaust witness, formally it is homologous; the same gap between the raw “banality of evil” in the camps and the sublime resonance of the victims' suffering plagues writers who try to speak about it with meaning for the rest of our civilized world. How to make the fate of a woman or a camp inmate significant in the terms of the mainstream of civilization? For contemporary culture the oppression of women in history might seem cognate with the oppression of ethnic groups in the twentieth century; certainly there is often even a common psychological and physical brutality. But even if the Jews were more brutally treated in the Holocaust than is the fate of woman, the important thing both share is the attempt by dominant patriarchal cultures to make their sufferings seem marginal to the history of the human race, to make their historically and materially particular fates seem unrepresentative of the wider culture's depraved condition. The stories of these Jews and these women ought to matter in their representativeness as the stories of male heroes have. But The White Hotel shows that, although Lisa lived and suffered the social problems of her time, she had no way to speak of them or act with historical effectiveness; she was a Cassandra in the prophecy of her body's symptoms, for hysteria is not a recognized public discourse.

The second reason that the question of woman and the question of the Holocaust are inextricable is therefore internal to the novel. One of its strongest données is that this woman as a representative human being might have, probably does have, powers that could redeem history's horrors if she were only really heard in the civilized and material world. The revelations that, first, Freud had misinterpreted the cause of her “hysterical” sexual frigidity with her husband and, second, that the pains in her breast and ovary foreshadowed what would happen to her at Babi Yar, while “magical” in realistic terms, are surely meant to show symbolically that her discourse is more attuned to historical reality than the theories of Freud or any other political and moral metalanguage that could not foresee the coming of racist fascism. Her femaleness is thus indispensable to the theme of the book; this novel could not have had a male hero. Thomas suggests that woman has a kind of knowledge the world could use. Here is the chance to portray a female hero's effectiveness in the real terms of history. Yet Thomas lets the chance go by; he finds no way to portray woman's knowledge in other than stereotypically mythic terms or to make her death seem portentous for figures in power. Thus, Thomas does not rectify through his art, as Lifton said the artist must do, the problem of the cultural unrepresentativeness of woman and the Holocaust victim.

Interestingly, Thomas shares this problem with Lifton, who also makes an argument about “Woman as Knower.”13 Since Thomas's novel bears much resemblance to Lifton's argument, it will be useful to pause for a moment over Lifton's essay to show how the psychiatrist, like the novelist, reveals an odd inability to imagine woman as an actor for her own sake and with direct power in history. The essay shows that the predicament of “imagining the real” exists in psychiatric theory as well as literature. Lifton believes that there is a general shift in the psychology of knowing in the postmodern world:

There would appear to be a convergence between premodern, non-Western patterns and postmodern tendencies. … a protean style of self-process, characterized by an interminable series of experiments and explorations. … What I wish to suggest here is that feminine knowing may make specific contributions to this style. … [whereas the traditional world is governed by] a pair of related myths, essentially male in their theoretical absoluteness: the myth of the magnificently independent and wholly unfettered self; and the polar myth of the totally obliterated self. … her form of organic knowledge may humanize these harshly abstract polarities. …

Much of woman's psychic potential stems from her close identification with organic life and its perpetuation; from this potential she derives a special capacity to mediate between biology and history. … Woman's organically rooted traditional function as informal knower can be distinguished from man's traditional explorations of ideas and symbols on abstract planes. … Yet her knowledge has been “informal” only in the sense that it has been relegated to a kind of social underground, as if such knowledge were not quite proper or acceptable [surely this describes Lisa's hysterical symptoms as treated by Freud in the novel]. … But recent developments in many fields of thought have created radical shifts in standards of intellectual acceptability, and have, in fact, placed special value on those very modes of knowing which had been previously part of the feminine informal underground. …

Woman's innate dependence upon biological rhythms … central to her nurturing capacities … may provide her with psychobiological sensitivities useful for grasping the more irregular historical rhythms which confront us.14

This sounds very like the case Thomas seems to try to make for Lisa; yet when we follow Lifton's argument further a curious thing happens. We have just been told that woman's traditional epistemology fits well with the rapid movement in postmodern “protean” culture, but when Lifton explains exactly how this is true, he does not say that the mode of woman's protean understanding and being will substantively displace the old “male abstractions” or that she will, perhaps for the first time in the history of culture, join her knowledge to power in the social and political sphere so that the world will have a new, more “feminine” script to guide it. Rather, it turns out that the woman will function as a refuge, a crucible, a handmaiden, a muse, for the daring individuals (can we doubt they are males?) who are risking the rapid changes out in the society:

her organic conservatism, epitomized in her nurturing, and specifically maternal, function, becomes a crucial vehicle of social change. The set of feelings and images she transmits to the infant constitute an individual basis for cultural continuity and a psychic imprint of the perpetuation of life itself. … But during periods of great historical pressure toward change, precisely this imagery makes possible the individual participation in change by providing a source of constancy … with which subsequent imagery of change can interact without threatening the basic integration of the self.15

The example given by Lifton of such a process is the support given to militant Japanese students from their “intense relationships with their mothers, in contrast to their distance from their quietly disapproving fathers. … The emotional support received from their mothers could thus often confirm the student's own sense of the nobility of their group's vision.”16 Remarkably, there is nothing here to suggest that the content of feminine knowing is put into the world as a direct power. Lifton apparently does not envision the feminine working in its own name or public discourse; it is merely a vehicle for something new to be born, perhaps some new set of male abstractions that her influence might humanize. The change will not be influenced by the kind of knowing woman has, but rather by the fact of it. Nothing in the above remarks by Lifton would suggest the impossibility of a group of militant young Nazis gaining support from their mothers. In fact, the use of the concept of motherhood by the Nazis is notorious.

To be fair, Thomas seems to sense that this traditional view of woman as a conservator allowing males to change the paradigms of social history will not quite do. Although she is very nurturing, Lisa Erdman is not depicted only as the classic nurturer sending men off to their projects with a kiss. Much of the book's merit lies in Thomas's effort to portray her as a powerful agent who continually transgresses the absolute dichotomies of “male” thinking, and that effort makes it all the more disappointing when he does not fully succeed, but rather, in a way slightly different from Lifton, also finally relegates woman to the status of a muse. If the effort is to portray the deep link between woman's knowledge and prevention of nightmares in history, he fails because he cannot dramatize her power changing the course of history. And since in this novel the males do not redeem history either, Thomas seems to suggest that the only hope for us who would be instructed in solutions is to celebrate Lisa's knowledge in the mythic, written poetic artifact that is the last chapter of The White Hotel. Thomas brought Lisa only so far before her power in history was deferred and defeated by the power of his own pen. Not that we must criticize him personally; for as we shall see below, the problem may be endemic for anyone trying to fashion new images for woman in fiction or to write in an authentic way about the atrocities of the civilized world.

For much of The White Hotel it seems almost as if Freud is Lisa's muse as much as she is his. He helps her to a certain extent to form a strong self. With intelligent irony this part of the book shows, under the polite veneer of the doctor-patient dialogue, a battle between Lisa and Freud for conceptual control of the facts. Freud steers the focus to a youthful “Medusa” image of maternal incest, but when Lisa in her own mind rejects that explanation of her symptoms, their battle may be seen as one involving Lifton's “re-symbolization” and addressed to the same problem that preoccupies Lifton—numbness from apocalyptic awareness—because Freud and Lisa are working on a “hysteria” that had its origins in Lisa's assault as a Jewess by the sailors, and this assault is part of the larger fabric of the Holocaust's racist apocalypse.

When Freud and Lisa correspond eleven years after her treatment because he is about to publish her case history, this battle for control of the symbols becomes explicit for the first time in the novel. Lisa almost totally revises the perspective on the facts of her life from what they had accepted during “therapy.” While amusingly she is always careful to say that she is probably only a “raving, lonely spinster,” she strong-mindedly supplies new meanings for some of the key incidents they had dealt with. Ironically too, she shows that she had always been a more sexually healthy “liberated woman” than Freud had given her credit for; she reveals that the erotic fantasy Freud had taken as a sign of her disease was conceived in a deliberate and detached mood to pass the time and “to be honest to my complicated feelings about sex” (p. 183). Furthermore, she reveals that the fantasy was sparked by the very real physical “effrontery” of the waiter at her hotel. Her belated responses show that Freud had not “imagined the real” Lisa, but rather, without quite realizing it, had subordinated her to the imperatives of his own narrative.

The relation of Freud and Lisa shows three things: first, how much Freud owed to his woman “hysteric” in order to engender his psychoanalytic discourse;17 second, how much the psychoanalytic discourse remained defensively deaf to real social facts and thus, in one way, betrayed the patient's “hysterical” insights and capacities because of faulty symbolization of the facts;18 third, how strong a patient must be not to capitulate to this faulty symbolization and how inevitably self-doubting she will be when she ventures her own—especially when the patient is a woman trying to speak of what she knows as an actor in history rather than as part of a timeless “family romance.” When we look back at the early part of the novel we see what a healthy gesture it was for a woman of her time to write frankly and spontaneously about sexual desire in a way that linked it to her nurturing capacities, and, without knowing why, to write it in the space between the lines of the libretto of Don Giovanni.19 She seems symbolically to correct, or at least counteract, the archetype of the male attitude toward woman as a sexual object. Though she says in her late letter that “It shows I was crazy,” we can only read that remark as Thomas's intended irony; her deference to Freud does not run very deep. She is polite to him, but she is even more resistant to his formulations than she was earlier.

Perhaps the climax of their conflict over resymbolizing spirit-numbing material comes in the passage where Lisa writes to Freud:

What torments me is whether life is good or evil. I think often of that scene I stumbled into on my father's yacht. The woman I thought was praying had a fierce, frightening expression, but her “reflection” was peaceful and smiling. The smiling woman (I think it must have been my aunt) was resting her hand on my mother's breast (as if to reassure her it was all right, she didn't mind). But the faces—at least to me now—were so contradictory. And must have been contradictory in themselves too: the grimacing woman, joyful; and the smiling woman, sad. Medusa and Ceres, as you so brilliantly say! It may sound crazy, but I think the idea of the incest troubles me far more profoundly as a symbol than as a real event. Good and evil coupling, to make the world. No, forgive me, I am writing wildly. The ravings of a lonely spinster! (p. 192)

The most important thing here is that Lisa reintroduces moral categories into a scene that Freud had deliberately encouraged her to think of only in psychological terms. Not that she thinks back on her mother and aunt moralistically; she is thinking about such things in broader ethical terms. Just so does the book as a whole move Lisa out of Freud's psychoanalytic realm into the realm of the ethical when she chooses to be a stepmother to Kolya and dies with him. Lisa's rewriting of this figure's meaning is, then, part of a general movement in the first two-thirds of the novel away from Freud's interpretive hegemony and toward a portrayal of Lisa as a directly ethical authoress of her life. The mode of depiction in the third, fourth, and fifth chapters is as important as, if not more important than, their reported content. Our sense of her as an ever more effective agent comes to a large extent from the formal shift from indirect to direct modes of writing about her; for, conventionally, woman is associated with oblique and indirect modes of knowing, acting, and being represented. The move from the earlier indirect portrayals to the direct, lean prose of “The Sleeping Carriage” contributes to our sense of her growing dignity in history as much as the tale of what happens to her. The depiction of Lisa as freeing herself from male modes of discourse is not long-lived, however. It is as if she escapes Freud's hegemonic discourse only to pass into that of another well-meaning male—the author. I would argue that, for all he intends a paean to Lisa in his final pages, Thomas has failed to solve the predicament at the heart of the book, which I mentioned above, for either the Holocaust or for woman.

To return to the book's rhetorical process: its success finally stands or falls according to one's reading of the last chapter, “The Camp.” To have left Lisa dying shamefully in the pit would have shown her commitment to good works in the real world and her historical awareness defeated by raw political power. To have left her there in silence would have annulled any sense of triumph in the control she acquired in her life after Freud because it would be fatuous to pretend that such a death in itself is ever a victory. It was the very nature of the Nazi exterminations to prevent such an old-fashioned sense of heroism. This is one of the reasons that the Holocaust numbs our imaginations. We can make sense of Attila the Hun; he was a barbarian invading civilization. But the Nazi atrocities or nuclear war or Vietnam are so numbing to the imagination precisely because they do not respect this binary opposition. The forces of civilization are themselves barbaric, and so, how to imagine them? How fit them into the ongoing tale of culture? (Of course, Conrad's Marlow, playing on the opposition “civilized/savage,” saw this many years ago.) History defeated these Nazi victims, and it is an insult to them to pretend otherwise. They did not die nobly or for a good cause. One must not make them sublime in their deaths, even if the deaths numbered millions. Of course, religious transcendence is at least theoretically a palliative, but it will not be very credible in the twentieth century, as Thomas seems to realize in the insistent physical realism of “The Camp”'s setting. He seems to recognize that any consolation for these deaths must be depicted as coming from reform within that same real world that produced the Nazis, not from some transcendental assertion. But that would include also the transcendental assertion of the power of myth or poetry to provide the cure. In this sense, the boundary of practical conceptual difference between history and poetry needs to be reaffirmed, not removed, in reading The White Hotel. Has Thomas given us in the last chapter something that can overcome the conceptual paralysis induced by the numbing facts? Has he prevented a nihilistic ending and at the same time been faithful to the ethical implications of Lisa's life and death story?

One obvious way of reading “The Camp” is as a traditional dialectical effort to show that good and evil are as complementary as Lisa feared, and to induce some sense of acceptance in the reader about that. Thomas himself refers to the novel as a “synthesis of visions.”20 That statement must have an ethical force if we are to be persuaded: in other words, he must somehow make the atrocities seem inevitable. But if this book justifies itself at all, is it not because it recalls for us, through its “pseudo-documentary” elements, things that we absolutely cannot accept? It is true that empirically both good and evil exist in the world, but evil is given historical specificity here—as is the much lesser, perhaps necessary, evil of psychoanalysis—and to portray it in the mode of general philosophical pessimism is as bad as subsuming it to glorious metaphor.

The book does not seem, however, to rest in philosophical pessimism either, but to try to offer a purgatorial sense of hope. To be fair to Thomas, he has depicted not just a never-never land in which Lisa's virtues are imagined as useful, but he has also ingeniously laminated mythic poetry and historical concreteness together in this last chapter by describing the “purgatorial” camp in the sensuous terms of historical Palestine. And the fusion works literarily, even if its content seems ephemeral compared, for example, to Dante's allegory. But even though the image of Israel reminds us that there is a country on the earth politically dedicated to preventing such future nightmares, the main sense of consolation here is the way previous motifs, images, and characters are given yet another imaginative twist. In content and even more in the sheer narrative fact that Thomas adds this section, the “resolution” of the book seems to be by formal legerdemain, and all the burden falls on the poetic artifact as such to “answer” to the mistaken therapy and the Nazi massacre. The main reason “The Camp” does not convince us is that its sense of renewal is aesthetic rather than ethical. Here everyone's sins are forgotten in a spirit of forward-looking hope and radical tentativeness. Thomas seems to have dramatized the events in the chapter by literalizing the poet's lines quoted by Freud at the end of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “What we cannot reach flying, we must reach limping.” This fits well with Lisa's generous spirit, and in that sense her authority is vindicated. But moral distinctions between good and evil were essential to Lisa's “hysterical” understanding and to the force of the previous part of the book. What guarantee do we have in “The Camp” that the Gestapo will not show up a bit later, somewhat sheepish, to be nurtured by Lisa and the others?21 One need only ask the question to see how aesthetic Thomas's answer to history really is.

If we search the chapter for ethical representations, we find at most a posture of waiting. Although Lisa is resolutely certain that “‘wherever there is love, of any kind, there is hope of salvation … Wherever there is love in the heart’” (p. 271), none of the characters is shown acting upon evil through an act of moral will. Everyone here, as in most transit camps, is waiting for something better to happen to them. They are not in control of their own existences; there is something feckless about them, even though Thomas clearly wishes their hope to represent an alternative to the moral darkness of the preceding chapter. It cannot possibly look equal to the forces of actual history, whether Freud's influence or Nazi power. And waiting has always been woman's fate especially. If we read the chapter as an aesthetic closure, however, we see that the book fails to turn its toehold on “imagining the real” into a firm standing place of some new postmodern synthesis of poetry and history. It is true that Lisa's discourse refused to be bound by “male abstract polarities”—even the mind/body polarity—and therefore it is more easily compatible with the poetic license that in “The Camp” plays havoc with the usual conceptual boundaries. She is a boundary skeptic throughout the book, and that is what makes her different from Lifton's “conservator” woman. Both her poem and her subsequent life and death register her refusal to segregate female sexual pleasure from maternal nurturance, love from death, or even gender from gender. She refuses the mother's role in life, preferring the ambiguous status of stepmother to patriarchal conceptions of “family.” This alternative perspective on family is emphasized in “The Camp.” But, whereas the transgression of boundaries looks healthy when set against the reifications in psychoanalytic thought or Nazi ideology, it does not look healthy if it divorces moral judgment from nurturing acceptance. The merit of Lisa's body's messages was in their morality and their historical accuracy. Whatever limited significance she has as a portrait of woman's superior knowing is annulled if she can be shown to triumph only within some frankly poetic structure like this imagined place, the camp. To read the last chapter as an encomium to her woman's knowing is to betray her because she is once again thrust into a discourse not her own, making her place in the author's poetic artifact her “proper” teleology. To say that her death had “nothing to do with the soul” trivializes the mimetic significance of her gesture of dying for another as a woman and a Jew in a world where woman are raped and Jews persecuted. To allow the artifact to have the last formal word in the novel is not so different from Freud's decision to give priority to the requirements of his case history for the Goethe Centenary when he writes to Lisa, after the revisions she makes of her story, “I prefer to go ahead with the case study as it stands, despite all imperfections. I am willing, if you will permit, to add a postscript in which your later reservations are presented and discussed” (p. 195). Both men, Freud and the author, expropriate Lisa's discourse into their own. This is conventionally woman's place as “knower,” and thus represents no real advance on that front as the book had seemed to promise. The failure seems especially egregious when the problem is to redeem real historical brutalities like the Holocaust through the imagination.

The problem we have with this book as a civil war between myth and history is not really a function of the author's skill or ineptness. One can hardly imagine a more exhausting and beautiful literary attempt at synthesis than the last two chapters of The White Hotel. The book may well become a classic because of the powerful writing, its formal craftsmanship, and its confrontation with weighty matters in such a way that readers will return to it again and again to find some new connections and debate about its problems. The problem may be that any postmodern book that attempts to revise the image of woman or redeem historical atrocity will be subject to a double logic of reading that is “deconstructive.” Jonathan Culler has described such a double logic:

It is essential to stress … that there is no question of finding a compromise formulation that would do justice to both presentations of the event by avoiding extremes, for the power of the narrative depends precisely on the alternative use of extremes, the rigorous deployment of two logics, each of which works by excluding the other.22

The “double logic” of The White Hotel is that, on the one hand, the story's power hangs on showing that a woman's “hysterical” prescience about history is more politically realistic than more “hallucinatory” metalanguages like psychoanalysis. Its power, that is, derives from its pseudo-documentary witness to historical fact and its insistence that woman's knowledge is historically relevant to that fact. On the other hand, the story's power hangs on its provision of a mythic construct that resymbolizes the numbing facts and argues that the historical, material consequences are not paramount. Or—to put the predicament in formal rather than mimetic terms—by one logic the writer must set his poetic creations in the accurate footing of history's facts (so as to avoid being like Freud with his “beautiful theory”); yet by another logic the writer must create a self-reflexive literary structure in which realistic content becomes transformed in the poetic mill. Neither the Holocaust nor Woman's place in the world finish by looking different in the history of consciousness.

One may argue that in The White Hotel Thomas has joined myth and history as he has precisely in order to challenge the dissociated sensibility of the modern and postmodern age. In this reading, the point would be to contemplate the very problem that the failure to unify myth and history convincingly rests with our culture's reading codes, in which political realism and religious or poetic vision cannot be combined. No mythic literary product could seem to have much to do morally with the facts of the century's history, given the marginality of poets, and likewise no believable image exists for depicting woman's way of knowing as actually rather than virtually efficacious. Thus we should be content to hover in the crossfire between an aesthetic reading—the book as a necklace of discourses on which none of the different beads is privileged—or an ethical reading—the book as a limping, almost despairing, realistic portrayal of political and social evils. We should not bother to search for a more profound necessity in the link between its formal free-handedness and its particular content. However, it is important to recognize that to advocate this spirit of “negative capability” in the reader, or to imply, with Sir Philip Sidney, that “the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth … and therefore, though he recount things not true, yet because he telleth them not for true, he lieth not” would itself place the reading strictly in the aesthetic mode rather than provide a true synthesis of poetry and history, aesthetics and ethics. This recognition is especially desirable in view of certain formulations now being made by critics concerning the problem. Alan Wilde, for example, has argued that postmodern writers exhibit a different kind of irony than modernist writers did. This “generative irony,” he says, rejects the Olympian detachment of the modernist “reductive irony” of the abstract or mythical order in favor of a stance that recognizes that “consciousness is implicated in the world, is intentional, and that reflexivity, however ingenious, can never abrogate that relationship.”23 Surely The White Hotel seems written out of a wish to follow that second pattern. But in Wilde's view that is a project by which the art work “add[s] itself to the world without … substituting itself for it, thereby making reality, and art as well, not less but more various.” He says that “generative ironists puzzle over the legacy of the modernist heroic and contrive in its place a syntax of interrogation.”24The White Hotel does have such a syntax of interrogation, but it is interesting because it has a good start toward an ethical position too. “The Camp” does create what Wilde calls an “enclave of value in the face of, but not in place of”25 the psychoanalytic and the Nazi discourses, but it is mere wordplay to think that its “interrogation” is any more efficacious toward history than the modernists' contemplative structures.

Similarly, Robert Alter says that the self-conscious novel is a type that “systematically flaunts its own condition of artifice and that by doing so probes into the problematic relationship between real-seeming artifice and reality”; it shows a “dialectic between fiction and ‘reality’ … a play of competing ontologies” which is “always simultaneously aware of the supreme power of the literary imagination within its own sphere of creation and its painful or tragicomic powerlessness outside that sphere.”26 But where is the real dialectic here? What would it be unless the artist could show art's power toward the real? And if it cannot, does it not remain in the ranks of the aesthetic, the same consolation found by the modernists, with slightly more ironic qualification? The momentum of the above statements goes in the direction of aesthetics rather than ethics because, for example, variousness is an aesthetic value. But in cases where the stakes are as high as Lifton says they are, what is wanted is an artistic vision that can be a convincing model for the facts. Thomas seems to recognize this need in the way he offers “The Camp” as a frankly alternative vision and in the way he chooses Yeats's lines for the epigraph, deliberately raising the question of the usefulness of the “modernist heroic.” Interestingly, the gambit of the novel does not succeed, not because Thomas fails to give a convincing literary synthesis, but rather precisely because, in succeeding in that synthesis, he necessarily fails the ethical dimension of the book, its mimesis. Necessarily, because the literary and the politically realistic codes compete with one another in our culture. Perhaps the issue is not so important for many contemporary historical facts, and so the writer's play with them is innocuous. But no one could think that about the history of the Holocaust, and, for those who recognize it as a serious problem, the history of woman in cultural discourse.

Thus one does not know by what “generic contract”27 to read this book, yet at the same time one cannot hover between the two genres, given its content. One is reminded of the lament of one of John Barth's twins, joined to his brother belly-to-back: “To be one, paradise; to be two, bliss. But to be both and neither is unspeakable.” An honest reading of the novel will not speak of “dialectic” or “synthesis” because the competing elements are not successfully resolved into a third term that escapes being wholly aesthetic. The novel shows that the culture still has a problem finding a way to “feed the heart on fantasies” that are healthy and yet have power in history. It shows that Lisa's knowledge as woman, as analysand, and as Nazi victim is literally still unspeakable in any mainstream discourse because the poet can do no more than translate, as Freud did in psychoanalysis, the discourse of her body and the insane discourse of the Nazis into a discourse foreign to the victims' own understanding of themselves, which is poetry. Unfortunately, the reason for optimism in the book's final word, “happy,” is not that this woman changed history or endured it as culture's representative, but that the male poet-bird has gone bravely out on the limb in the last chapter, calling attention to his power of sympathy and poetic transmutation through his imagining of an unreal woman.


  1. In Surfiction: Fiction Now … and Tomorrow, ed. Raymond Federman (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1975), pp. 7-8, Federman uses this term for the kind of experimental fiction that does not “imitate reality, but … exposes the fictionality of reality … [and] says that ‘life is fiction’ … not because it happens in the streets, but because reality as such does not exist, or rather exists only in its fictionalized version.”

  2. See, for example, Robert Coover's The Public Burning or E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime.

  3. D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel (New York: Viking, 1981). References are to this edition and are indicated in the text.

  4. In a review of another book involving Freud, Jung, and the patient Sabina Spielrein, Thomas remarks on the similarity of the psychoanalytic session to a classic seduction. D. M. Thomas, “A Secret Symmetry,” New York Review of Books, 29 (May 13, 1982), pp. 3, 6.

  5. Robert Jay Lifton, The Life of the Self: Toward a New Psychology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), pp. 129-130.

  6. Elie Wiesel says, for example that “a novel about Auschwitz is not a novel, or it is not about Auschwitz”; Michael Wyschograd says, “Art takes the sting out of suffering … It is therefore forbidden to make fiction of the holocaust … any attempt to transform the holocaust into art demeans the holocaust and must result in poor art”; Adorno says, “the so-called artistic representation of naked bodily pain, of victims felled by rifle butts, contains, however remote, the potentiality of wringing pleasure from it.” All are quoted in Barbara Foley, “Fact, Fiction, Fascism: Testimony and Mimesis in Holocaust Narratives,” Comparative Literature 34, No. 4 (Fall 1982), pp. 330-60.

  7. Lifton, The Life of the Self, p. 70.

  8. These are Philip Stevick's terms in Alternative Pleasures (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 149.

  9. Barbara Foley uses the term “pseudo-factual.” Her article provides a sweeping, incisive review of the ideological problems raised by different modes of Holocaust writing. She prefers the “pseudo-factual” mode to the realistic or the surrealistic because it denies both the “epistemology of the realistic novel [which relies on known social] … analogies and congruent ethical schemes” and the “historical or epistemological skepticism [which implies] … the impossibility—or unimportance—of knowing what is real” (pp. 351, 354). Yet Foley's argument depends on a clear prior definition of a work's mode; The White Hotel tantalizes by a modal combination of extreme irrealism, ordinary realism, and pseudo-factual elements that makes history's role in the book much more than “local effects.” Therefore it cannot be easily judged according to Foley's valid ideological distinctions.

  10. Walter Reich, “The Enemies of Memory,” The New Republic, 186, No. 16 (April 21, 1982), pp. 22-23.

  11. The idea of the influence of the medium upon the consciousness supposedly using it finds its most general formulation in Jacques Derrida's idea that the “speech” of putatively direct consciousness is always already inhabited and disrupted by “writing,” where “writing,” now become a common critical term, indicates the “absence of the ‘author’ and of the subject-matter, interpretability, the deployment of a space and time not its [the consciousness's] own … and the fact that speech too—grafted within an empirical context, within the structure of the speaker-listener—is structured also as writing, that is, in this general sense, there is ‘writing’ in speech … writing is the name of what is never named.” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translator's Introduction,” in Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976], pp. lxix-lxx.)

  12. Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope, in The Female Hero in American and British Literature (New York and London: R. R. Bowker Company, 1981), pp. 6-7, say: “With the rise of individualism, democracy, and secularism, men were expected to develop their individual identities. Women, on the other hand, continued to be taught a collective myth: They should be selfless helpmates to husband and children. Men increasingly were encouraged to achieve in the secular, pragmatic world; women were to be spiritual and not to corrupt themselves with dealings in the marketplace. In general, female independent selfhood was and still is defined by the traditional patriarchy as theologically evil, biologically unnatural, psychologically unhealthy, and socially in bad taste. Literature, therefore, tends to portray the woman who demonstrates initiative, strength, wisdom, and independent action—the ingredients of the heroic life—not as a hero but as a villain. …”

    “When female heroism is not condemned, it often is simply ignored. It may be seen as less interesting than male heroics, such as killing bears and Germans, rescuing women from other men, and scoring touchdowns. …”

    “Unless the heroism that women demonstrate in the world is reflected in the literature and myth of the culture, women and men are left with the impression that women are not heroic; that their heroism, when it occurs, is a reaction to the moment and that they ultimately revert to dependence on a man; and that the woman who elects a life of courage, strength, and initiative in her own behalf is an exception, a deviant, and doomed to destruction.”

  13. Robert Jay Lifton, “Woman As Knower,” History and Human Survival (New York: Random House, 1970).

  14. Lifton, “Woman as Knower,” pp. 272, 270-71, 273.

  15. Lifton, “Woman as Knower,” p. 274.

  16. Lifton, “Woman as Knower,” pp. 274-75.

  17. On this point see, for example, Dianne M. Hunter, “Psychoanalytic Intervention in the History of Consciousness: Beginning with O,” Trinity Review, 46, No. 1 (Fall, 1980), pp. 18-23.

  18. Several contemporary women critics are revealing Freud's own defensive denials toward the social facts lived by his female patients; they argue that hysteria was an appropriate response to real social conditions such as seductions by men in their lives combined with a taboo about speaking out. See, for example, Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982) or Toril Moi, “Representation of Patriarchy: Sexuality and Epistemology in Freud's Dora,” Feminist Review, 9 (Autumn, 1981), pp. 61-74.

  19. Louise DeSalvo of Hunter College has exhumed a remark by Freud in a letter to Fliess (May 25, 1897) in which he refers to the catalogue of his own works as il catalogo delle belle—suggesting that perhaps he unconsciously identified with Don Giovanni since he refers to Leporello's cataloguing of his master's seductions.

  20. Lesley Hazelton, “D. M. Thomas's War Against the Ordinary,” Esquire, November, 1982, p. 100.

  21. I owe this speculation to a conversation with my colleague Walter Reed.

  22. Jonathan Culler, “Story and Discourse in the Analysis of Narrative,” The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1981), p. 177.

  23. Alan Wilde, Horizons of Assent (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), p. 141.

  24. Wilde, pp. 142, 149.

  25. Wilde, p. 148.

  26. Robert Alter, Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1978), pp. x, 182, 98.

  27. This is Foley's useful term, p. 340.

Boyd Tonkin (review date 6 June 1986)

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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 reverse: he thrills a safe Western intelligentsia with visions of persecution and massacre. What Sphinx in a defensive moment of self-description calls ‘The author's lurid style / And themes of holocaust and lust’ seem to cater to the liberal's ‘hunger for absolutes’. To a doubtful culture he spins a dream of deep Slavic certainties: oppression and dissent, art and faith. Against the ambiguities of the sceptic West, Russia stand as the real thing, its Gulags crowded with a better class of poet.

At the same time, Thomas stuns his audience with a barrage of narrative twists and feints designed to teach some respect for the novelist as liar, trickster, thief and sphinx. Follow him here and you end up back in the country of the mind he calls, with a taste for stale metonymy, ‘Hampstead’. In this land of interpretation there are no great truths; only versions, readings and second opinions.

As they would say in ‘Hampstead’, Sphinx puts its readers in a double-bind. Littered with people and events from the year 1982, it seems to offer a well-documented story of a gormless Welsh Guardian journalist in search of enlightenment among the dissidents of Leningrad.

Its geo-political nuts and bolts lock into place. Andropov takes over, Thatcher recaptures the Falklands, flight KAL 007 plunges into the Pacific. Through a dark and jaded city Lloyd George, the reporter, trails Nadia, sphinx-like in her secrets. Is she a Christian feminist actress or yet another ‘swallow’, planted by the KGB to trap Western visitors? And so on …

But, as this tangle of mutual suspicion and desire unwinds, Thomas sends out a different set of signals. These undercut the plot's claims to weight and depth with a series of spoofs, jokes, shifts of gear and rib-nudging allusions. Russia becomes ‘Russia’, a literary fabrication ruled by paper tigers and subverted by printer's devils. You might find Thomas's Nevsky Prospekt in a bookshop, but never on a map.

Sphinx starts with a play, Isadora's Scarf, which features the feckless poet Rozanov—a survivor from Ararat and Swallow—in a soapy tale of murder, adultery and Stalinist skulduggery. It finishes with a narrative poem in which the poet Pushkin dies in a duel while (in another century) Nadia gets dispatched to Rome to seduce the Pope. (She succeeds, but Wojtyla's own Jesuit spooks are ‘older than the KGB’ and rumble her first.)

In the novel's central prose section, Thomas once more uses his conceit of an international circuit of improvised poetry competitions dominated by the Soviets and run like gymnastics or ice-dancing. Eventually, each strand of the action fits into someone's yarn. Wait long enough and all Sphinx's characters find themselves pinioned by quotation-marks and slotted into the next level of the fictional matrushka.

This is Thomas's Slavophilia at work, rather than a further bout of post-modernism. Mixed-media effects, the nesting of stories one inside another, the blend of fable and journalism, epic and farce: it all leads back to his beloved Pushkin. Once a guardian angel, Pushkin has become a kind of dybbuk for Thomas, an obsessive demon who crouches over the typewriter and forces him time and again through the same repertoire.

As sphinxes should, the novel works well enough as a mystery and a poser of discomfiting questions. But Thomas often tries to scale a peak of myth and merely arrives at a platitude. Sphinx tests to destruction its stock of sloe-eyed, sad-hearted Slavic clichés: ‘I flowed into her. It was like the ebb and flow of the Neva.’ This naivety may be feigned, but it grows just as wearing as the genuine article.

His debt to the loose, digressive forms of Russian story-telling has saddled Thomas with another quality of traditional narrative: its tendency to clip fixed types and phrases together into a landscape of received ideas. Innocent reporters, seductive spies, boozy poets: so much invention, so few surprises. Not Leningrad, but Legoland.

Like one of his performers, Thomas can be a subtle architect but a slapdash performer. Thick with hints about the relation of knowledge to desire, and of freedom to fiction, Sphinx seldom finds the pressure of language or density of character to match its grand design. In the end it reminds you of a dazzling rock video whose director wraps state-of-the-art production cosmetically around brittle lyrics and lumpish acting. Loved the concept. Shame about the song.

George Stade (review date 18 January 1987)

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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 much of the action takes place in Russia, at moments from Pushkin's time through the purges of the 1930's to the recent past.

The novels are “improvisational” in a number of senses. For one thing, most of the characters are poets or liars or spies or quick-witted scamps adroit at talking themselves out of tight corners. For another, the books are a demonstration of the way literature begets and feeds on literature, of “the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected, yet independent,” as Mr. Thomas puts it in a note to Swallow. Above all, the books are made up of narratives in prose and verse of stories within stories, of stories growing out of each other at all angles, as told by improvisatrici, by professionals who improvise on given themes. The action in Swallow, for example, begins at an Olympiad at which improvisatrici compete. We learn only then that the earlier novel, Ararat, is one of their improvisations. In Sphinx these same characters, among new ones, continue their connected yet independent lives.

Sphinx, in fact, is a kind of trilogy within a quartet, a continuation that recapitulates the whole as we have it. Part One is an expressionist play, Part Two a prose narrative, Part Three a narrative poem. In Part One the “respectable” poet Gleb Rezanov, who lives in The House of Creativity and is writing an opus on “the theme of historical necessity,” is killed in a case of mistaken identity by the lover of the mistress of the “hooligan” poet Sergei Rozanov. When he was killed, Rezanov was just about to reveal the secret of Isadora Duncan's scarf, about which. Rozanov is writing a poem. Isadora was strangled by the scarf when it became entangled in a car wheel, whereupon it passed to her husband, the poet Sergei Yesenin, who hanged himself with it. where upon it passed to his ex-wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, who was wearing it when she was murdered by unknown hands, whereupon it passed to her husband, the great director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was wearing it when he was shot in the neck by the K.G.B. “Its silken fabric binds together the whole glorious history of our epoch,” says Rozanov.

In Part Two, Lloyd George (not the statesman of history), “an anti-smoking peace-loving left-winger,” a journalist who writes “moderately radical pieces about drama, culture, disarmament, the class struggle, sexism, racism, the health service, civil rights, cricket, etc.,” an obtuse and complacent pipsqueak, tells us of his visit to Russia, his bungled encounters with characters who by now have become old friends to the reader of Ararat and Swallow, his infatuation with Nadia Sakulin. Nadia is an actress, a Russian-style feminist who advocates everything American feminists reject, and a spy. Nadia hopes, in return for framing poor George, to be allowed to follow her husband, a defector—who, as it turns out, is in San Francisco, dying of AIDS. In everything to do with Lloyd George, the satire is sharp, the comedy often broad. Mr. Thomas can be a very funny writer. Like Pushkin, “He sowed confusion / Everywhere, yes; but also fun.”

The concluding poem is more somber. It is in part a meditation on Pushkin's death (“It's all a mesh, a net. We're caught.”). It is also an account of how Lloyd George bumbles into insanity and spends time in an institution (like Rozanov). It explains where the novel got its title (“The world's unquestionably a sphinx,” and it slouches apocalyptically toward Bethlehem waiting to be reborn). There is also an account of how Nadia seduces a papal aide. “Blow the dome open!” she says, “Give us pagan / Dances and sacred orgies!”

Amen to those sentiments, and hosanna to these three novels, for their bravura art, for their rendering of the highs and depths of human imagination and their sexually charged improvisations of poetry and politics. Each of the novels pulls its own weight; each of them can be enjoyed and understood without reference to the others; but there is no doubt that, from volume to volume, Mr. Thomas's meanings, especially those he grafts onto the concept of improvisation, sprout, grow, exfoliate in all directions.

Consider, for example, the sacred text of Mr. Thomas's improvisers, the ur-text behind and within their fictions, Pushkin's “Egyptian Nights,” the tale of an improvisatore who arrives in Russia out of nowhere and performs to general acclaim, although few in the audience can understand his Italian. The tale is a fragment, for Pushkin was killed in a duel before he finished it. Just the same, the main characters throughout these novels are metamorphoses of those in “Egyptian Nights,” of Pushkin and the people around him.

But in the Olympiad of Swallow, Corinna Riznich improvises a tale about the randy and unregenerate Russian poet Sergei Rozanov, who is often linked to the real-life poets Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky. Rozanov improvises a tale about the even more lecherous and disreputable poet Victor Surkov, who improvises a continuation of “Egyptian Nights” in which the Italian improvisatore is challenged to a duel—which is prevented, however, by news of Pushkin's death. In these tales, as throughout the trilogy, there is a demonstration of how “real” people become fictionalized in our accounts of them, how characters in fiction become real in their effects on us, how people and characters are perceived through each other, how in our accounts of them the ontological status of people and characters is indistinguishable.

Consider the Englishman Sutherland, for instance, who is another contestant at the Olympiad, who improvises a poem about the sexual awakening of an English boy during, a two-year stay in Australia. Sutherland is forced to withdraw when it is discovered that his poem has been plagiarized. (“All art is a collaboration, a translation if you like. But plagiarism is a different matter.”) His source, we discover, is a first-person narration of incidents from Mr. Thomas's own childhood. The effect is to put Mr. Thomas on the same ontological plane as his characters—which is where he belongs. The tales we tell about ourselves, after all, are formally indistinguishable from fictions. We improvise ourselves, so to speak. In Sphinx, a “real” character with the plagiarized name of Lloyd George is reading a novel entitled Ararat, but

The author's lurid style
And themes of holocaust and lust
On every page, aroused disgust.

The youth in Mr. Thomas's autobiographical, narrative is obsessed with Rider Haggard's “King Solomon's Mines,” especially with Sheba's Breasts, those twin rounded peaks of the mountain within the womb of which lies Solomon's treasure. Similarly, the poet Rozanov, who is half Armenian, is obsessed with the twin, rounded peaks of Mount Ararat, where Noah's ark came to rest. Ararat is in Armenia, site in 1915 of one of this century's outbreaks of genocide, a country that “no longer exists” (although a portion of it crouches under Soviet dictatorship), a country that is longed for, lost, unobtainable, and unrelinquished: “In Armenia / All will be well.” As a character who doesn't know the half of it observes, Ararat is at the center of “complex symbolism.” Among other things, it is the symbol of an unquenchable yearning that is inseparable from sex: “The goal was Ararat, the breasts of women, both sensual and pure.”

In these respects, Ararat is like poetry, which in these novels, as in life, is inseparable from sex. “Improvisation is sex,” Corinna Riznich says, “and sex is improvisation. When I improvise I embrace the unknown, the dark.” “I am in love with love,” says the poet Surkov. “Love is laying me waste, but I want her devastation.” The libidinous devastations of poetry are opposed, throughout Mr. Thomas's improvisations, to the murderous suppressions of modern politics. They are explicitly opposed, that is, to ideology, to “any ism, whether socialist or capitalist,” to the slaughters at Babi Yar and in Armenia, of Gypsies and kulaks, to the shooting down of a South Korean jetliner and the shooting of the Pope, to gulags and to clinics in which dissidents are doped into submission, to the suppression of Poland's Solidarity, to repressions, oppressions and obsessions of all sorts. “Strangle isms! And continue to live with poetry,” says the “hooligan” poet Rozanov, who winds up in a clinic. This opposition, in my opinion, is well worth writing a sequence of novels about.

The opposition between “the themes of holocaust and lust” is parallel to another, between manifest chaos and latent design. The physicist Masha, who lost her job because her husband, a Jewish improvisatore, wants to emigrate, has become a guide: “This is Russia, my dear!” she says. “Everything confused, shapeless, turbulent, ghostly.” At the same time, her study of invisible particles and forces has convinced her that “everything in nature is implicated, involved, folded-in like a rose. A fish twisting in Lake Sevan affects a fan whirling in—in Madrid or New York.” Similarly, Corinna Riznich's improvisation, says an enthusiast, has “many layers, like the inwoven petals of a rose.” Mr. Thomas's novels embody this opposition not just in what the characters say, but in their very form.

On the one hand, there is the manifest chaos of styles and voices, of scrambled chronology, fractured lives, and interrupted stories, of parallactic shifts and radical juxtapositions, all of which mimic a world in which there is “No sign / Of life or meaning or design.” On the other hand, there is the latent design of running motifs, recurrent symbols, and recursive patterns, all of which reflect the consolations of literature, which imposes a human shape on the void, which embraces the world like a lover. This is another opposition well worth building a sequence of novels upon, and Mr. Thomas is a master builder. Sphinx, alone or in context, will lift your spirits, but not by denying what weighs them down.

Richard Eder (review date 7 February 1988)

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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 states of still others.

It was extravagant and sometimes out of hand, but usually fun and often thrilling. The thrill came from the seriousness to which the fun attached. The characters—poets, police spys, historical figures, and assorted Moscow denizens—tossed comically about; but what tossed them was the wind of contemporary history. They babbled absurdly in their sleep; their nightmares were real, and they were ours.

The trilogy was a work of sustained, sometimes strained imagination. And now, with Summit, Thomas discards the sustenance and most of the imagination. In a prefatory note, he tells us that he is reverting to what he calls “an ancient tradition in which a serious trilogy is succeeded by a farcical or satirical coda.”

He is having fun, in other words. He is having most of it.

Summit is a 160-page joke, a fantasy take-off on a summit conference between a senile President O'Reilly, lavishly based on President Reagan, and the Soviet leader Grobichov, who looks like Gorbachev but departs from his austere model in picking up some of the fleshly indulgences of the late Leonid Brezhnev.

The joke is the same one that Thomas used in one section of Swallow. President O'Reilly suffers from a mental slowdown that causes him to respond not to a question just asked, but to the one before it. This, of course, can throw things into the greatest confusion.

Thus, when an interviewer asks O'Reilly about a call-girl's claim that he engaged in elaborate sex with her, the President's response is directed to a previous question about his supposed ruthlessness:

“If something has to be done, I don't believe in pussyfooting around.” The interviewer then shifts to ask if O'Reilly would authorize a nuclear first strike, and the answer comes:

“I'll be very frank with you, Hank. There are times when you have certain fantasies. Everybody has them—we don't need Freud to tell us that. …”

This kind of mental Mr. Magooism spins the plot all the way. O'Reilly, counseled by two foaming-mad hawks, goes to Geneva to meet Grobichov. Through a chain of mishearings and misspeakings, the aides are convinced that a computer game designed by O'Reilly's 6-year-old grandson is a laser-beamed Star Wars device; and they want O'Reilly to press it upon the Soviets. The United States will promise to share the technology, but this will only be a promise. So go the calculations of the two: Secretary of State Mako (as in shark) and Secretary of Defense Requiem (as in death).

In discussing it with them, O'Reilly gets the subject mixed up with a remark by his wife about their daughter-in-law's contraceptive arrangements. “IUD,” he mumbles. Mako and Requiem figure he means “Independent Unilateral Deterrent,” and they instruct him how to present it in Geneva.

Rather puzzled, O'Reilly dutifully insists on the IUD when he meets Grobichov. Even more puzzled, the Soviet leader acquiesces. After all, O'Reilly has agreed, in return, to mutual missile removal from Europe. Furthermore, he seems to have offered to hand over California as well. Another mental blip.

The plot gets infinitely more complicated, of course, though not a great deal funnier. O'Reilly is seduced by a sexy blonde who is introduced as Grobichov's wife but who is really his daughter, and his mistress as well. Grobichov all but seduces Mrs. O'Reilly.

Two Palestinians attempt to hijack the two leaders and are gunned down by an Israeli agent who tries a spot of hijacking in turn. A project for scientific cooperation to resurrect the dead is agreed upon. The American vice president, Shrub—not Bush, of course—resigns after suspicions arise that he is a Soviet mole and Mrs. O'Reilly's lover.

And so on and on, until all these extravagant misunderstandings, through a further chain of misunderstandings, devour each other, and subside into a traditionally murky and impermeable summit communique. Nothing has happened.

What fools these world leaders be, is the theme of these Bottom-Titania capers. True enough, perhaps, and Thomas gets close to workable satire not so much of the personalities as of the processes of summitry.

The inanity of the chitchat when the U.S. and Soviet leaders go off to talk privately responds to our own skepticism of what really happens on such occasions. Thomas' wacky Geneva is within a parodist's shouting distance of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't displacements of the Reykjavik meeting in 1986.

Summit has its clever and amusing moments, but it is not a success. The parody hovers outside the characters, instead of belonging to them. They are so frail that each joke blows them over, and the author has to prop them up again. Thomas' breath is more audible than the notes that he gets out of this toy flute of a book.

Helen Dudar (review date 2 October 1988)

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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 house pet, even an extremely literate cat, to do the work of a wit or an apologist struck me as desperate, not to say awfully cute. It's as if Mr. Thomas had leafed through his manuscript—padded out with his poems, plus his first published short story—and realized that the book had problems he couldn't fix.

“A kind of walkabout through parts of his life,” is the way the cat describes it. The memoir bristles with confessions, few of them illuminating. It may well be that truth is only to be revealed in serious fiction. It is certain that, among his seven novels, Mr. Thomas has given us at least one masterful vision of good and evil in our time. The White Hotel—dense, experimental, erotic, an account of a woman's “journey of the soul” and descent to the hell of the Babi Yar massacre—appeared here in 1981 without warning, without the support of the English critics, without advance hyperbole. Apparently in common with other readers, I can still remember the moment I casually opened it, began reading and was swept into an extraordinary narrative.

That book eventually bestowed fame and notoriety on Mr. Thomas who, until his 46th year, had been an obscure poet, novelist and college professor. In 1982, as the paperback edition was about to appear, he accepted an academic appointment at American University in Washington, but before the term began, fled home. It was said that he was troubled by his success. Nothing of the sort. He says he loved having written a book that was widely read. It was canonization he could not endure. As he observed in a piece written that year for The New York Times Magazine, “I fear becoming institutionalized—made respectable.”

Fat chance. Mr. Thomas was never much for conventional respectability. “Wenching,” as he quaintly calls it, was a serious preoccupation. Days were spent with Maureen, his former wife, and their two children, evenings with Denise, the mistress who became another former wife, and their son. Then, when he got lucky, there were the usual dalliances with nubile young women who caught his fancy. He also found time to produce not only the novels but six volumes of poetry and several translations of Russian poets.

In 1986, Mr. Thomas suffered a severe bout of depression and, he says, began psychiatric treatment with a Viennese-trained Freudian analyst, a woman. His memoir is anchored in those sessions, careering about from childhood to adulthood to family history, but always returning to the times on the couch. Are they memories or the hallucinations of the title? I haven't a clue. Oddly, for all his artistry at translating emotion into memorable event, Mr. Thomas is not very good at conveying the dreadful burden of chronic, invasive, free-floating depression.

He is obsessed by coincidences, he has dreams that prefigure reality and he is terrific at remembering creative connections. In about two and a half pages, he tells us how The White Hotel was born, and the account is fascinating. From time to time, Memories offers recollections that are funny or sad, but the book lacks energy. It is as if, set down in print, Mr. Thomas's monumental self-absorption had drained all the drive out of a unique gift for remembering and recording.

Rowland Wymer (essay date Winter 1989)

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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 alleged sensationalism and plagiarism have died down it is possible to see more clearly how richly and carefully organized the novel is and to arrive at a more certain view about what Thomas is trying to convey by means of his delicate network of cross-referenced images and allusions. A useful starting point for both a formal and a conceptual approach is the prefatory Author's Note, where Thomas speaks of Freud as the “discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.” There is no doubt that Thomas is deeply responsive to “the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis” but his organization of the narrative in such a way that all of the heroine's symptoms can be explained in entirely different terms from those in which Freud analyzes them in the novel inevitably suggests the possibility that Freudianism is a “myth” in the pejorative sense. In fact I shall be arguing that Thomas presents us with both a “Freudian” and a “Jungian” critique of Freud, though his final position is tentative and paradoxical rather than strongly assertive.

The mythic pattern with which psychoanalysis, both as theory and therapy, is most easily associated, the “hidden truth” which fires Thomas's imagination, is the familiar paradigm of Fall and Rebirth. From a timeless prelapsarian world of unrepressed infantile desires in which mother and infant, subject and object, the conscious and the unconscious are not properly distinct, “the oceanic oneness of the child's first years,” there is a fall into repression or, rather, a series of repressions. At the unconscious level, however, the mind never gives up its longing for that primal state so that “For Freud as for St. Augustine, mankind's destiny is a departure from, and an effort to regain, paradise” (Brown 98). Freud of course does not think that the “paradise” of early infancy can be regained but is saying only that it remains humanity's secret goal and a cause of disturbances in the psyche. For the sick patient the rebirth offered through analysis is the more limited one of a successful adjustment between one's newly revealed desires and the world as it really is. The longings which are laid bare by Freud have their close equivalents in myth and religion but the “new life” he leads his patients toward is not eternal bliss but the ability to lead a “normal” worldly existence. Although Freud often spoke of himself as having the temperament of a scientific observer rather than a doctor, it would be difficult to overestimate the regenerative hopes attached to the whole process of analysis. Without such hopes Freud would of course have had no patients and no income and, in any case, the entire enterprise would begin to look morally suspect. Dredging the unconscious, wrote Jung, “would be a thoroughly useless and indeed reprehensible undertaking were it not for the possibilities of new life that lie in the repressed contents” (Writings 62).

When Lisa Erdman, in Thomas's novel, comes to Freud as “a broken woman” suffering from asthmatic attacks, violent hallucinations and pains in her left breast and ovary, and asks him through the medium of her poetic fantasy “can / you do anything for me can you understand” (20), the reader cannot avoid a strong emotional commitment to her quest to be made whole again. This quest is situated within larger patterns of fall and rebirth by a series of biblical and literary allusions. The white hotel of Lisa's fantasies, which is psychoanalytically explained as the body of the mother (or even the womb itself), the lost abode of unrepressed desires, is explicitly identified with Eden which, like the unconscious, is a place outside time: “her phantasy strikes me as like Eden before the Fall—not that love and death did not happen there, but there was no time in which they could have a meaning” (14-15). Like the Promised Land, the earthly type of paradise regained, the white hotel is a place flowing with milk and honey, and the mysterious orange groves which float down past the windows also suggest Palestine. Mingled with these biblical images are many echoes from T. S. Eliot, the great modern poet of regenerative longings. From The Waste Land comes the dusty plain awaiting rain, an escape into the mountains and the prehistoric peat-bog corpses which were perhaps victims of a sacrificial rite; from “Marina” comes the scent of pine trees and sea mist as intimations of eternal life; and from The Four Quarters the elemental patterning of deaths by fire, air, earth and water, together with the appearance of a mystic rose “with endlessly inwoven petals” which “though eternally still, seemed to spin within itself” (59).

It is in the context of such archetypal images and yearnings that Thomas introduces Freud's endeavors to understand Lisa and redeem her from neurosis. With great persistence and ingenuity he probes the secrets of her past, uncovering all the classic Freudian material—adultery, incest, Oedipal jealousies, lesbianism and a primal scene in which the child Lisa sees her mother and uncle naked together in the summer-house. In “The Case of Fräulein Elizabeth von R.,” one of his early studies, the historical Freud wrote that “the whole work was, of course, based on the expectation that it would be possible to establish a completely adequate set of determinants for the events concerned” (3: 207). Thomas's Freud excavates an apparently more than adequate set of determinants and as a result of his treatment Lisa is freed of the worst effects of her illness, able to resume her interrupted musical career, and to find belated but genuine happiness in her marriage to Victor. Despite her real and deep gratitude to Freud, however, when he proposes years later to publish an account of her case she writes him a long letter revealing several pieces of information previously withheld and suggesting a completely different set of explanations for her symptoms.

Although brought up as a Catholic she is half-Jewish by descent and her asthmatic attacks began only after suffering anti-semitic insults as well as physical abuse from a group of sailors. The hysterical pains dated from her first marriage to a man of violently anti-semitic beliefs who was unaware of her Jewish ancestry. It was her sensitivity to this hatred and what it meant for the world that produced the hallucinations of destruction whenever she made love to him, hallucinations she had previously suffered with her Russian student lover, a political extremist who looked forward eagerly to “the coming conflagration.” Her sensitive forebodings are precisely substantiated in the remainder of the novel when, after returning to Russia, she loses Victor in the Great Purges and is herself murdered at Babi Yar by the invading Germans along with her stepson and thousands of other Jews, the manner of her murder giving a new and final significance to the pains in her breast and ovary. This transformation of significance is accompanied by a similar transformation in all the key images of the book which also turn out to be “over-determined” and capable of pointing in opposite directions. The peat-bog corpses referred to in the Prologue no longer suggest a primitive fertility rite of the kind recorded by Frazer and used as a symbol of regeneration by Eliot, but now prefigure her terrible death in the mud of Babi Yar. The “emerald lake” of the white hotel now points forward to the “green, stagnant and putrid lake” which the mass grave became after the War when Russian engineers dammed up the ravine. The pattern of redemption is reversed. Lisa's painstakingly worked-for rebirth from suffering is mocked by the horrors which ensue. In one of her dreams she tried to buy a copy of Dante's A New Life from a station bookstall but was unable to find it. In her own life she is saved only to be destroyed.

If one asks what Thomas has achieved by setting up a psychoanalytic pattern of Fall and Rebirth only to dismantle it, the first and most obvious answer is—a lot of emotional power. Our hopes are engaged on Lisa's behalf, raised and then violently dashed. Such a sequence of aborted rebirth or canceled redemption is always particularly shocking and painful to contemplate. Suffering is more easy to accept if it appears to be meaningful and in some way progressive, but becomes unendurable when it simply negates all previous patterns of expectation. This is why the ending of King Lear is more terrible than those of Shakespeare's other tragedies and why the shower scene of Hitchcock's Psycho remains more appalling than similar and more gory episodes in later films. In Psycho Hitchcock uses the first third of the film to involve the audience very closely in the emotional problems and ethical dilemmas of Marion Crane (the character played by Janet Leigh). She has only just reached the apparently momentous decision to return the money she was tempted to steal when the story of her life comes to a sudden and meaningless ending. All her problems and her attempts to overcome them are washed with her blood down the bathroom plughole in the most terminal of images.

The story which approaches most closely the emotional and conceptual resonances of The White Hotel is in fact a true one, though one which Thomas says was unknown to him when he wrote the novel. Sabina Spielrein was little more than a footnote in the history of psychoanalysis until a bundle of her papers, including letters of hers to and from Jung and Freud, was discovered in 1977.1 She was a Russian Jew from Rostov who was sent to Jung in 1904 suffering from what was labeled as either a schizophrenic disturbance or a severe hysteria. She was one of the first patients to be treated psychoanalytically by him, and his second letter to Freud concerns her case. Jung succeeded in curing her but she and Jung fell deeply in love and when a scandal threatened Jung broke off the affair abruptly. She turned to Freud for advice and eventually became herself a qualified Freudian analyst and member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, though she remained in contact with Jung long after the great split between him and Freud. Like Lisa, she recovered sufficiently from her problems to pursue a successful professional career and eventually got married. She celebrated her regeneration by calling her first daughter “Renate.” Like Lisa, she had great musical talent and dreamt prophetic dreams which really came true. The surviving extracts from her diary and letters bear witness to a passionate and highly intelligent woman with a rich inner life. Like Lisa, she returned to the town of her birth in Russia where her husband was driven insane by the pressures of the Stalinist society and her three brothers killed in the Purges. When the Germans captured Rostov in 1941 she and her daughters were shot along with all the other Jews of the town. As with The White Hotel, her story carries all the emotional shock of a canceled redemption. To quote Jung's comments on one of his own most famous dreams, a dream which he described as “a drama of death and renewal”: “At the end, the dawn of the new day should have followed, but instead came that intolerable outpouring of blood” (Memories 173).

I have introduced the story of Sabina Spielrein into my discussion of Thomas's novel not only because of its uncannily similar tragic biographical pattern but because there are important links at a more conceptual and thematic level as well. As I now move on to examine some of the ideas about psychoanalysis which Thomas is expressing, it will become clear that Sabina Spielrein was responsible for creating a crucial theoretical bridge between Jung and Freud, a bridge which made it easier for Thomas himself to try and bring their opposed perspectives into a closer relationship.

The transformed meaning of all Lisa's symptoms—which Thomas's Freud had confidently traced back to a tangle of sexual desires and incidents in childhood—inevitably suggests that some critique of Freud is intended by Thomas. If this is so, I would argue first that it is partly a Freudian critique of Freud, setting the latter Freud against the earlier one. The Freud whose authority is put in question is the Freud of the early case histories, the Freud who, in “Dora,” said of hysteria that sexuality “provides the motive power for every single symptom, and for every single manifestation of a symptom. The symptoms of the disease are nothing else than the patient's sexual activity” (8: 156). The power of the sexual instincts is not denied by Thomas but the early Freud's exclusive emphasis on them is shown to produce an inadequate account of human nature which Freud himself later endeavored to correct.

In its basic form the chapter “Frau Anna G.” is closely modeled on the early investigations of hysteria (especially, Thomas has said, the case of “Fräulein Elizabeth von R.” [“Freud” 1960]). Yet the date given for Lisa Erdman's first meeting with Freud, autumn 1919, means that her treatment occurs during the major reformulation of his theories that heralded the last phase of his thought (Swinden 78). Consideration of a number of phenomena, particularly the repetitive nightmares of shell-shocked soldiers, led Freud to posit that all living creatures possessed a “death instinct,” a desire to return to their former inorganic state of being. This instinctual rival to Eros was most easily glimpsed in the form of aggression, whereby under the influence of self-love the primary drive towards self-destruction was turned outward against others. The new theory was first made public in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

From the very beginning of The White Hotel we are encouraged to believe that it is these later Freudian ideas which will provide the better explanation of Lisa's case. In one of the letters which make up the Prologue to the novel, Freud writes of his conviction “that I am on the right lines in positing a death instinct, as powerful in its own way (though more hidden) than the libido. One of my patients, a young woman suffering from a severe hysteria, has just ‘given birth’ to some writings which seem to lend support to my theory. … It may be that we have studied the sexual impulses too exclusively” (12-13). When Freud first meets Lisa her face reminds him of the victims of battle traumas (that is, of the cases who first led him to the new theory) and toward the end of her treatment he is able to write: “I began to see Frau Anna, not as a woman separated from the rest of us by her illness, but as someone in whom an hysteria exaggerated and highlighted a universal struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct” (116-17). Nevertheless he still goes on to summarize her case in a way which largely ignores this insight and hence becomes vulnerable to a later reorientation. The change in perspective which occurs in the novel is most economically exemplified in the changed significance of Lisa's mother and aunt—the twin sisters. In Freud's analysis of Lisa they appear as typical figures from the early case histories, part of a guilty family secret in which the sexual instincts and conventional morality are in conflict. It is the knowledge of this secret adultery which Lisa has repressed in herself, even the summer-house memory being but a screen for another occasion on which she actually witnessed her uncle, aunt and mother making love together on a yacht. Later, however, when Lisa writes her letter to Freud she presents this repressed incident in a way which, although dramatically “placed” by Thomas, powerfully suggests Freud's late myth of Eros and Thanatos, the twin immortal adversaries, rather than his earlier attempts to rattle skeletons in bourgeois family cupboards.

What torments me is whether life is good or evil. I think often of that scene I stumbled into on my father's yacht. The woman I thought was praying had a fierce, frightening expression; but her “reflection” was peaceful and smiling. The smiling woman (I think it must have been my aunt) was resting her hand on my mother's breast (as if to reassure her it was all right, she didn't mind). But the faces—at least to me now—were so contradictory. And must have been contradictory in themselves too: the grimacing woman, joyful; and the smiling woman, sad. Medusa and Ceres, as you so brilliantly say! It may sound crazy, but I think the idea of the incest troubles me far more profoundly as a symbol than as a real event. Good and evil coupling, to make the world. No, forgive me, I am writing wildly. The ravings of a lonely spinster! (171)

From this changed perspective it is easy to see why Lisa's fantasies, despite their unrepressed and Edenic character, were so disfigured by violence. The death instinct had been present from the beginning. “It is as though, for Freud, the Creation and the Fall had been one and the same event” (Bloom 222). It is also easy to see that the violent cancelation of her redemption through psychoanalysis is something which endorses the later Freud's pessimistic view of human nature as set out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Civilization and its Discontents. In the latter work, particularly, his ponderings on the aggressive and destructive manifestations of the death instinct lead him to sound more and more like Hobbes or Machiavelli.

The element of truth behind all this, which people are so ready to disavow, is that men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. (12: 302)

The hypothesis of a death instinct has always been relatively ignored in post-Freudian psychoanalysis because of the therapeutic pessimism it seems to entail. Freud's earlier picture of a mental conflict in which the libidinal instincts were repressed through the agency of the self-preservative (or “ego”-) instincts, the pleasure principle bowing to the reality principle, had envisaged some sort of eventual accommodation both within the individual and between the individual and the external “reality” to which the self-preservative instincts were responsive. The contradiction between the primal forces of Eros and death, however, is described by Freud as “probably an irreconcilable one” (12: 335). If all human beings are endowed with instinctual destructiveness then all human societies will reflect this, and in Civilization and its Discontents Freud raises a problem which cuts the ground from under the therapeutic hopes he once entertained. The cure offered by psychoanalysis is an adjustment to reality, but “reality” in this context is largely social reality, created by other human beings who are themselves sick. What if whole communities, what if mankind itself is sick? “In an individual neurosis we take as our starting-point the contrast that distinguishes the patient from his environment, which is assumed to be ‘normal’. For a group all of whose members are affected by one and the same disorder no such background could exist; it would have to be found elsewhere” (12: 338). The world in which Lisa begins her new life is a world in which Stalin and Hitler will shortly come to power. It is a world in which during the hunt for Peter Kürten, the Düsseldorf mass-murderer, “nearly a million men had been reported to the police as the Monster.” It is not a world to bring children into, which is why the only times she is able to make love without suffering hallucinations of disaster are during menstruation and after her menopause. It is not a world in which one can be finally cured. Freud concludes his analysis of her by saying, “I told her I thought she was cured of everything but life, so to speak” (127).

If The White Hotel had ended with Lisa's death at Babi Yar it would perhaps have been possible to see it primarily as a Freudian critique of Freud, validating the later Freud's pessimism about human nature. The novel's emphasis on the relation with the pre-Oedipal mother (the womb as first dwelling-place, the breast as first love-object) is also an endorsement of late Freud rather than early Freud. After coming to terms with Otto Rank's The Trauma of Birth (1924), the historical Freud realized that his emphasis on the Oedipal drama had obscured a more primal relationship, one to be explored most fully by Melanie Klein and the “object relations” school, a relationship which he likened to the layer of Minoan-Mycenean civilization beneath that of Greece (7: 372). The chapter “Frau Anna G.,” although dealing with an analysis which took place in 1919-20, is presented by Thomas as having been written up by Freud in 1931. In one of his pastiche editorial footnotes Thomas explains the unusual emphasis on the mother as owing something to the recent death of Freud's own mother. It is made quite clear that Lisa regards this shift in emphasis as a step toward the truth: “I think it is remarkable the way your understanding of it [the Don Giovanni manuscript] seems to have deepened in the intervening years. Your analysis (the mother's womb, and so on) strikes me as profoundly true” (164).

In more than one respect, then, the novel moves toward a validation of Freud's later ideas but the effect of the final chapter is to show that even these are inadequate. In the course of the book Thomas takes his readers through a whole series of different textual “layers”—the Prologue letters, poetic fantasy, prose fantasy (incorporating postcard messages from different residents at the white hotel), Freudian case history, “normal” realistic fictional narrative—layers whose very disjunctiveness draws attention to the relativity and subjectiveness of their presentation. During the penultimate chapter, however, we apparently reach a bedrock of documentary truth from which the authorial voice has disappeared—the testimony of Dina Pronicheva, the sole survivor of Babi Yar. As fiction gives way to history, “gradually the only appropriate voice becomes that voice which is like a recording camera: the voice of one who was there” (Thomas, Letter 383),2 the change of mode being commented on within the text by the sentence “No one could have imagined the scene, because it was happening” (214). If anything is real, this surely is real; but then it turns out not to be the whole reality.

The corpses had been buried, burned, drowned, and reburied under
 and steel.
          But all this had nothing to do with the
guest, the soul, the lovesick bride,
the daughter of Jerusalem.


Rather than end the novel with the final cancelation of all Lisa's hopes in the ravine at Babi Yar, Thomas gives us a last chapter in which, along with all the figures from her past, she is resurrected in a postwar refugee camp in Palestine, a location which combines a degree of plausibility with the force of biblical redemptive myth. Like Joyce's Ulysses,The White Hotel seems to have a double ending, once within time and once outside time. A major effect of this technique is to set Freud, not against himself on this occasion, but against Jung. As a convinced materialist and rationalist who derived all psychic phenomena from an organic base, Freud could never entertain the possibility that there might be a form of mental life independent of the body and hence a possibility of life after death. Jung, however, granted the psyche a sovereignty equal to that of the body and thought that parts of the mind were not subject to the laws of space and time. In consequence he was able to speculate freely on the possibility of an afterlife and did indeed do so in Chapter 11 of Memories, Dreams, Reflections where, like Thomas, he imagines it as not altogether free of suffering. If Thomas's last chapter represents anything more than a delusory piece of wish-fulfilment then it must operate in part as a Jungian critique of Freud's scientific worldview. And once a Jungian influence is admitted then many other aspects of the novel fall into place.

The idea that Lisa's symptoms do not represent a personal neurosis of sexual origin but are a sensitive response to the violent spirit of the twentieth century is a very Jungian one. He himself had visions of destruction in late 1913 and early 1914 which he at first interpreted as manifestations of a personal psychic disturbance but later saw as premonitions of the coming world war. Jung also accepted the validity of more precisely precognitive experiences, such as the pains in Lisa's left breast and ovary, and gives several examples of his own in which he foresaw the deaths of friends (Memories 281 ff). The radical interpretive reorientation which takes place in The White Hotel, whereby the significance of the symptoms points forward into the future as well as backward into the past, strongly favors a Jungian rather than a Freudian perspective, and thus makes the final chapter a logical culmination rather than the gratuitous piece of whimsy which some reviewers accused it of being. Lisa's long letter to Freud also implies that she herself would have welcomed a more Jungian form of analysis: “Frankly I didn't always wish to talk about the past; I was more interested in what was happening to me then, and what might happen in the future” (171). In a Freudian analysis the past is the problem and hence the chief topic of investigation. In a Jungian analysis it is the present maladjustment of the patient and the prospects for a better adaptation which are more strongly emphasized.

It is a feature of Thomas's artistic strategy that the Jungian challenge to Freud should seem to arise naturally from the development of the story rather than be explicitly formulated. Nevertheless, the first three pages of the novel, which take the form of a letter from Sandor Ferenczi written during the psychoanalytic mission to America in 1909, are peppered with references to the opposition between Jung and Freud, and seem designed to provide a basis for reading the rest of the book along similar lines. Ferenczi talks of “a little tension between Jung and Freud” and of how Freud teased Jung “for being a Christian, and therefore mystical.” He goes on to mention the famous incident in which Jung's repeated reference to prehistoric peat-bog corpses caused Freud to faint and later to accuse Jung of harboring a death-wish against him. Finally we are told of how Freud's refusal to “risk his authority” by elaborating on the meaning of one of his own dreams caused Jung to say that “at that moment Freud had lost his authority, as far as he was concerned.”

Confirmation that the Freud-Jung split is central to the novel comes from Thomas himself who has said (“Freud” 1957) that the first germ of the story was a poem he wrote called “Vienna, Zurich, Constance” about an occasion when Freud and Jung, already beginning to fall out, failed to meet up with each other in Switzerland. The symbolic aspects of this “profound unmeeting” are brought out by introducing into the poem a young woman, dressed like Lisa in a black and white striped dress, and a young man, who are journeying by train to a hotel rendezvous.

By a strange coincidence
The young woman who would have been in Jung's compartment
Had Jung been travelling, was the mistress
Of the young man who would have been in Freud's compartment
Had Freud been travelling. Having confused
Their plans, they passed each other, unaware.
Waiting for him in her hotel at Constance,
The young woman stepped out of her rainy clothes.
Her fur hat momentarily became a vulva.
Waiting for her in his hotel at Zurich,
The young man stared irritably out of the window
And saw an uncanny light pass across the sky.

(Selected Poems 113-14)

Freudian sexual reductionism and Jungian mysticism are polarized in the poem as they are to be in the novel which developed from it.

This major conceptual opposition is not in fact wholly distinct from the other dichotomy I have discussed, that between the early Freud and the late Freud. In simple terms the later Freud seems more valid to Thomas because he has become more Jungian. The belated recognition of the importance of the pre-Oedipal mother was a move toward a more maternally centered psychology, as Jung's had always been. The presentation of Eros and Thanatos as a pair of a priori absolutes with some degree of ethical significance attached to their opposition is very close to a Jungian metaphysic. Earlier I described the changed significance of the twin sisters (“What torments me is whether life is good or evil”) as pointing toward the myth of Eros and Thanatos, but the connection with Jung is even stronger. Jung wrote that “To me incest signified a personal complication only in the rarest cases. Usually incest has a highly religious aspect, for which reason the incest theme plays a decisive part in almost all cosmogonies and in numerous myths. But Freud clung to the literal interpretation and could not grasp the spiritual significance of incest as a symbol” (Memories 162). Similarly, in Psychology and Alchemy, Jung stated that “in the self good and evil are indeed closer than identical twins” (Writings 270).

If the idea of a death instinct eternally opposed to Eros seems to owe a lot to Jung, this is not surprising, since there is a clear though indirect path of transmission, the missing link being none other than Sabina Spielrein. As perhaps the first patient Jung treated psychoanalytically, and as his lover during the formative years of his theories. Sabina Spielrein must have shaped the direction of his ideas considerably. In one of his last letters to her, he wrote, “The Love of S. for J. made the latter aware of something he had previously only vaguely suspected, that is, of a power in the unconscious that shapes one's destiny, a power which later led him to things of the greatest importance” (Carotenuto 190).

In return, of course, he influenced her ideas, as she developed into a theorist in her own right. In November 1911, nearly three years after the affair with Jung had ended, she read a paper to the Freudian circle in Vienna, a paper which she published the following year under the title “Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being.” The traumatic effects of the affair with Jung are clearly marked. She wrote that “A woman who abandons herself to passion … experiences all too soon its destructive aspect. … To be fruitful means to destroy oneself” (Carotenuto 151). However, she converted her personal experiences into a general psychological theory, arguing that her examples demonstrated “clearly enough that, as certain biological facts show, the reproductive instinct, from the psychological standpoint as well, is made up of two antagonistic components and is therefore equally an instinct of birth and one of destruction” (Carotenuto 142). This is very close indeed to Freud's later myth of Eros and Thanatos, and in fact Freud grants Spielrein the courtesy of a footnote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he says, “A considerable portion of these speculations have been anticipated by Sabina Spielrein (1912) in an instructive and interesting paper which, however, is not entirely clear to me” (11: 382n)—the last phrase being a formula he frequently employed when wishing to distance himself from someone else's insights. When the paper was first read to him in 1911, however, he was less concerned to show that he was not wholly dependent on it than to nail its Jungian tendencies. The Minutes of the Vienna meeting record Freud as objecting to the “free and easy use of mythology, which the author might have borrowed from Jung: ‘The presentation itself provides the opportunity for a critique of Jung. …”’ And years later, Jung himself wrote that it was his explanation of the death symbolism involved in the “Terrible Mother” archetype which “led my pupil Dr. Spielrein to develop her idea of the death-instinct, which was then taken up by Freud” (Carotenuto 148).

Sabina Spielrein, then, was someone who built a major bridge between Jung and Freud, and who continued trying to build bridges between them long after their final split. Her original hope had been to have a child by Jung which would unite the Jewish with the Aryan, and hence symbolically Freud with Jung. The child would have been named after the Germanic hero Siegfried, whose father was Sigmund.3 Thomas also gives the impression of someone trying to pull opposed perspectives into some kind of unity. The “Vienna, Zurich, Constance” poem, despite emphasizing the differences between Freud and Jung, tells how “In their uneasy sleep the two exchanged their dreams,” and in a letter to The Times Literary Supplement Thomas described The White Hotel as a “synthesis of different visions and different voices” (383). Mary Joe Hughes, the only critic so far to give proper weight to the Jungian dimension of the novel, has argued strongly that just such a philosophical merger does take place by the end of the book: “Through a synthesis of the ideas of Freud and Jung, the series of antitheses in the novel are to a large extent resolved: time past and time future; death and rebirth; Judaism and Christianity; mysticism and rationalism; body and spirit” (41). In her reading, the last chapter completes this merging process by combining the timelessness of life after death with the timelessness of blissful infantile orality: “These final pages of the novel reconcile the beliefs of Jung and Freud, whose differences were suggested in the first few pages” (44). However, as her impressive list of antitheses suggests, the kind of opposites which art, religion and philosophy try hardest to bring into relation with each other are the kind which most resist assimilation. And it is the sense of a resistance to assimilation which, I would argue, gives the novel its special tension, particularly in the closing chapters.

Jungian psychology values paradox and argues that wholeness is achieved only through the acceptance of opposites, so at one level it might seem possible for the Freud-Jung opposition to be subsumed into a Jungian world-view, Freud being taken on board as a valid part of a paradoxical totality. On another level, however, it is simply not possible. Once Freud's materialism and rationalism are let into the picture, the idea of life after death becomes nonsense and the only rebirth possible is of the modest psychoanalytic kind we have already seen canceled by the destructive operations of the death instinct. Freud's grimly physicalist view of life cannot be properly incorporated into a vision of eternal renewal and, in the last chapter, he appears as an awkward, lonely figure who looks ill and unhappy. During the course of the novel there are in fact a number of suggestions that death may indeed be final, suggestions which counteract the Jungian tendencies, undercut the status of the last chapter and point toward an unresolved dualism rather than a triumphant synthesis.

In the early part of the novel, Thomas uses swans as symbols of the immortal soul but then does terrible violence to this symbolism by telling how Peter Kürten, the Düsseldorf murderer, once cut the head off a sleeping swan in order to drink its blood. Lisa is haunted for weeks by the image of “a white swan nesting at a lake's edge, lost in a sleep from which it would not awake” (161). Similarly when Lisa goes to visit the famous Turin Shroud she comes away with her faith shaken, not because she disbelieves that the face is that of Christ but because it seems to her the face of a dead man, not a risen one. Her very surname Erdman, or “Man of Earth,” indicates mortality and seems to prophesy her end at Babi Yar where the bodies come to resemble geological strata.

All this suggests that, despite its narratively privileged position and its seeming endorsement of Jung, the last chapter has a somewhat provisional and equivocal status. Although a vision of eternal life, it is shadowed by death and by the possibility that death may be absolute and final, and hence that Lisa's story really came to an end in the previous chapter. The actual title of the last section, “The Camp,” seems vaguely ominous in a novel which deals with the Holocaust, and it begins with a train stopping in the middle of nowhere, an image previously interpreted as signifying death. The interweaving of the sinister with the redemptive which goes on in this final chapter is perhaps best conveyed by the following passage in which Lisa is conversing with her mother with whom she has been reunited.

“Anyway,” continued Lisa, “I think wherever there is love of any kind, there is hope of salvation.” She had an image of a bayonet flashing over spread thighs, and corrected herself hastily: “Wherever there is love in the heart.”


“Yes, exactly!”

They strolled further along the shore. The sun was lower in the sky and the day cooler. The raven came skimming back, and a shiver ran up Lisa's spine. “Is this the Dead Sea?” she asked.

“Oh, no!” said her mother, with a silvery laugh; and explained that it was fed by the Jordan River, and that river, in turn, was fed by the brook Cherith. “So you can see the water is always pure and fresh.” Her daughter nodded, greatly relieved, and the two women walked on. (237-38)

The first point to make is that the possibility of renewal which is being dramatized here has an important ethical dimension. Whatever hopes either Freud or Jung held for humanity were closely attached to the concept of Eros (in its widest sense), and during the novel we see a number of its positive manifestations—such as Lisa's warm relationships with other women and, most notably, her decision to give up her one chance of safety at Babi Yar rather than let her stepson Kolya die alone. Both Freud and Jung recognized that Eros had its dark side too and a Jungian synthesis would involve confronting and accepting that dark side. But the image of the bayonet reminds us that there may be things too terrible to confront, aspects of Eros too appalling for acceptance. At the ethical, as well as the metaphysical level, there are elements of the novel which resist absorption and remain recalcitrantly pessimistic. The correction which Lisa quickly offers, “Wherever there is love in the heart,” is no real help either since the mention of the heart takes us back to one of the Prologue letters in which Freud quotes Goethe as advising his readers not to fear or turn away from “what, unknown or neglected by men, walks in the night through the labyrinth of the heart” (15). This, Thomas has said, was the last piece of the novel actually written and it leaves unanswered the problem of exactly how the bayonet could ever be faced, accepted and recuperated.

Returning to the dialogue between Lisa and her mother, we see that its images do not unequivocally suggest eternal renewal. It is as if the last chapter were a kind of insubstantial dream vision subject to disturbing intimations of mortality, a continual return of the repressed knowledge of death's reality. The raven seems to function as a bird of ill omen, a reminder of death, but then we remember that, four pages before, it had been seen with a morsel of bread in its mouth, thus recalling the ravens who miraculously fed Elijah in the wilderness. However, the mention of the Dead Sea disturbs again because it specifically brings to mind the putrid green lake which covered the mass grave at Babi Yar after the War. It is succeeded by the life images of the river Jordan and the brook Cherith, the stream from which Elijah drank when fed by the ravens. Even here, though, there may be an intentional ambiguity since biblical commentaries explain that Cherith was not really a brook but a wadi or ravine with a small trickle of water at the bottom. Babi Yar was also a ravine with a small trickle of water at the bottom. Moreover, in the biblical episode Cherith eventually ran dry and ceased to sustain Elijah.

The images of death in the penultimate chapter prove too powerful to be easily assimilated into a pattern of renewal and continue to exert a destabilizing influence. Another way of making the same point would be to say that the historical level of the novel resists complete absorption into the mythic level (Robertson). Although enclosed by redemptive myth and fully organized into the novel's poetic pattern of archetypal images, the Babi Yar chapter has a force of actuality which refuses recuperation. History and myth, like Freud and Jung, or death and life, end up in a relationship which is more of a dualism than an integration. The first term in each pairing simply will not be swallowed whole by the second.

This means of course that any message Thomas is seeking finally to convey is highly qualified and tentative in nature. Yet the success of the novel lies as much in its emotional force as in its thematic complexity, and amidst its series of incompletely resolved dualisms one thing above all comes over very strongly, and that is Thomas's belief in the value of the individual, a belief which takes its particular form from his predominantly Jungian orientation. A sentence from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, a work whose influence is apparent everywhere in the novel, helps explain how, in one sense at least, Freud's “scientific” investigation of his patients can be paralleled to the Nazi terror, which in so many ways is its complete antithesis: “Over-valued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion the individual is pauperised” (280). For Thomas, every one of the nameless names who died at Babi Yar was a uniquely precious individual, possessing an inner life rich and complex enough to defy rational interpretation. “If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person” (220).

It is one of the real and more old-fashioned achievements of The White Hotel that within its disjunctive modernist structure it creates a highly distinctive, complicated, yet consistent picture of one such individual. Lisa bears many different names at different times during the novel—Erdman, Berenstein, Morozova, Konopnicka, “Frau Anna G.”—yet a strong impression of both uniqueness and continuity is built up, an impression which is given great moral and emotional value by Thomas. The most eloquent expression of this value occurs when, after her marriage to Victor, she revisits the Odessa home where she spent her childhood summers. At first she feels estranged from her past,

But suddenly, as she stood close against a pine tree and breathed in its sharp, bitter scent, a clear space opened to her childhood, as though a wind had sprung up from the sea, clearing a mist. It was not a memory from the past but the past itself, as alive, as real; and she knew that she and the child of forty years ago were the same person.

That knowledge flooded her with happiness. But immediately came another insight, bringing almost unbearable joy. For as she looked back through the clear space to her childhood, there was no blank wall, only an endless extent, like an avenue, in which she was still herself, Lisa. She was still there, even at the beginning of all things. And when she looked in the opposite direction, towards the unknown future, death, the endless extent beyond death, she was there still. It all came from the scent of a pine tree. (190)

Thomas, like Christianity and Jungian psychology, here links the precious uniqueness of the individual to the possession of an immortal soul, when it is perhaps more easily inferred from a belief in the finality of death. The power of the Babi Yar chapter allows room in the novel for this response too, allows room for the feeling that the dead are most truly unique, most truly irreplaceable, when they do not rise again, having proved wholly vulnerable to what history could inflict on them, unredeemed by any form of myth.


  1. Jung's heirs have so far refused permission to publish his letters to her, but all the rest of the material is available in the fascinating book by Carotenuto. Thomas reviewed the earlier American edition of this book in The New York Review of Books and commented on some of the connections with his novel. Since then new information about Sabina Spielrein, including the circumstances of her death, has come to light and has been incorporated in the English edition of Carotenuto's book.

  2. Strictly speaking, of course, what Thomas gives us is not Pronicheva's own words but a version of her testimony as mediated by Kuznetsov in his Babi Yar.

  3. In Memories Jung records a disturbing dream in which he participated in the hunting down and killing of the hero Siegfried. His account concludes: “Filled with disgust and remorse for having destroyed something so great and beautiful, I turned to flee, impelled by the fear that the murder might be discovered. But a tremendous downfall of rain began, and I knew that it would wipe out all traces of the dead. I had escaped the danger of discovery; life could go on, but an unbearable feeling of guilt remained” (173). It is impossible not to connect this with his abrupt termination of the affair with Sabina Spielrein in order to avoid a public scandal, though Jung himself explains the dream in quite different terms.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “Freud and the Poetic Sublime: A Catastrophe Theory of Creativity.” Antaeus (Spring 1978). Rpt. in Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Perry Meisel. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981. 211-31.

Brown, Norman O. Life against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1959.

Carotenuto, Aldo. A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. Trans. Arno Pomerans, John Shepley and Krishna Winston, London: Routledge, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund. The Pelican Freud Library, 15 vols. Ed. James Strachey. Angela Richards and Albert Dickinson. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974-86.

Hughes, Mary Joe. “Revelations in The White Hotel.Critique 27.1 (1985): 37-50.

Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and ed. Aniela Jaffé. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston, London: Collins, 1963.

———. Selected Writings. Ed. Anthony Storr. London: Fontana, 1983.

Kuznetsov, Anatoli. Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. Trans. David Floyd. London: Cape, 1970.

Robertson, Mary F. “Hystery, Herstory, History: ‘Imagining the Real’ in Thomas's The White Hotel.Contemporary Literature 25.4 (1984): 452-77.

Swinden, Patrick. “D. M. Thomas and The White Hotel.Critical Quarterly 24.4 (1982): 74-80.

Thomas, D. M. “Freud and The White Hotel,British Medical Journal 287 (24-31 Dec. 1983): 1957-60.

———. Letter to The Times Literary Supplement (2 Apr. 1982): 383.

———. Review of Aldo Carotenuto, A Secret Symmetry. The New York Review of Books (13 May 1982): 3-6.

———. Selected Poems. London: Secker, 1983.

———. The White Hotel. London: Gollancz, 1981.

Robert D. Newman (essay date Summer 1989)

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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.


The horror D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel is also its passion. Its narrative structure propels the reader backward and forward in an obsessive quest to explain the convergence of contraries that constitutes the novel's motifs. Sex and violence parallel and coalesce as the narrative movement conflates the pleasure of the text with its terrifying vision. The reader moves through the dizzying succession of narrative voices, each undermining its predecessor, and seeks an authoritative interpretation through repetitive clues. However, the notions of authority and repetition become attached to a death force, culminating in the Babi Yar chapter, which defies the closure of each of the previous chapters and is in turn defied by the concluding chapter. The Prologue invites us to read the text as psychoanalytic detectives, drawing on events and images from the past in our epistemological search. Freud's last letter in the Prologue advises a dispassionate attitude toward analyzing Anna G.'s poem and journal. Yet the voice of Anna's documents, matter of factly describing the rain of corpses over the landscape while the pleasures of prolific sex are tinged with violent imagery, is disconcerting. Although the scenes and events are fantastic, the tonality with which they are rendered seems strangely flat—like that of a mind in shock. This sense is reinforced in Freud's case history when he remarks that his initial encounter with Anna reminded him of the faces of victims of battle trauma (90).

Ferenczi's letter in the Prologue depicts Freud teasing Jung for his Christian mysticism, a fate he regards the Jews as having escaped (4).1 However, Lisa's clairvoyance becomes the epistemological vector of the text that counters rational analysis. Rather than symptoms of past causes, Anna/Lisa's present torments predict the future. Here the terror of the text replicates and magnifies the terror of the events it depicts. The interpretive direction is reversed as deduction gives way to prescience and future revelation replaces a deterministic past. We discover the flat tone of Anna/Lisa's initial documents to be a repression not only of the anti-Semitism of the past but of the holocaust of the future. These are repressed in her present consciousness and disowned through the substitution of an obsessive sexuality that only partially masks, because of its place in, Lisa's persistently intrusive vision of the future.

The text itself operates within a similar psychic duplicity. Thomas directs us into Lisa's past in Freud's case history and in Lisa's modification in “The Health Resort” chapter, allowing us to reach intellectual resolutions at the conclusion of each as Freud's brilliant deductions are extended and metamorphosed through Lisa's revelations. Lisa's life appears to have reached a stable and healthy center; however, the Babi Yar chapter shatters this semblance of security. The inability of the Jews to discern the implicit meaning in the signs directing them to evacuate mocks us as readers leaning on our rational crutches. The “demon of repetition” (129) is revealed as truly demonic as the images from Anna's poem and journal are horribly realized. Repression is disclosed to be proleptic as well as historical. As Lisa indicates in the final chapter, anagnorisis—recognition—is what is wrong (261). It breaks through the metaphoric defense of repression but leaves us buried in the void.

The author's note defines myth as “a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth.” In plot and narrative structure, The White Hotel is about ways of discovering truth. By directing the reader through various revisions, it traces the mythic resonance of archetypal images. The novel functions as palimpsest where we read backward as we move forward. Through repetition of images we experience no erasure; instead we have memory and revision of memory. Mirrors and doubling imply dualities that in turn create choices for the reader. We are presented with the conflicting epistemologies of Freud and Jung, the oppositions of rationalism and mysticism, Eros and Thanatos, analysis and prescience, myth and history, Jew and Christian, Medusa and Ceres. However, the novel never comes down completely in endorsement of either side of a duality. Such absolute authorities become red herrings. Like Anna's gesture that accompanies her lies to Freud, they are the stroking of a crucifix.

In his letter in the Prologue, Hanns Sachs terms the white hotel Eden before the Fall (10), a timeless realm, and goes on to say that meaning depends on time. Although the poem and the journal are set in timelessness, as documents they enter the realm of time in Freud's and the reader's act of interpretation. By forcing the mythic into the historical, we simultaneously establish the authority of interpretation and reenact the Fall. Authority is proleptically undermined in the Prologue when Ferenczi's letter recounts Freud's refusal to risk his authority by revealing personal feelings that would confirm or deny Jung's hypothesis regarding his sister-in-law (5-6). Thomas' footnotes to Freud's case history, which quote Freud against himself, continue to erode his authority. In contrast, the postcards from the white hotel, the excerpts from Anatoli Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, and Dina Pronicheva's appearance invite multiple perspectives. We are shown the limitations of the mono-myth, whether Freudian, Nazi, or hermeneutical. Essentially, the narrative structure of the novel is intentionally decentering and ultimately regenerative. Enclosures are collapsed so that expressions of truth proliferate. Through the reimposition of metaphor in the final chapter, the aesthetic transcends the historical and the text revises itself again. Repression is restored as metaphor, and the novel reveals its sublime underpinnings, igniting the reader in the purifying fire of pleasure and terror.


Dying each other's life, living each other's death.


Two dominant motifs, mirrors and triangles, define the narrative structure of The White Hotel, underscoring the Hermetic reflection of macrocosm in microcosm at the thematic heart of the novel.2 The novel continually presents patterns of repetition and paralleling, an interweaving of details, images, and motifs. Lost or left luggage appears in Anna's journal (45), in Lisa's account of traveling by train (151), in her meeting with Victor in Milan (171), all prefiguring the confiscation of her suitcase at Babi Yar (230). The shroud of Turin is mentioned in Father Marek's sermon in the journal (71) and accounts for Lisa's rejection of Christ's resurrection in “The Health Resort” chapter (167-168). The vision of Christ with hands placed delicately over genitals is replicated in the Babi Yar chapter as Lisa views the naked Jews going to their deaths with their hands covering their genitals in a pathetic gesture at modesty (243).

The fire at the white hotel is personalized as Anna realizes that her hair is on fire (37), is picked up again when Lisa reports to Freud that Alexei singed her hair with his cigar (126), again when Anna confirms that her mother and uncle died in a hotel fire when on an illicit rendezvous (137), and is repeated in Lisa's letter to Freud when she tells him of the sailors molesting her while she viewed the burning waterfront (187). This destructive image is temporarily rendered positive when Lisa makes love with Victor and “the flashes of the lighthouse lit up her husband's white hair” (211).

Lisa's honeymoon with Victor takes place on a boat as did the incidents with Alexei, with the sailors, and with Lisa's youthful discovery of her mother, aunt, and uncle in three-way sex. These mirrorings conflate the fire/water imagery and pick up the motif of traveling that is repeated in the various train journeys throughout the novel. This conflation attains sinister proportions in the Babi Yar chapter when the Jews are told that they will be evacuated by train, itself a gruesome reminder of the thousands of Jews who were evacuated by train to death camps. In a further conflation after the massacre, the Nazi stokers construct a pyre of bodies and set the fire by igniting the hair of the dead (251). At the conclusion of the chapter, the narrator reports the continuous efforts to annihilate the dead. A dam is erected across the ravine of bodies, transforming the emerald lake of Anna's poem, which is also depicted as a red sheet, into a putrid one (252). Eventually the dam bursts, burying Kiev in mud and corpses. Again historical events coalesce, for we are reminded of Ferenzci's letter detailing Jung's fascination with mummified bog corpses, a fascination that led Freud to faint because he was convinced that Jung wished his death (5).

Blood imagery pervades the novel. Anna's lover states, “I want your blood” as they make love while she is menstruating (46). He asks her, “Can you feel the blood falling?” and she responds, “I fall ill every autumn” (45)—autumn being when her mother died and when the massacre at Babi Yar occurs. Their lovemaking is immediately followed by Anna's lover cutting his steak, an image repeated when Victor cuts up his beefsteak “tenderly and expressively” (153) and recalling the “rare and beautiful” steaks with their natural juices that the jolly chef in “Don Giovanni” cooked (28). The Dusseldorf murderer, Peter Kurten, kills because he needs to drink blood, and, out of frustration at not finding a victim one night, he cuts off the head of a swan and drinks its blood (178). Kurten desires to remain alive moments after he is executed by guillotine so that he can hear his own blood gush. The purity and innocence of the swans that conclude Chapters One and Two are contaminated by blood and death, images prefigured when Victor writes of his swan song (204). The image of Kurten's killing the swan and his wish to hear his own blood gush haunt Lisa, causing her head to spin (178). She prays that he will not be the same Peter Kurten when he enters the afterlife but believes that “somewhere—at that very moment—someone was inflicting the worst possible horror on another human being” (179). Her prayer and belief are prophetic. Kurten is seen playing with children in the final chapter, although under the careful watch of armed guards (262-263). When Lisa looks into the ravine at Babi Yar, her head swims upon viewing the sea of bodies before she too falls into the “bath of blood” (248).

Other recurring images include oranges in the context of trees, groves, nipples, and, with water Anna's sole source of nourishment at the White Hotel, crows and ravens (symbolically birds of prophecy), corsets, cats, whales, plums, peaches, stars, and cedar and pine trees.3 Narrative detail and inversions of detail find revelatory expression in the motif of mirrors. Freud's letter to Ferenczi characterizes Anna's hysteria as if “Venus looked in her mirror and saw the face of Medusa” (8). Freud later terms Anna's mother Medusa as well as Ceres (142).4 In “The Health Resort” chapter, Lisa's letter to Freud introduces new facts that modify Freud's analysis. We learn that as a young girl Lisa discovered her mother (Mary) and her mother's twin (Magda)—mirrors of each other as archetypal Virgin and Whore—in a ménage à trois with Lisa's uncle. In her revision of her night on the yacht with Alexei, she recalls waking to see her reflection in the wardrobe mirror, which resurrects this traumatic discovery of “the grimacing woman, joyful; and the smiling women, sad. Medusa and Ceres” (192). Lisa distinguishes the twin sisters by the crucifix that only her aunt wears. Her mother had removed hers due to the anti-Semitic protests of her family over her intention to marry a Jew, a situation replicated in Vogel's anti-Semitic comments in Anna's journal and foreshadowed in the Freud/Jung, Jewish rationalism/Christian mysticism duality reported in Ferenczi's letter. We learn in “The Health Resort” chapter of Lisa's marriage to a Jew-hater, which causes her to deny her identity, secretly to wish that her uncle was her father, to hallucinate catastrophes when having sex with her husband, to induce a miscarriage, and ultimately to withhold significant information from Freud because he is Jewish. Lisa's suppression of her Jewish identity alters Freud's interpretation as we revise the previous chapters that have attained the status of documents within the text. However, her repression also catapults us forward to the incident at Babi Yar where she initially denies her Jewishness to escape the slaughter.

Lisa's mirror phobia coincides with her reading of Freud's case of the Wolf Man who was obsessed with intercourse more ferarum. Intertextual connections suggest themselves when we review this case. The Wolf Man's wife is referred to as “Tatiana” from Eugene Onegin, his sister is named Anna, and the color white recurs in his wolf dreams. Freud believed that evidence from this case would confirm his argument for the primacy of infantile prehistory as opposed to Jung's contention that ancestral prehistory was most influential.5 The combination of human and savage captivates Lisa and finds expression in her attribution of Medusa/Ceres, “good and evil coupling, to make the world” (192), to her mother's and aunt's mirroring. Characteristically, it also refers us backwards and forwards in the text. In the “Don Giovanni” poem, Anna writes:

your son impaled me, it was so sweet I screamed
but no one heard me for the other screams
as body after body fell or leapt
from upper storeys of the white hotel
I jerked and jerked until his prick released
its cool soft flood. Charred bodies hung from
trees (19-20)

In the Babi Yar chapter, these images are parodically paralleled as thousands of people are shot by the Nazis and fall into the ravine. Lisa jumps with Kolya before the bullets strike them. Lying amidst the carnage, her muffled movements are detected and her breast is kicked in before she is raped with a bayonet: “very gently, Demidenko imitated the thrusts of intercourse; and Semashko let out a guffaw, which reverberated from the ravine walls as the woman's body jerked back and relaxed, jerked and relaxed. … Demidenko twisted the blade and thrust it in deep” (249-250). Lisa's belief that the source of her breast and ovary pains was organic in opposition to Freud's contention that they stemmed from her rejection of her lesbian impulses finds disturbing confirmation in this scene. The fearful interdependence of good and evil. Eros and Thanatos, that is The White Hotel's thematic design, is synecdochically expressed in the mirroring of plot details established in the poem and journal of Anna—whose name is itself chiasmic.

Triangles dominate the sexual relationships in the novel. In a version of the Oedipus conflict where the father usurps the child in the mother's affection, Madame R's mothering of Lisa ends when she marries. Lisa later forms a harmonious triangle with Victor and Vera, both of whom are Jews, and eventually takes Vera's place as Victor's wife and as mother to Kolya. She writes to Freud that she has just sung an oratorio called Oedipus Rex, and she performs with Victor in Eugene Onegin, at the center of which is a love triangle. She later accepts Victor's marriage proposal in a letter that mirrors that of Tatiana to Onegin. The initial letter of the Prologue has Ferenczi writing to his mistress Gisela whose ex-husband will commit suicide on their wedding day. And in that letter Ferenczi mentions Freud's dream regarding his sister-in-law Minna working like a peasant while his wife looks on idly, which causes the rift between Jung and him regarding his refusal to risk his authority (5). In her letter in “The Health Resort” chapter, Lisa reveals that Freud has been to Bad Gastein on vacation with Minna when Lisa, at this point a former patient, met them (182), a replication of the liaison between Lisa's mother and uncle that culminates in the hotel fire. In Anna's poem and journal, we see a triangle with Anna, her lover, and Madame Cottin, prefiguring Anna's report to Freud of Alexei's having sex with another woman on the yacht. Both events are based on Lisa's repression of the ménage à trois that she witnessed as a young girl. Anna's duplicitous report concerning Alexei has him taking the girl doggy style, replicating Anna's being mounted from behind in her poem and journal and based on Lisa's repression of viewing her mother with Lisa's uncle behind her and her aunt stroking her breast. The repression of the past is also proleptic because Lisa is raped with the bayonet from behind, and this image attains a universal dimension when linked with the Wolf Man's compulsion for intercourse with animals.

In this magic web of a novel, mirrors and triangles occur as plot details, character relationships, motifs; and triangles also define the structure of The White Hotel. The six chapters break down into two triangles, the details, motifs, and themes of which interlock chiasmically as mirror images—emblematically a Star of David.

The “Don Giovanni” poem, written between the staves of the libretto of Mozart's opera, implicitly warns us to read between the lines if we are to discern meaning. As Sachs indicates in his letter, we are in a timeless realm, Eden before the Fall. Freud refers to Anna having “given birth” to this material (9), a loaded image we later learn, for Anna has induced a miscarriage so that she will not give birth to the child of her anti-Semitic husband. Biblical images of flood and catastrophic fire occur in a dreamscape overflowing with breast milk and the honey of continual sex. Internal and external occurrences coalesce as the flames of the hotel fire merge with Anna's and her lover's sexual passion. Sex and catastrophe coincide, yet we witness magically restorative, regenerative, and nurturing powers. The chapter concludes affirmatively with the white purity of the swans and the snow-covered mountains as we are told that “no one was selfish in the white hotel” (28).

Like the poem, “The Gastein Journal” is a subjective fantasy that becomes a documentary object. The movement in the novel from individual to general is indicated by the shift from first to third person and from poetry to prose. The chapter begins with Anna dreaming the vision of Dina Pronicheva from Kuznetsov's account of Babi Yar, which will be realized in its mirror chapter—five. The juxtaposition of sex and violence continues as do the magical restorative powers. The white hotel is completely rebuilt ten days after the devastating fire, and guests continue to pour into its premises despite the flood, fire, landslide, and bodies falling to earth—the mirrored inversion of the sequence in which these catastrophes will occur in Chapter Five. Within the ahistorical frame of this chapter, Vogel's anti-Semitic remarks and Bolotnikov-Leskov's comments regarding violence and terrorism seem out of place except when considered as a foreshadowing of Chapter Five. The disembodied flying breast and the womb gliding over the lake also attain a realistic dimension in the mirror chapter. What emerges more clearly in “The Gastein Journal” is a sense of the community of the white hotel. The postcards provide various perspectives on the mundane and the fantastic events that occur within the hotel, often focusing on the romantic escapades of Anna and her lover. This sense of community will be reflected in the tragic community of martyrs at Babi Yar, and the statement that “the spirit of the white hotel was against selfishness” (86) will be recapitulated in Lisa's ethical decision to proclaim her Jewishness and to die with Koyla.

The third chapter, “Frau Anna G.,” provides Freud's case history, his analysis of the poem and journal and his attempt to locate the source of Lisa's breast and ovary pains.6 This case history pulls Chapters One and Two into one vision and concludes the first triangle of the novel with the authority of Freud's masculine, rational interpretation. Freud's position as a patriarchal authority is later underscored when Lisa acknowledges that he was the priest—a Father—in her poem and journal. Freud's psychoanalytic method assumes that knowledge offers release. By locating repression and by sharing repressed aspects with others, these aspects become real and unburden the self. In the final chapter Lisa will tell the young doctor that it is anagnorisis—recognition—that is the source of her pains. As Freud's epistemology moves backward, the reader reads backward, pulling together images from the poem and journal and connecting them to Anna's autobiographical revelations. White, equated with innocence in Chapters One and Two, now becomes equated with guilt. Using Lisa's stroking of her crucifix as a lie detector, Freud analyzes the source of her pains as her hatred of her disturbed femininity and comes to equate the white hotel with the womb.

However, Freud's authority, already called into doubt in Ferenczi's letter, is further undercut by the documentary footnotes that Thomas adds to the case history. We learn that “Freud's unusual emphasis on the mother's role may have owed something to the recent death of his own mother” (142n). The initial footnote tells us that one of Freud's favorite quotations was Charcot's dictum “Theory is good, but it doesn't prevent things from existing” (122n). Besides revealing Freud's capacity for self-parody, this quotation ironically adumbrates the direction of the rest of The White Hotel, a confirmation of mystical prescience rather than rational analysis of the past. We also learn that Freud had completed about half of Beyond the Pleasure Principle at the time of Lisa's analysis. This work, which focuses on the death instinct, was to revise substantially Freud's view of the unconscious. In essence then, Freud's case history of Anna G. contains the germs of revision of its own conclusions.7 Freud's words to Lisa, that she is “cured of everything but life,” turn out to be prophetic. They propel the novel into its second triangle where we move from the realm of documents for analysis (Anna's poem and journal) and a published document (Freud's case history) into an overtly novelistic treatment of Lisa's future life, the climax of which draws from Kuznetsov's document on Babi Yar.8 The narrative voice, supplanting Anna's and Freud's personal voices, becomes omniscient so that the meaning of the white hotel in Lisa's life can be universalized.

The second triangle of the novel proceeds to revise the reader's memory of the first triangle. In effect, we have sane Lisa rereading and revising the first half of the novel, which is partially written by and partially in response to the writings of crazy Lisa. As a mirror to Chapter Three, the feminine perspective that dominates Chapter Four rivals the authority of the father offered by Freud's theories. Lisa's letter to Freud reveals her source for Don Giovanni, revises her story of Alexei, reports the incident with the sailors, and reveals her husband's anti-Semitism. We learn that her sexual escapades had been more extensive than she had admitted, and this fact and her interpretation of the girlish incident with her Japanese chambermaid counter Freud's homosexual interpretation. In response, Freud again offers a quotation that contradicts his methodology, this time from Heraclites, “The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored” (195-196). However, Lisa's approach has paralleled Freud's; the past is dredged up and the resolution is again historical.

The white hotel becomes the health resort, and the chapter concludes with a sense of peace and resolution. Lisa marries Victor and becomes surrogate mother to Kolya. The trauma instilled by her previous experience on boats seems rectified by the domestic haven she enters on her honeymoon voyage with Victor. Inspired by the scent of a pine tree, Lisa enters a joyful epiphany in which she envisions her own perpetuity within the continuum of time (213-214). Feminine peace derives from nature, not in the timeless sense of the white hotel, but as part of time. Lisa's embracing of repetition revises Freud's view that it is a demon to be quelled. She couples male deduction with a female telluric connection to put the pieces of her life and, consequently, of the narrative memory together. Like Chapter Three and each of the subsequent two chapters, Chapter Four offers a sense of closure that, similar to all authority, is rendered ephemeral by the thematic and narrative design of The White Hotel. Even in this chapter, which culminates in emotional health and intellectual resolution, the death instinct haunts in Lisa's obsession with Peter Kurten, who, like the Wolf Man, incarnates the universal coupling of savage and human and, like Lisa's epiphany, is replicated backwards and forwards across the continuum of time.

In “The Sleeping Carriage” chapter, the positive resolution of “The Health Resort” is revised. Paradise in this context is only rumor, an illusory reading of signs. Sex and death are once again joined as the unconscious images of Chapter Two are realized in catastrophic history. The attention to community suggested in Chapter Two is extended to the rich human complex grotesquely massacred and buried at Babi Yar—a quarter of a million white hotels. The lack of selfishness that characterizes Anna's phantasm becomes an ethical choice, a proclamation of identity and concern in the midst of savage indifference. Again we observe the attempts of history to devour the romantic richness and complexity of the individual. The dam built over the ravine bursts as if the victims of the annihilation refuse to have their victimization repressed. Although no memorial was erected at the ravine (instead a road, a television center, and an apartment building were constructed), the novel presents a revisionist history from the inside, a commemoration of the white hotel of Lisa and of all those murdered at Babi Yar.

Lisa's mystical prescience, confirmed by the events of the chapter, is endorsed by Thomas as a viable epistemology. Tellurically centered, it presents a humanistic alternative to the material reality of linear history and to the overreliance on rational design. The epigraph of The White Hotel, from Yeats's “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” reads:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love. …

Lisa's ethical choice, redeemed in her dream of Dina Pronicheva, counters the brutality of the heart that pervades the chapter. Following the direction espoused by the quotation from Heraclites, the last sentence of “The Sleeping Carriage” prepares us to transcend the enmity of history and the limitation of rational interpretation: “But all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem” (253).

The title of the final chapter, “The Camp,” plays on the historical concentration camp. However, the timeless realm of the first chapter is presented in this its mirror. In opposition to the conclusion of the first triangle, this conclusion is aesthetically inclusive rather than rationally exclusive. Generally, things are benign. Memory is sweet, peace and congeniality pervade, the camp is nondenominational despite the implication that this is the destination the Jews at Babi Yar had hoped for. The camp is not by the Dead Sea but is fed by the Jordan River; its water is always pure and fresh. Lisa makes contact with her father and exchanges nurturing breastfeeding with her mother. Her mother offers the final piece of the puzzle regarding the love triangle that Lisa witnessed as a young girl—that Magda was homosexual. Even Peter Kurten appears playing with children. Contrary to the interpretive direction with which the first triangle concludes, Lisa tells her mother, “it's the future that counts, not the past” (271).

Although violence and destruction have apparently ceased in this rejuvenated, albeit postlapsarian, world, the effects of Thanatos are not repressed.9 People are still scarred and maimed; Freud's cancerous jaw continues to hurt him; and, despite Kurten's playing with children, armed guards accompany him. During her conversation with her mother, Lisa's statement, “wherever there is love, of any kind, there is hope of salvation” (271), is interrupted by her mental image of a bayonet flashing over spread thighs. She corrects herself with “wherever there is love in the heart.” Implicitly we are returned to the epigraph from Yeats, which explains the manner in which Chapter Six revises its mirror Chapter One. Instead of Eden before the Fall, we have Eden after the Fall—more purgatory than paradise. Rather than feeding the heart on fantasies that include tragedy but repress response, the love that proceeds from the heart contains a healing impulse that both acknowledges and reacts against Thanatos. The indiscriminate breastfeeding that occurs in the first chapter is here put into context. Lisa's ethical choice in the preceding chapter is extended to the final image that we have of her in the novel as she hurries to join a group of nurses who are attending to the wounded. The telluric significance of her name, Erdmann (“Erd” is German for “earth”), and of her pseudonym, Anna G. (“G” pronounced in German becomes one of the names of the Greek earth mother, Ge),10 are realized in Lisa's nurturing. As she goes to perform this function, she realizes that her pelvis and breast have ceased to hurt. Smelling the scent of a pine tree, her epiphany of human and temporal connection from “The Health Resort” returns. Without a system of clarity, anagnorisis, she is incapable of placing her memory of the scent, but her heart is not obscured. The pine scent “troubled her in some mysterious way, yet also made her happy” (274).


As soon as writing, which entails making a liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper, assumes the significance of copulation, or as soon as walking becomes a symbolic substitute for treading upon the body of mother earth, both writing and walking are stopped because they represent the performance of a forbidden sexual act.

—Freud, “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety”

In his review of A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud in the New York Review of Books, Thomas again turns his attention to a triangular relationship. Sabina Spielrein was a patient of Jung's with whom he had sex. Jung excused his breach of professional ethics on the basis that Spielrein had never paid him and was therefore technically not his patient. Spielrein went on to gain a degree in medicine and formed an intellectual alliance with Freud. Thomas writes that “Freud attempted to draw Spielrein into their shared Jewishness, against the blond Aryan” Jung. Apart from the biographical interest that this book generates, Thomas reveals that Spielrein's essay on the balance of creative and destructive forces in passion, published in 1912, was the germ of Freud's theory of the death wish, published as Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920. As already has been mentioned, Freud's fictional treatment of Anna G. occurs while he is composing this treatise. As a discourse haunted by images of catastrophe and as a movement from the authority of the empirical to that of the metapsychological, Freud's vision in Beyond the Pleasure Principle dovetails with that of The White Hotel.

Harold Bloom's discussion of Freud in Agon is helpful for applying Freud's psychological theories to the function of language. Bloom argues that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud equates literal meaning to Thanatos and figurative meaning to Eros (136). Because the relationship between figurative and literal meaning in language is always a crossing over, Eros and Thanatos take the shape of a chiasmus. In his book on Freud, Paul Ricoeur stresses that Thanatos as a drive is allied to compulsions to repeat (281). As a consequence of chiasmus, repression becomes a fantasy of Eros to mask the repetitive urge within the procreative. The White Hotel counters the repetitive urge with a proleptic one, linking it to Eros. The dispassionate narrative voice of Chapters One and Two represses the horror of the future. However, the fantasies of proliferating sexual love ultimately are solipsistic and self-referential—taking on the repetitive dimension of Thanatos. It is only through desire of or union with another that Eros can emerge unencumbered to fight against the death instinct. The White Hotel presents Lisa's decision to accompany Kolya and her nurturing role in “The Camp” to counter Thanatos. The repressed narrative voice of the poem and journal is now imbued with ethical direction. Eros is restored as love from the heart and joins with reason to heal the effects of Thanatos.

After the historical documents of Anna's poem and journal and Freud's case history, the events at Babi Yar become another context of historical discourse, another form of closure. An Oedipal conflict of sorts is enacted within the narrative structure as the umbrella of male, rational authority concludes the first triangle of the novel, negating female telluric and prescient powers and foreshadowing the violation of generativity in Chapter Five. This is modified by the female interpretation that begins the second triangle before the historical dimension of Chapter Five universalizes the private history of Lisa, again undercutting Freud's individual, patriarchal interpretation. In giving us “The Camp” as future, Thomas asks the reader to reject the father and to embrace the female perspective at the conclusion. In doing so, he offers an aesthetic defense against his own created image, a restoration of metaphor to combat the demon of repetition that is the death instinct of history and of language.

Again Bloom is helpful in his linking of the sublime to Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Bloom draws on the Burkean notion of the sublime, which shifted the definition from loftiness of vision to terror allied with pleasure.11 Bloom states that

the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when their causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its objects, that it cannot entertain any other. … Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, it hurries us on by an irresistible force. (113; emphasis mine)

He goes on to discuss Vico's argument that the sublime poet discovers his rhetorical drive in divination, the process of foretelling the dangers to the self's survival, and equates this drive to what Freud terms the primal instinct of Eros (115). The White Hotel operates as a sublime text through its combination of terror and pleasure that both contributes to and is realized in its proleptic vision. As a sublime text, it defends itself against its own created image by continuously revising that creation.12 In terms of Bloom's congruence of psychoanalytic and linguistic, it undergoes a process of unnaming akin to Freud's Verneinung—a psychic disavowal. Through repetition, the reader notices patterns of images that signal a center from which the reading must proceed simultaneously backwards and forwards, a collapsing of time and hierarchies that makes the text both horizontal and vertical. However, the shifting context in which these images are presented renders our interpretative centers no more than a stroking of the crucifix, another imposed and self-imposed duplicity.

Ricoeur equates repression with metaphor and, paralleling Bloom, puts repression in the realm of Eros (402). The proleptic vision that lurks through the repressions of the first four chapters of The White Hotel is realized in the Babi Yar chapter, which offers anagnorisis. The death force of history eradicates all metaphoric readings of signs and annihilates figurative complexity with its monomania. To end the novel at this point would be an implicit endorsement of this nihilistic vision and a negation of the narrative multidimensionality that Thomas has built. In Chapter Six, Thomas acknowledges Thanatos but restores metaphoric repression to the text so that Eros may again prosper. Through the scent of a pine tree, fictional depth is reinstated in the imaginative life of the text.

In his “Note on a Mystic Writing Pad,” Freud uses a common dime store toy, often referred to as a “Magic Slate,” as a metaphor for how the unconscious works. Impressions strike the conscious mind like the writing implement on the slate, but their manifestations are eventually removed like the lifting of the plastic sheet on which the impressions register. However, the waxen slate that is underneath the plastic sheet functions like the unconscious in retaining all the marks elicited by the pressures of the writing implement.13The White Hotel functions in a similar fashion. Each chapter is so revisionary that it superficially wipes the slate clean; however, the imprints registered by all the narrative details remain in the reader's mind, sometimes superimposed on one another. The chiasmic triangles of the narrative structure constantly comment on each other as our backwards and forwards reading invites repetitive transformation, a combination of Eros and Thanatos. Psychical duplicity becomes the duplicity of fiction that is paradoxically liberating through its repressions in its sublime merger of terror and pleasure.


  1. In a 1908 letter to Karl Abraham, Freud asked Abraham to forgive Jung's spirituality. It is easier for Jews to accept psychoanalysis, Freud explained, “as we lack the mystical element” (Steele 209).

  2. Other critics, most impressively David Cowart, have noted some of the doubling of images and triangular relationships in The White Hotel. However, none has seen them functioning as an integral facet of the narrative structure of the novel.

  3. Marsha Kinder thoroughly treats the image patterns of trains, swans, and pines (162-168).

  4. In “Medusa's Head” (1922), Freud equates the terror engendered by the decapitated head of Medusa with castration anxiety. Medusa's head represents the female genitals, the snake encircled head suggests the public hair (105). See also Freud's “The Infantile Genital Organization of the Libido.” The conjunction with Venus and Ceres in The White Hotel is, of course, another instance of the joining of mirrored opposites. In a different but related context, Anna recalls observing jellyfish floating just beneath the surface of the lake at her childhood home, and Freud's note tells us that she used the Russian term medusa for jellyfish (118). Since the jellyfish is womb-shaped, Lisa's recollection of a floating womb refers us back to the gliding womb at the white hotel and forward to the rape scene in the penultimate chapter.

  5. Kinder offers an excellent discussion of the links between Freud's case study of the Wolf Man and The White Hotel (155).

  6. The critical material on The White Hotel has already noted the similarities between the case history of Anna G. and that of Freud's patient Dora in “Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” In a letter to me dated 30 July 1987, Thomas states that he was not consciously influenced by the Dora material. “The case I studied most intensively,” he writes, “mainly for style and form, was that of Elizabeth in the Freud-Breuer series.” One of Jung's patients, Miss Miller, also has several parallels with the case of Anna. Miss Miller writes poetry with an accompanying prose interpretation and experiences a pain in her breast, in this case, at the sight of the dying Christian de Neurillette in Cyrano de Bergerac. Jung writes of her “extraordinary capacity for identification and empathy” (Jung 5: 34). In one of her poems about creation, Miss Miller puts sound before light. She explained that the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras, “makes the cosmic rise out of chaos by means of a whirlwind—which does not normally occur without producing a noise” (Jung 5: 45). With the transmutation of a few letters, “Anaxagoras” becomes “anagornisis”—“Clarification! More light! More light! More light—and more love” (236). I am indebted to my student, Karen Riedel, for pointing out these connections to me.

  7. Thomas has the fictional Freud write to Lisa, “my experience of psychoanalysis has convinced me that telepathy exists. If I had my life to go over again, I should devote it to the study of this factor” (196). The quotation comes from a letter that the real Freud wrote from Bad Gastein to Hereward Carrington, who was soliciting his support for parapsychological research (Jones 3: 419-420). Freud concluded this letter by stating, “I am utterly incapable of considering the ‘survival of the personality’ after death even as a scientific possibility. …” Cowart argues that Thomas conceived The White Hotel as a response to this final statement (218). In addition to being a corresponding member of the Society for Psychical Research, Freud wrote several essays on the occult: “A Premonitory Dream Fulfilled” (1899), “Premonitions and Chance” (1904), “Psychoanalysis and Telepathy” (1921), “Dreams and Telepathy” (1922), “The Occult Significance of Dreams” (1925), and “Dreams and the Occult” (1933).

  8. The plagiarism controversy that emerged after the publication of The White Hotel is detailed by Lynn Felder. The accusations focus primarily on Thomas' use of details from Kuznetsov's novel in “The Sleeping Carriage” chapter. Using the same premise, critics might have accused Thomas of plagiarism in the “Frau Anna G” chapter because it is largely modeled on Freud's analysis of Elizabeth; however, none has. What those who accuse Thomas of plagiarism fail to understand is how much the argument inherent in The White Hotel hinges on the revision of documents as aspects of the multiple narrative voices.

  9. Several critics, particularly early reviewers of the novel, object to the inclusion of “The Camp” after the Babi Yar chapter. See, for example, Thomas Flanagan's review. Mary F. Robertson states that “The Camp” is unconvincing because “its sense of renewal is aesthetic rather than ethical” (472). My argument holds that the sense of renewal in the final chapter, although qualified by the lingering presence of Thanatos, is aesthetic and also ethical.

  10. Cowart makes these identifications (225). Robertson objects to Thomas' portrayal of his female hero's knowledge in stereotypically mythic terms. In doing so, Robertson claims, Thomas fails to rectify history's horrors through his art (465).

  11. The collision between two incongruous opposites, the one terrible and the other beautiful, is also the central concern of the grotesque (Kayser passim). Certainly the frequent juxtaposition of human and animal as well as the conjunction of Venus and Medusa in The White Hotel contribute to a reading of the novel as a work of the grotesque. See Margot Norris' Beasts of the Modern Imagination for a fascinating exploration of the structural premises upon which the differences between humans and animals have been founded and the attempts to heal this breach in the “biocentric tradition” of modern thought and art.

  12. A connection with Arnold Schopenhauer's view of madness as revisionary memory might be suggested here. In The World as Will and Representation (1: 193), Schopenhauer characterizes the madman's memory as selective, the gaps of which he fills with fictions to create a comprehensible world. Drawing in part on Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Daniel O'Hara links Schopenhauer's madman with revisionist theory. At the conclusion of his essay, O'Hara suggests that “revisionary madness could also be seen as an uncanny restoration to health … that the critic best embodies Freud's image from Civilization and Its Discontents of man as a prosthetic god” (47). Bloom himself deems Schopenhauer's theory of the sublime to be the precursor of Freud's in that Freud's unconscious forgetting substitutes for Schopenhauer's conscious turning away (124).

  13. In “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Jacques Derrida challenges Freud's premise that there exist finite origins to repression. Using Freud's statement from “Note on the Mystic Writing Pad,” “if we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing-Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind” (232), Derrida agrees that “writing is unthinkable without repression” (226). However, he views that repression as ongoing rather than primal. David Hoy argues that Derrida sets up his examples after the fashion of Freud, locating “undecidability at the syntactical rather than the semantic level” (55).

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. 1757. Ed. James T. Boulton. London: Routledge, 1958.

Cowart, David. “Being and Seeming: The White Hotel.Novel 19 (1986): 216-231.

Derrida, Jacques. “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 196-231.

Felder, Lynn. “D. M. Thomas: The Plagiarism Controversy.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook 1982. 79-82.

Flanagan, Thomas. “To Babi Yar and Beyond.” Nation (2 May 1981): 537-539.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1920. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 18. London: Hogarth P and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955. 3-64. 24 vols. 1953-1974.

———. “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.” 1905. Collected Papers. Trans. Alix and James Strachey. Vol. 3. New York: Basic, 1959. 5 vols. 13-146.

———. “The Infantile Genital Organization of the Libido.” 1923. Collected Papers. Trans. Joan Riviere. Vol. 2. New York: Basic, 1959. 244-249.

———. “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety.” 1926. Trans. James Strachey. Standard Edition. Vol. 20. London: Hogarth P and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955. 77-179.

———. “Medusa's Head.” 1922. Collected Papers. Trans. James Strachey. Vol. 5. New York: Basic, 1959. 105-106.

———. “Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad.” 1925. Trans. James Strachey. Standard Edition. Vol. 19. London: Hogarth P and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955. 227-235.

Hoy, David. “Jacques Derrida.” The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences. Ed. Quentin Skinner. London: Cambridge UP, 1985. 41-64.

Jones, Ernest. Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. 3 vols. London: Hogarth P, 1957.

Jung, C. G. Collected Works, Vol. 5. Symbols of Transformation. 2nd ed. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967. 34-38. 20 vols. 1953-1979.

Kayser, Wolfgang. The Grotesque in Art and Literature. Trans. Ulrich Weisstein. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1963.

Kinder, Marsha. “The Spirit of The White Hotel.Humanities in Society 4-5 (1981-1982): 143-170.

Kuznetsov, Anatoli. Babi Yar. Trans. David Floyd. New York: Pocket, 1971.

Norris, Margot. Beasts of the Modern Imagination. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

O'Hara, Daniel. “Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time.” Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism. Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 31-47.

Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. Trans. Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970.

Robertson, Mary F. “Hystery, Herstory, History: ‘Imagining the Real’ in Thomas' The White Hotel.Contemporary Literature 25 (1984): 452-477.

Schopenhauer, Arnold. The World as Will and Representation. Trans. E. F. J. Payne. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1966.

Steele, Robert S. Freud and Jung: Conflicts of Interpretation. London: Routledge, 1982.

Thomas, D. M. Rev. of A Secret Symmetry: Sabina Spielrein Between Jung and Freud. By Aldo Carotenuto. New York Review of Books 13 May 1982: 3, 6.

———. The White Hotel. New York: Viking, 1981.

Lars Ole Sauerberg (essay date Fall 1989)

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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 appeared.1 In my opinion, Thomas's Hotel is one of the few works of best-selling fiction from recent years that needs and deserves reconsideration. It needs reconsideration because the uproar surrounding its publication impeded a balanced assessment. It deserves reconsideration because the work is very ambitious, and it requires a critical response that discusses it on the basis of that ambition.

The book's reviewers tended to focus on its sensational aspects, the quality of its Freud imitations, and its compositional ingenuities. Although we cannot deny the presence of sensational elements, to treat the book as if it were pornography is utterly to misconstrue its intention. The imitations of Freud are cleverly done—the circumstantial and fatherly tone close to its model—and Thomas's literary acumen is well established by a textual fabric of great complexity. Few reviewers at the time of publication brought these disparate observations together.2

My reaction of confusion upon first reading the book is likely similar to that of other readers. Upon re-reading the book, I realized that this confusion stemmed partly from its intricate structure and partly from a feeling of uncertainty about the nature of the idea that gave rise to the book. As Thomas's virtuoso palimpsest technique of mixing fiction and reality opens itself neatly to the careful motif and structural analyst, this part of the confusion proved to be a superficial barrier. The real confusion springs from the thematic concerns.

Two possibilities for interpretation seem to arise. Either the book is to be read as an extended lyrical poem, with appreciation relying upon its suggestive qualities—which means that it must be accepted and responded to as a fact of life, whether it is understood or not—or the book is a comment on something apart from it—an attempt to come to terms with an extratextual reality. Whereas the approach based on the autonomous status of the book is a possible way of dealing with it, because the reader tuned to the lyrical experience responds to it so well, bringing together so much documentary reality in the book is a constant disturbance of the lyrical approach. The White Hotel insists upon bringing the text face-to-face with the reality of the issues that constitute its imaginative fabric. I contend that however admirably Thomas works his imagery, he fails to create a satisfying fictional form that contains and redeems a particularly nasty chapter in twentieth-century history.

Thomas's own comments on his book may be of initial help. The author offers two slightly different genesis stories. To Publishers Weekly he explained that:

The White Hotel actually started as a poem. The image of a train journey had haunted him as part of a quarrel between Jung and Freud, both so convinced of their own self-importance that each felt the other should take the short train journey necessary for them to meet (in the end, neither did). Thomas wrote a poem on this idea, then worried that it seemed unfinished. Then he read Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, about the wartime massacre of Jews at Kiev. “I was going to the United States and wanted—needed—a long book for the flight. The account of the Holocaust suddenly connected with my poems. Everything fell into place. And I didn't go to the United States after all—I started to write the novel instead.”3

In a later interview with Judith Thurman, he added a thematic suggestion to his account of how several originally fragmentary poetic images were brought together:

The book began with the poem. In the Ernest Jones biography of Freud, I read that Freud had interviewed—I mean analyzed, that's a funny slip—a woman who claimed to be having an affair with his son. I thought that was a wonderful dramatic idea. So I tried to get inside the voice of the woman to whom this had happened. And the images just came to me from some very pure source. … But I didn't know where they were leading until I read the account of Babi Yar … a few years later. I realized then that the woman, almost certainly having been Jewish, could have ended up at Babi Yar or in the camps. And that these were the poles of experience in our century: love and death, Eros and Thanatos.4

Asked by Laura de Coppet about his motivation for writing The White Hotel, he stated that:

I could say that the motivation was to write about the real history of the Twentieth century, which flows through the humanism of Freud into the desolation of the Holocaust; from that very personal landscape where people were studied individually with great care and a good deal of insight, into the time when masses were wiped out for no good reason. But I don't actually think that the answer occurred to me at the time. It probably emerged later, as the theme of the book. What excited me at first was reading Anatoli Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, quoting an eyewitness account.5

It appears from these three interview extracts that the genesis of the book was due to a merging of seemingly incompatible material—Freud vs. Babi Yar—and that the thematic implications were realized through subsequent rationalization. Thomas's own interpretation, then, is that The White Hotel is the portrait of an age—an age characterized by brutalization, as suggested in the four lines from Yeats's “Meditations in Time of Civil War” that Thomas used as his epigraph: “We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The Heart's grown brutal from the fare; / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love.” This interpretation is an oversimplification, however, because his portrait is both a heavily stylized likeness, with priority given to existential extremes, and the expression of a wish to transcend the reality portrayed. In other words, Thomas is committed beyond mere reflection, epistemologically as well as ethically. It is therefore necessary to describe the nature of Thomas's vision and to discuss the validity of his own interpretation.

The White Hotel is a web of two different realities: a psychological reality with its origin in a (day)dream world, and a social reality with its origin in individual and collective histories. Thomas describes the first reality in a discourse saturated with symbols and traditional poetic devices, ranging from lyrical details to apocalyptic vision. The second reality is described in accordance with the conventions of the realistic novel. The unique quality of the work arises from the tension between the poetically dreamlike and the prosaically historical. The two do not, however, appear as absolutely polarized elements, but as fading into each other during a counterpoint-like progression.

The dramatic situations in The White Hotel are based on death in combination with eroticism. Compared with the intensity of the love-making and monstrous scenes of death in the book, however, Thomas's moral is disappointingly anticlimatic in its modesty. Toward the end of his interpretation of Lisa's life story, Freud replies to Lisa's question about the extent of his help that “much will be gained if we succeed in turning your hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (115-16). Further on, when they part, Freud tells her that he thinks she is “cured of everything but life, so to speak” (127).

Lisa is frustrated by the nondramatic progression of her cure. She expects treatment leading to a personal revolution, but Freud offers her readjustment only. Toward the end of the book, in the camp, her mentor Richard Lyons, obviously an incarnation of Freud's son appearing in her erotic dreams, turns Freud's pragmatic observations into advice about action. On Lisa's query, “Why is it like this, Richard? We were made to be happy and to enjoy life. What's happened?” (239), he “shook his head in bafflement, and breathed out smoke. ‘Were we made to be happy? You're an incurable optimist, old girl!’ He stubbed the cigarette, and took the baton from his belt. ‘We're desperately short of nurses,’ he said. ‘Can you help?’” (239-40; Thomas's italics). Happily, Lisa then accepts her inglorious task and is instantaneously cured. Lisa's redemption is in her active participation in and service to life, but, we note, at the price of leaving ethical problems unresolved. When we do our existential sums, life comes out only slightly in the black, with Thomas falling little short of philistine stoicism in his conclusion.

“The Camp” is the concluding section of The White Hotel, but in a way it is also its beginning. Thomas's account of Lisa Erdman's life results in the reader's frustration if the work is read in accordance with our expectations of a realistic fictional universe. To the traditionally minded reader, who has finally found comfort when the book moves into the traditional omniscient perspective and the epic progression of the fourth section after the letters and the sexual fantasies of the first three, and who is consequently also able to see a system in these sections, the last section must seem embarrassingly out of tune.6 Had Thomas chosen to finish the account after the blood bath of Babi Yar, he would at least have achieved a kind of tragic unity.

But the book is not written for any first reading. It unfolds in the same spatial manner as a lyrical poem beyond time and causality. The composition of the book—its structure—insists upon spatiality, which becomes clear only with the second reading. In this view, the concluding section can be seen to control our understanding of all the events, and of the structure, of the book. In his fictional letter to Freud in the prologue, Sachs writes that Lisa's fantasies seem to him Paradise before the fall: “not that love and death did not happen there, but there was no time in which they could have meaning” (14-15; Thomas's italics). This remark is an essential key to The White Hotel. Timelessness is both a condition of the reading experience and a central theme in its own right.

It should be noted that Freud is unable to cure Lisa's hysteria, or what he diagnoses as hysteria, because there are layers in Lisa's psyche deeper than or different from those reachable by Freud that stubbornly oppose the psychoanalytic probing. Freud's analysis is clearly insufficient, not only because of the technical shortcomings of his method but also, and more important, because any scientifically founded therapy is irrelevant for Thomas's purposes. Lisa's symptoms may be mitigated but not eliminated in this world. Freud's slow discovery of repressed layers in Lisa's mind, and his diagnosis of unrecognized homosexuality—that is, the psychoanalytic routine treatment with the expectation that the patient's recognition of the repression is its cure—reveal a clinical and fragmented view of man.

Freud is not to be Lisa's redeemer. In the last resort, he himself is a patient, as is emphasized by his appearance in “The Camp.” Thomas's introductory author's note makes the point at the earliest possible stage: “Freud becomes one of the dramatis personae, in fact, as discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis.” Underlying the myth, which is the human attempt to meet the world by the logic of a story, is the principle of causality in the Newtonian world picture. Freud's help to Lisa is reduced to agreement with Heraclitus that “[t]he soul of a man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored” (174).

Lisa's symptoms violate the linear concept of time and turn our accepted causality principle upside down. The pains in her breast and abdomen are proleptic stigmata stemming from the bestial treatment she receives in the mass grave. During Freud's therapy, Lisa declares that she possesses a psychic gift, a gift in whose validity Freud believes. She explains that on several occasions she has had pre-visions of events that occur later. Her explanation might be of some help on the level of symbol structure, but it is hardly a satisfactory explanation for applying the text to the reality incorporated in it. As indicated in Thomas's introductory note, Freud and psychoanalysis are given a metascientific status, and The White Hotel is intended as a challenge to the logic that asserts itself in the procedures of psychoanalytic therapy.

What, then, has Thomas to offer by way of challenge, apart from mythologizing? Basically, as I have argued, he offers a stoic lesson expressed in a lyrical poem of extensive length and unusual composition, victorious eros fantasies relating to a psychological reality of (day)dreaming, and a thanatos element documented as history. The problematic nature of the book is rooted primarily in the insistence of the superior value of the dream. But the reality of Babi Yar obviously resists sublimation. Thomas's acknowledgment of this problem is seen in his transition from section five to section six. After having explained in considerable detail and with the force of understatement how after the war the Babi Yar ravine was filled up and forgotten, how “progress” made its way, he claims: “But all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem” (222). The psychoanalysis, which has been the red thread so far, is, as an essentially rationalist activity, unable to cope with an incomprehensibly cruel reality against which the highly tentative and theoretical thanatos concept has little comfort to offer. Two pages before he depicts the escape of the soul to a transcendental afterlife, Thomas describes the eventual futility of Dr. Freud's endeavors, again with the Heraclitus echo:

The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor or illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions, and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms). Though most of them had never lived outside the Podol slum, their lives and histories were as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Berenstein's. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person. (220)

If we read the book not primarily for its richness of suggestive imagery but as a serious attempt to come to terms with the traumatic experiences of the twentieth century, the shift from the mass grave at Babi Yar to the “promised land” is the master fulcrum of the book; consequently, the very nature of the shift is subject to criticism. Thomas's problem is that he cannot unite persuasively the individual's wish for an afterlife with the historical certainty of the absolute, irrevocable, and in casu monstrous reality of death. Thomas gives expression to the instinct for survival in Lisa's jump into the mass grave just before the bullets hit her and Kolya. But the wish—the demand—for eternal life, even in a twentieth-century version of paradise reduced to a place for mere survival, must necessarily be formulated in this world, which is why the traditional literary vision—the apocalypse—presents itself as the solution.

As literary text, as postulate about its own reality, The White Hotel indeed has consistency. But when we begin to discuss the validity of Thomas's postulate in a broad existential context, the book's flaws appear. Suffering, both as experienced by Lisa individually and by the victims collectively, is left frustratingly unredeemed. Thomas Flanagan judges it an impossible ambition that “The White Hotel seeks to fuse the sufferings of an individual with the horrors of this unspeakable century, and to suggest, by radiance of image and form, that all of them can be confronted.”7 Despite the author's intention, Thomas's book makes it clear that there is a point beyond which the literary fantasy can no longer cope with the reality it transforms. It seems to be not so much a question of lack of artistic cleverness as a question of general morality, as suggested by Hermione Lee: “To give Freud an imaginary patient in 1920, and to turn her into a victim of the Nazis so as imaginatively to encompass the turning of the layers of the soul into layers of bodies, raises the question of whether the craftiness of fiction is even permissible here.”8 Fictional “reality” and experienced, historical reality are two different types. Paul Ableman has expressed the opinion that this epistemological problem is a central issue of The White Hotel: “A major theme of this novel is the final elusiveness of reality which must be documented before it can be scrutinised and will inevitably be distorted by the documentation.”9 Although Ableman's point is valid, I hesitate to pronounce this problem a major theme of the book. In my opinion, Mary F. Robertson is more helpful when she suggests—about the “inherited problem of the relation between fact and fantasy, the empirical, and the mediated”10—that Thomas's The White Hotel is a symptom of a widening gap between the nature of twentieth-century reality and conventional literary renderings of it. With reference to the Yeats epigraph, she concludes that:

… culture still has a problem finding a way to “feed the heart on fantasies” that are healthy and yet have a power in history. It shows that Lisa's knowledge as woman, as analysand, and as Nazi victim is literally still unspeakable in any mainstream discourse because the poet can do no more than translate, as Freud did in psychoanalysis, the discourse of her body and the insane discourse of the Nazis into a discourse foreign to the victims' own understanding of themselves, which is poetry.11

If George Levine's New York Review pronouncement that “Elisabeth's heroism is unreflecting, and when she dies at Babi Yar protecting her husband's child we witness events for which no documents exist”12 is changed modally into “for which no document can exist,” we are, in my opinion, close to the core of the problem. Thomas is obviously aware that he is dealing with material that demands another kind of attention than that we are accustomed to in fiction. He responds with a discourse that succeeds initially in forcing the reader out of his habitual pose, but the expression of collective suffering on such a monstrous scale eludes Thomas's attempt at verbal containment. His resort to the immediacy of the eyewitness report is effective as long as it lasts, but when he chooses the metaphysical escape in his version of the human comedy, he leaves the reader with an unfulfilled sense of moral responsibility. The insane reality of mass murder will not tolerate the sublimation of poetic fictionalization.

Toward the end of his New York Times Book Review article, Leslie Epstein cites Freud: “To endure life remains, when all is said, the first duty of all living beings. Illusion can have no value if it makes this more difficult for us.”13 I suggest in conclusion that the way The White Hotel attempts to make life endurable rests on an illusion due to a general difficulty in applying a wishful literary fantasy to a repellent historical reality, a difficulty foregrounded by Thomas's choice of the Holocaust as primary subject matter. The novel format, uneasily adopted by Thomas, works optimally with reference to a reality of limited dimensions and with the moral issues that belong in our world, which is why the text succeeds so well as a case study of individual neurosis. But Thomas's total vision, which aims at nothing less than the presentation of traumatic twentieth-century history and its possible redemption through the soul's will to survive, is essentially incompatible with a generic tradition that emphasizes the individual in his social and psychological contexts. Thomas may be right in his argument that when Lisa “changes from being Lisa an individual to Lisa in history,”14 her sudden representativeness is well reflected in the neutral and detached wording of Dina Pronicheva's eyewitness report, which has the force of anonymous and therefore collective testimony of the atrocities carried out at Babi Yar.15 Whereas no change is felt, however, in the transformation from Thomas's own narrative into the passages adapted from Babi Yar, as there is no difference between the historical and the fictional on the verbal level, we might feel disturbed at Thomas's dismissal of the mass grave with the words: “But all this had nothing to do with the guest, the soul, the lovesick bride, the daughter of Jerusalem” (222). The foundation of realistic fiction in history makes us readily accept the documentary (provided there is similarity of style) but makes it difficult to accept metaphysical solutions, especially when the contrast is so cruelly marked as is the case in The White Hotel.


  1. D. M. Thomas, born in 1935 in Cornwall, was a poet and translator of Russian poetry before he turned to fiction. The White Hotel is his third novel, preceded by The Flute Player (1979) and Birthstone (1980). His fiction subsequent to The White Hotel is a long, loosely structured improvisation novel: Ararat (1983), Swallow (1984), Sphinx (1986), and Summit (1987).

    Page references to The White Hotel are to the King Penguin 1981 edition and appear in the main text.

  2. The White Hotel was, on the whole, well received everywhere. Reviewers were lavish with their praise for Thomas's brilliant narrative technique but more cautious in their interpretations, which were characterized by rather broad and noncommittal statements such as “[w]hat The White Hotel sets out to perform, clearly, is the diagnosis of our epoch through the experience of an individual”; (Leslie Epstein in the New York Times Book Review, 15 March 1981, 26); or “[i]n this bold, intellectually challenging novel, Thomas goes beyond both history and historical fiction: he explores the shadowy realm of perception and perceiver with breathtaking vision and artistry.” (Virginia Quarterly Review 57, Summer 1981, 99). Thomas's integration in section V (entitled “The Sleeping Carriage”) of material from Anatoli Kuznetsov's Babi Yar sparked a prolonged debate about Thomas's alleged plagiarism in the Times Literary Supplement in March and April 1982. Thomas's attackers felt that he had presented documentary material as his own fiction.

  3. 27 March 1981, 6.

  4. Mademoiselle (Feb. 1983) 160.

  5. Interview (June 1982) 32.

  6. I am aware that my assumption of a reading strategy along conventionally realistic lines may raise objections from those who readily place the work in a modernist or postmodernist context. But the prologue and the first five sections make sense as traditional realism as soon as the case-history pattern is realized in section three, “Frau Anna G.” Until section six, “The Camp,” Thomas relies upon a fragmentary technique borrowed, for instance, from suspense novels, which does not question the reality transformed into fiction or the validity of the verbal representation of that reality. It is therefore to be expected that the general reader's reaction will be based upon realistic naturalization.

  7. The Nation (2 May 1981) 2.

  8. The Observer (18 Jan. 1981) 31.

  9. The Spectator (17 Jan. 1981) 21.

  10. “Hystery, Herstory, History,” Contemporary Literature 25 (Winter 1984) 453.

  11. “Hystery, Herstory, History” 477.

  12. 28 May 1981, 21.

  13. 15 March 1981, 27.

  14. Thomas's letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, 2 April 1982, 383.

  15. Thomas observes, “From the infinitely varied world of imaginative fiction we move to a world in which fiction is not only severely constrained but irrelevant” (Thomas's letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement 383).

Angeline Goreau (review date 8 July 1990)

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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 woman; Sigmund Freud's (fictional) case study of “Anna G.”; a traditional, third-person narrative giving the history of Frau Elisabeth Erdman, a k a Anna G.; a chilling account of the Holocaust at Babi Yar, and a surreal scene in which the resurrected heroine meets her beloved dead.

As the novel progresses, the essential connection between these perplexing fragments becomes manifest; each is, in some sense, a translation of the last: Moving from poetry, the most subjective of literary forms and that closest to the dream language of the id, to an account that assumes the objectivity of history, D. M. Thomas explores the means through which literature attempts to come to terms with experience—with the complicated meeting of self and world. How, The White Hotel asks, do we arrive at meaning? How do we arrive at truth?

D. M. Thomas returns to the same questions, adopting similar literary methods, in “Russian Nights,” the quintet of novels written after The White Hotel, which Lying Together concludes. The sequence of novels, which began with Ararat in 1983, followed by Swallow (1984), Sphinx (1987) and Summit (1988), is unified (the author notes) by the theme of improvisation: “the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected yet independent.”

“Russian Nights” is dedicated to Pushkin, who presides over the quintet much as Freud presided over The White Hotel, both as progenitor and character. Mr. Thomas's improvisational novels were inspired by a narrative fragment called “Egyptian Nights,” which Pushkin began in 1835, two years before he was killed in a duel. In the Pushkin story, a poet named Charsky, writing in his study, is interrupted by a foreigner whose shabby aura excites his suspicion. The stranger, it turns out, is an improvisatore—a performer who extemporizes verse on themes suggested by an audience—who has come to ask Charsky's help in acquiring patrons. Demonstrating his art, the improvisatore asks the Russian poet for a theme and the latter offers: “The poet himself should choose the subject of his songs; the crowd has no right to direct his inspiration.” Obliging, the foreigner begins with these lines: “Eyes open wide, the poet weaves / Blind as a bat, his urgent way.” Later on, at the evening Charsky organizes to introduce him into Petersburg society, the improvisatore begins a brilliant poem on the subject of “Cleopatra's Lovers.” In the middle of the verses, the story breaks off.

Mr. Thomas, who is one of Pushkin's foremost translators, inserted the entire text of “Egyptian Nights” into Ararat, the first novel of his quintet. He framed that story, however, in a dizzying spiral of authorship. At the beginning of the book, a Russian poet named Sergei Rozanov amuses himself by improvising a story—a talent he has inherited from his Armenian grandfather. His subject is improvisation. Rozanov imagines three other writers thrown together by chance at an international conference who agree to collaborate on an improvisation of their own. They create a character named Victor Surkov, a repulsively trendy Russian poet who in his turn invents alternative endings for Pushkin's unfinished story, one of which imitates Pushkin's own real ending—a duel over his wife's honor. At one point in the narrative, Surkov seems to become Pushkin.

Swallow,Sphinx and Summit gave variations on the theme of improvisation, introducing many of the same characters and interlarding dreams, narrative, poems, a play called “Isadora's Scarf,” political satire, borrowed texts (H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, for example) and historical events and persons. But Pushkin and “Egyptian Nights,” in one guise or another, were never far from sight. What interests Mr. Thomas in the story, from the evidence of the novels, is the paradox on which it turns: the improvisatore stands for creativity in its most elemental form (inspiration), but at the same time the subject of his verses is always something given to him. Literature, Mr. Thomas suggests, is a collaboration of past and present, repetition and invention, the world as given and the world imagined.

Lying Together seems at first to take a new tack. The “real” people behind the earlier fictions are unveiled: the narrator is Don Thomas, a British writer attending an international writers' conference in London. Here, he meets his Russian friends Sergei Rozanov, Victor Surkov and Masha Barash—all fictional characters in the earlier novels. The four writers discuss the novels they have improvised together—Ararat,Swallow,Sphinx and Summit—and agree to collaborate on a new one, Lying Together. The first four novels have been published as the work of “D. M. Thomas,” we learn, because Soviet censorship made it impossible to tell the truth. Now that perestroika has arrived, however, the Russians are agitating to have their part in the novels revealed, but Don Thomas tells them that the contract with Viking Penguin forbids it.

Subsequent twists of the plot reveal still more “real” people lurking behind fictional characters—as well as fictional characters who become real people, arousing the resentment of their inventors. Each mystery solved though, seems to create several more perplexities. And all the while, the character-authors are deceiving one another, interpreting one another, and giving the reader advice on how to read the books they've improvised. Victor Surkov, discussing Lying Together in an interview, remarks: “There's a sexual pun there, of course: in sex there's the same combination of lies and deeper truth.”

On the most intimate level, Lying Together insists that self-revelation is ultimately yet another form of fiction. We invent ourselves, then come to believe our own improvisations. But Mr. Thomas also intends his unfolding truths to function as a political metaphor, just as hysteria did in The White Hotel. Since Pushkin's time, improvisation—read disguise—has been the key to surviving the censors of both czars and revolutionaries. Where official language predominates, truth is no longer discernable.

An author's note prefacing Summit suggests D. M. Thomas intended that novel to conclude what he then called “The Russian Quartet.” Lying Together, I suspect, was written as a response to the subsequent events of glasnost and perestroika. Discussing Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's speeches with his Russian friends, the fictional Don Thomas remarks that “he seemed to strike a humanistic, philosophical tone quite different from the traditional dreary, shrill propaganda jargon; a tone, moreover, to which our politicians were incapable of responding. That was because truth, in the West, had become slowly corrupted, Surkov said; whereas in the Soviet Union it had had to go underground for seventy years. Therefore when it was tapped it was still pure, like a spring.”

Later on, though, Surkov tells a reporter from a London newspaper that “there is little actual censorship now, but there's something even more dangerous, in a way—self-censorship. Gorbachev is saying, Look, you guys, I'm trusting you; don't let me down! So we try not to let him down by censoring our works in our minds, or even our subconscious.”

Like The White Hotel, the “Russian Nights” quintet is an engaging literary performance: a learned, witty, intricately constructed inquiry into the tricky relationship between art and life. Yet somehow it lacks the power of the earlier novel. In the end the quintet is more interesting to discuss than to read. This may be because, for all the fragmentation of the narrative in The White Hotel, that novel is still compellingly held together by a story—a story whose heroine we come to care about. This is only episodically the case with the characters in “Russian Nights”; for the most part they lack dimension. What we are left with finally is theory. Novels require something more.

T. J. Binyon (review date 7 February 1992)

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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 and fictional characters, including Lee Harvey Oswald. Lyndon Johnson and Sister Agnes, a pretty young history teacher at the Sacred Heart Convent in Dallas.

Interior monologue is the preferred mode of narration: Patrolman Tippit broods about his marital problems: Oswald contemplates life in Cuba and thinks of getting himself a Coca Cola; Marina, his wife, muses on the beauty of American bathrooms and wonders whether Lee has flushed the toilet. The characters carom against each other like billiard balls, touching but not communicating, and each break takes us back to Kennedy himself to explore a further aspect of his character. We meet him as the far-seeing statesman: “there were important things to do or think about, like what to say to Lodge on Sunday about the Vietnam situation. That was a fucking awful problem”; as the stern moralist: “A nun was a nun. There were limits. Yet her voice was as lovely as her face. Dammit”; as the deep thinker: “The world is just so crammed with beauty and heartbreak. Religion is about the only thing that makes any sense, and even that doesn't make too much”; as the diplomatic party politician, persuading Senator Yarborough to ride with Johnson: “Push him in and lock the door! Threaten to blow his fucking head off”; as the romantic poet: “I ought to have married an Irish girl. Who could sing the ballads and weave a spell of laughing words”, and as the tender lover:

“You want me to put on a rubber?”

“God, no. We're Catholics.”

“Oh, yes! I'd forgotten. It's OK, I'll pull out.”

It is not clear that D. M. Thomas intends to turn Kennedy into such a figure of fun, largely because it is not clear what the aim of the novel itself is. After all, a dream about Kennedy is a reflection of the dreamer's psyche, not of reality. The point is made when the Dallas psychologist (a former pupil of Sister Agnes) writes: “For the British author who interviewed me during his writing of a book about Kennedy, the President stood for his father, who had been very pro-American and democratic.” But putting together an inchoate mass of testimonies about the assassination is not a way of sorting out one's problems with one's parents: nor does it add up to an exploration of the collective unconsciousness.

In the end, despite its narrative pretensions, Flying in to Love (Love Airfield in Dallas) is just another fictionalized investigation into the circumstances surrounding Kennedy's death. It doesn't have the single-minded tendentiousness of Oliver Stone's film, JFK: if there was a conspiracy, it maintains, it was too complex to sort out. “The whole thing is messy, there seem to be innumerable clues, but almost all of them turn out to be red herrings, and they simply draw people deeper into a maze that has no exit.” This is not a description of a conspiracy, but of a paranoiac's view of life. The novel's relentless trivialization of its characters' lives does not succeed in imbuing the event with any sense of tragedy, or showing that it had any profound effect on those involved. Thomas may not have wished to suggest that life is aleatory, sordid and meaningless, but it is difficult to find anything more positive in the book.

Robert Houston (review date 11 October 1992)

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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 time to cave in, creating a vortex, a whirlwind, in which past, present and future, and reality and illusion, became confused.”

In effect, that psychologist is summarizing for us the argument of Flying In to Love. The novel itself is the vortex, in which Mr. Thomas dreams out the events of Nov. 22, 1963, again and again, each time from a different point of view and sometimes with a different result. In following the motorcade that departs from Dallas's Love Field, it is as if Mr. Thomas were running and rerunning the Zapruder film of the shooting, but changing the camera angles, moving backward and forward in time, adding characters, searching for a plot (in both meanings of the word), even imagining a world in which the assassination didn't succeed. In one sense, he is playing the what-if game long established in both historical and science fiction, but he is adding many more ifs than a less metafictionally inclined writer might dare.

Mr. Thomas, whose previous novels include The White Hotel and Ararat, assembles all of the expected cast—the Kennedys, the Johnsons, the Oswalds, J. Edgar Hoover—but he fictionalizes them with varying degrees of success. His Jacqueline Kennedy is the most sympathetic, truly in love with her husband, grieving over the baby she had recently lost, yet capable of great strength during the horror of the murder and its aftermath. Kennedy himself is a man incapable of deep affection for another individual, a man who can love only the faces in the crowds. Though there are moments when Mr. Thomas manages to make a reader feel sympathy for him, Kennedy remains too shallow, too wholly possessed by a gargantuan and amoral sexual appetite to seem fully credible, whether in a fantasy world or not. And Lyndon B. Johnson simply flops: a man who often seemed to be his own caricature can't be caricatured further, as Mr. Thomas attempts to do, without becoming merely a parody.

Of the invented characters, Sister Agnes, a young nun who was among those watching the motorcade, is the most interesting. When Kennedy stops his car and speaks to her, he sets in progress her lifelong obsession with him and his death an obsession that becomes a very complex kind of love. We stay with her through the stages of that love from the day of the assassination to the present, and see it manifest itself in dreams, fears, repressed lust, illness and finally bitterness. Sister Agnes serves Mr. Thomas well. She is both a soundly drawn character and a good vehicle for his exploration of the “vortex” caused by Kennedy's death, though her fixations on the martyred Jesus and on her father make some pretty heavy-handed symbolic connections.

Besides having difficulty creating convincing characters, Mr. Thomas sometimes runs into trouble wrapping his British tongue around the American idiom, especially the Texas variety. Although he is better at bilingualism than most writers who cross the Atlantic—in either direction—an American reader should come prepared to forgive, or not, some wooden dialogue and a few real boners. (“Nor me,” exclaims a witness at one point; the novel is heavily populated with “Texan men” and “Texan Democrats.”)

Despite its failings, however, Flying In to Love is worthwhile. Its greatest strength lies in Mr. Thomas's use of the assassination as the occasion for his book, rather than as the subject of it. He appears to accept the vast-conspiracy theory of the killing and, in a section of the novel he calls “Historical Fictions,” even expands it. Yet the conspiracy—or its unraveling—is not what ultimately interests him. Instead, he wants to puzzle out the need so many people feel for a conspiracy to explain the assassination, a “plot” to the events, so we can believe that reasons and causality do exist in the universe, even if they're hidden. Does history seem solid and fixed, Mr. Thomas wonders, only because we're seeing it in its apparently completed form, separate from ourselves? What does it mean to us, and to our dreams, to realize that we are history and, even if only like particles in chaos theory, we might somehow change it? What if, what if?

On one level, Mr. Thomas's game has been played often. (“It's a Wonderful Life” comes easily to mind.) But on the level at which Mr. Thomas plays, the intellectual difference is as profound as that between checkers and chess.

Bryan Cheyette (review date 29 January 1993)

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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 of his fictional heroine, Lisa Erdman, caused an outcry. It was not just that Thomas rewrote an essential memoir in lurid terms, but, more worrying, that he was prepared to sacrifice the historical victims of genocide on the altar of his prevailing metaphors. In The White Hotel, these metaphors were part of a superficial Freudianism which united Eros and Thanatos, the life and death-instincts, eroticism and annihilation. Thomas is especially keen in his fiction to unify different realms of experience, whether they be Holocaust testimony, sexual fantasy, individual psychosis or artistic creation. Pictures at an Exhibition is a radical extension of this method and begins with Auschwitz death-camp, which is remade, in an act of supreme arrogance, in Thomas's own image.

Thomas's “Auschwitz” chapters are entitled “Death and the Maiden”, after Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen. By taking his literary motifs and chapter headings from other art forms—especially the paintings of Edvard Munch—Thomas aims, giddily, to emulate Mussorgsky's orchestral composition based on the “pictures” of Victor Hartmann. But his version of the Wagnerian death-kiss results in an “Auschwitz” that is, above all, a place of sado-erotic pleasure. Chaim Galewski, a Jewish prisoner-doctor (whose memoirs we are meant to be reading), catches sight of a German woman in a bath towel, and records, for the reader's titillation, sexual experiments by the SS. These are associated, among others, with the figure of Irma Grese, “brandishing her whip; blonde, plump, ravishingly beautiful … I surmised she had a date with Dr Mengele, but meanwhile had some time to kill.” Within a page of this quotation, Judith Korczak, a Jewish inmate, is practising fellatio in front of Grese and Dr Stolb. In Thomas's pornographic universe, “choking on gas” and choking on semen are no more than parallel acts. A version of this scene is repeated ad nauseam throughout the novel and, by eroticizing death and suffering, Thomas deliberately blurs the distinction between victim and victimizer. Thus, on hearing of his son's death, Dr Lorenz, the SS doctor whom Galewski is meant to be psychoanalysing—itself a ridiculous supposition—“wore the vacant stare of a Mussulman” (one destined for the gas ovens) and had a face as “red as the crematorium walls”. On the other hand, the Jewish Galewski could “understand” why Lorenz found “most of my race unspeakable” and “admired, in a way, the SS hardness”. Thomas's benign “Auschwitz” is “still quite virginal”; a “miracle” baby survives the gas ovens by sucking at her mother's breast. Later on, the death camps are characterized as a “form of repulsive art”: “They had a terrible beauty of pragmatic efficiency. … The metaphors of purification, the bath-houses and the cleansing furnaces”. Instead of a source of unknowable horror, Thomas's “Auschwitz” is a source of redemptive sado-erotic metaphors.

As with his misuse of Kuznetsov's Babi Yar,Pictures at an Exhibition ransacks the documentary record for the kind of experience, in extremis, around which Thomas likes to build his controlling motifs and for which it claims historical authenticity. He does this by republishing an account of starving Jewish children who try to survive by eating plaster from the walls of the house in which they are imprisoned. It is only a matter of time before one of his characters, undergoing psychoanalysis, does the same thing. In one of his most telling phrases, we learn that “we are all displaced, everyone who was touched in any way by Nazism” (my emphasis). Predictably, the various psychoanalytic case-studies in the novel attempt to construct the death camps as a “common home”, specifically, it seems, for contemporary Londoners. According to Myra Jacobson, a Holocaust survivor, “there was more sense of spirituality at Auschwitz than there is in modern London”.

If this were merely a Mel Brooks spoof, a literary “Spring-Time for Hitler”, then one could simply find it unfunny. But this is a cold and calculated piece of writing, extremely self-conscious about its intentions, and designed to make its author a great deal of money. After The White Hotel, Thomas seems to believe that the right formula of Freud for beginners, Nazism, sadistic sex and historical revisionism will sell anything. I dearly hope that he is proved wrong.

Sean O'Brien (review date 7 May 1993)

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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 of the late George MacBeth from the 1960s and 70s, for example in the slightly dated ingenuity of the early science fiction/mythological monologues from Two Voices (1968)—“Missionary” (“A harsh entry I had of it, Grasud”), “Tithonus” and “Hera's Spring.” The 1960s are also apparent in the social and sexual attitudes revealed in the erotic poems of schoolteaching, “Private Detentions” and “A Lesson in the Parts of Speech” Alongside these, though, is the subtler “Pomegranate,” one of several poems employing the myth of Persephone, in this instance, to trace the growing-up of the daughter of separated parents who is seen leaving Hades with a bag “full of books I'll expect her to know”.

Mythology appeals to both Thomases. At best it's a means of understanding, at worst an auto-pilot. The most powerful myth, coming into its own in Love and Other Deaths (1975), is that of Thomas's Cornish family; people are so intensely present in the poet's childhood as to seem more than themselves. Aunt Cecie, for example, the taken-for-granted spinster, is disclosed in death as the real life of the house, and the poet hears her “struggle to sit up in the coffin” in order to get on with her work. The old age of the poet's mother intensifies his need of her even as he charts his self-protective detachment in “The Journey,” a poem which then modulates effectively from regretful matter-of-factness to submission to his own place in the story: “we are water and moor, / And far journeyers together. Whatever else we are.” “Rubble” goes over this ground again, trying to identify the knowledge his mother seems to have attained with the approach of death: “There is / a queer radiance in the space / between us which my eyes / avoid occupying: the radium / Madame Curie found, when desolate / she returned at night to the empty table.” Thomas is unafraid of emotional directness, and for the most part his grasp of the material here keeps him this side of sentimentality.

The strength of these poems (which is also present in later work such as the family portraits in “Under Carn Brea”) depends in part on a regard for the ordinary life through which these haunting personalities emerge. When Thomas neglects this, portentousness can be near at hand. “Surgery,” for example, looks at the role of a doctor in the experience of husband and wife as a marriage ends: she writes “prescriptions in a language / she herself hardly begins to know. / Something to carry her into the terrible valley. / Something to carry him into his terrible liberation.” The experience may indeed be terrible, but the word, employed here as a rhetorical token, rather in the manner of Ted Hughes at his most flatly assertive, only tells what the poem ought to show. Some more baldly mythological pieces (“Diary of a Myth-Boy,” “Ani”) seem lulled by a sense of their own credentials into language which is merely uninteresting, and when Thomas turns to the theme he is most commonly identified with—sex—the results can verge on the absurd, as in “Flesh” or “Sestina: Maria Maddalena,” which the reader seems to blunder into like a private party where the theory that eroticism and noise are directly linked is being tested to destruction.

It has been said more than once that Thomas's subjects are love and death, but literature itself should be added to these. The Honeymoon Voyage (1978) and Dreaming in Bronze (1981) contain a number of monologues in the persons of writers or characters, as well as evocations of their imaginative lives—“Lorca,” “The Marriage of John Keats and Emily Dickinson in Paradise,” Don Juan in “The Stone Clasp,” Freud and Jung in “Vienna. Zurich. Constance,” Lou-Andreas Salomé and others in “Fathers, Sons and Lovers.” The last two seem about to step off into prose; not simply “fictive”, they need a wider space in which to operate. Since the end of the 1970s, Thomas's energies seem to have been diverted away from his own poetry, partly into translations—of Pushkin, Akhmatova and Yevtushenko—partly into his work as a novelist, the latter, by his own account in the autobiography, Memories and Hallucinations (1988), not quite voluntarily, though the “open hand” of fiction has clearly retained its appeal. A group of fourteen new and uncollected poems closes The Puberty Tree. Among them “Persephone,” “A Guide To Switzerland” and “In the Fair Field” exemplify the affection, humour and musicality of which this unusual poet is capable when not distracted into oracular vulgarity.

Juliet Fleming (review date 3 October 1993)

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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 of collusion, we find ourselves gripped by interest in the details of Lorenz's past even as, outside his comfortable room, smoke rises and trains can be heard arriving from all over Europe. Although circumstances would seem to preclude the possibility of transference between patient and therapist (when asked about his mother, Lorenz returns the question to Galewski “Did you like your mother?”, and the silence that follows serves to indicate her fate), Lorenz is, improbably enough, cured by the fortuitous retrieval of a suppressed childhood trauma and returns to the selection ramp in full health. Mean while, it is dawning on us that Galewski's empathy with his patient is no simple attempt to save his own life: His admiration for Lorenz, one of the more “humane” killers in the camp, has at some point become genuine.

The scene shifts to England in 1990, where what at first appears to be a new cast of characters reveals itself as the old one dismantled and strangely reconfigured. Dreams, memories and entire identities seem to have become detached from their original owners and to be floating free in a miasma of responsibility in which guilt is everywhere, blame nowhere. The puzzle resolves itself as we realize that, in order to survive the end of the war, the SS officers, their collaborators and their victims have borrowed each others' identities, and are now caught in a web of debt and denial. Lying to each other and to us, having in part disguised and in part themselves forgotten who they are, they continue to abuse, betray and destroy one another.

Filtered through the distorted perceptions of Galewski, Thomas's Auschwitz has few heroes and none with whom we come into significant contact. Even the most innocent of the novel's characters, a baby who miraculously survives gassing, grows up under adoptive parents to sympathize with attacks on immigrant hostels in contemporary Germany: “They were youths without jobs, without hope. So one has to understand.” In its slow uncovering of the unconscious truths of Auschwitz, the novel represents itself as an act of therapy offered to an entire generation, each member of which holds only a fragment of the key to the mass psychosis that bound it. But psychoanalysis itself is under the mark of deepest suspicion in the novel. Lorenz makes his reappearance in London as an eminent analyst who abuses and betrays those who consult him; his enthusiasm for the discipline suggests that the “understanding” that psychoanalysis generated does little to halt, and may indeed sanction, destructive behaviour. In a society that has forgotten constraint—where impulse is translated into action without check, and where cruelty claims to be either “necessary” or “inadvertent”—to feel the force of psychoanalytic explanation is already to have colluded.

“There is,” wrote Maurice Blanchot, “no reaching the disaster.” As its title suggests, Pictures at an Exhibition addresses itself to the ethics of its own decision to write about the Holocaust. The novel asks itself not only whether art (or for that matter science) can ethically be based on atrocity; but even whether memorials—the product of those impulses of justification and denial that comprise in part the will to remember—are not themselves open to charges of complicity. (At the novel's end a memorial is opened by a bishop who, as a military chaplain, was as he puts it “innocently involved” in the deaths of 90 children.) The fact that such charges of complicity would presumably extend even to his own book demonstrates Thomas's ethical alertness in the face of events that must not be forgotten, but can scarcely be told.

Beautifully constructed and written, Pictures at an Exhibition is as lucid and confusing as a dream, as strange and as compelling as the impulses that operate beneath conscious thought. Its astonishing final twist teaches us that, here at least, evil is anything but banal. Instead it is intelligent and compelling: its medium is collusion; and collusion, for human subjects, is everywhere.

Frederick Busch (review date 31 October 1993)

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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) alike. And, in each, we relive a horrible slaughter of Jews—in The White Hotel, it is the mass killing at Babi Yar; in Pictures at an Exhibition, it is Auschwitz and other killing camps of the Holocaust, and the murder of 90 Jewish children in the Ukraine.

The novel opens in the 1940's, apparently in Europe. A doctor is summoned—one thinks of Kafka's story “A Country Doctor” as one reads the first pages—and he is asked to treat another doctor, who complains of headaches and nightmares and general malaise. Only gradually does Mr. Thomas let us see that Dr. Lorenz, the patient, is a physician at Auschwitz, and that Dr. Galewski, who treats him, is a Czechoslovakian Jew who is a prisoner in the camp.

This first-person section, narrated in Galewski's voice, is very skillful. Humane aspects of the Nazi are revealed, as are cruel and anti-Semitic aspects of the Jew. We learn, too, that the Jewish doctor's child has survived long enough to be adopted by a Nazi couple at the camp, and that he has saved an adolescent Jewish girl from death by coaching her through a Nazi torture—her forced incestuous coupling with her father; she survives but is used as both a whore and a partner in experiments studying prisoners having sex under duress.

This material, witnessing Nazi inhumanities and Jewish suffering, is difficult to read. It seems daring in its subtly harsh assessment of the Jewish Galewski. And Mr. Thomas's construction of a narrative puzzle that we become eager to unlock is masterly. In the prison doctor's genteel quarters, as Furtwängler's recording of Tristan und Isolde is played, while they eat good food before a fireplace, two intelligent men conduct witty, urgent conversation. Around them, bestiality presses at the margins of these pages and between the lines of type.

The lure of story and the cunning of the narrative drive us through the horror of the first section; we search for shape, for reason. Mr. Thomas insists that we get there, as in The White Hotel, by way of dream. In subsequent sections, set in the present, in England, we overhear the patients of a brilliant, beloved psychoanalyst, Oscar Jacobson, who is dying of multiple sclerosis. We almost never hear Jacobson's responses to the words of his patients; what we know comes from their repetition of what he says, and their summaries of his history and theirs.

So a patient must say this: “I've been thinking quite a lot about that dream, Dr. Jacobson. The one I had a couple of weeks ago. You know, where my sister and I were sitting with Ruth when she was dying, and Sarah admitted to me that Ruth was my child not hers.” Mr. Thomas's insistence on Oscar's silence seems a comment by the author on our ability to use language truthfully. Is this the terrain of Paul de Man, a proponent of literary reasoning based upon the unreliability of language—and a quisling during the Nazi occupation of Belgium? The effect of this clumsy management of information is that one seems to be overhearing soap opera. The tension of the first section evaporates and the reader, losing dramatic involvement, declines to merely ferreting through facts.

It becomes evident from internal clues—comments by his patients, Jacobson's own letters—that he is one of the two men we met in the opening pages. It takes some good while for us to learn which, and to understand that while he seems to have become a good man, he remains a cunning malefactor. Is the Nazi a Jew? Is the Jewish turncoat reformed? We search for that truth amid the lies and dreams and clues. And we see that Mr. Thomas is drawing together the strands of the novel—the baby of the camps, the victimized girl, the two doctors—and seems to be offering a truth about human nature.

But, finally, he doesn't. He offers dreaminess, dislocated sections of narrative and the duplicity and vile cunning of Jacobson and minor characters. It's as if the story he tells is secondary to him. It's as if his paramount concern is to demonstrate to us that consciously used language, not unlike that with which we speak unconsciously to our deepest selves, will usually lie.

By itself, this is a tired truth. Poststructuralist literary theory and the book chat it has engendered have wearied us of it, and many readers seek literary art because they believe that it offers more about our humanness than that weary sophistication. Mr. Thomas has a character say to Jacobson of the complaints of his patients that it “was as if, amidst the cosmic tragedy of ‘Lear,’ we saw Cordelia trotting along to marriage guidance with her hubby, and complaining that he spent no time on foreplay. You said life isn't really here, and only survivors … knew where it really was.” The rejection of the quotidian is by a Nazi doctor from Auschwitz. Does Mr. Thomas therefore seek to establish or invalidate the horror of the Holocaust as a higher order of truth about humanity? Does Cordelia have a right to simple happiness? Is everyone Cordelia? Should we care?

Linked to the historical documents at the novel's core, this relativism seems feeble. One section is a quotation of actual Nazi documents—from commanders and military clergy—about a house in which 90 small children of murdered Jews were locked for 24 hours without food or water. Order, secrecy, the unwillingness of any leader to be responsible for the children, and of course the war against the Jews, led to their being shot by a Ukrainian execution squad and buried in a mass grave. As the squad leader reports, “Many children were hit four or five times before they died.”

Clever theories about what is written or said cannot survive juxtaposition with that sentence. Whether that is Mr. Thomas's point, or whether his novel's comment on uncertainty matters more to him, the book proves alternately horrifying and annoying, powerful as its ironic last lines, by a clergyman, may be.

While there are interesting characters and moving scenes in Pictures at an Exhibition, its plot is tied together in an unconvincing Freudian bundle. A second-rate detective story written by one of Jacobson's patients, a failed analyst, melodramatically mistells the truth of who the Nazi was: words lie, you see; so the unspeakable remains unspoken. Yet it is the job of the fiction writer to make art by managing to say what seems unsayable.

And there are those victims of torture and murder: their sacrifice to the plotting of a novel of middling achievement lingers disturbingly. Pictures at an Exhibition may be most important, then, for the questions it provokes. What shall we allow ourselves to build on the scourged soil of the killing grounds?

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 22 April 1994)

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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 never mentioned) is dying in a house in Hampstead, looked after by his dedicated daughter. Between doses of morphia, he drifts from sleeping to waking, from past to present and to future as well—since, as he once said, “time does not exist in the unconscious”. The device gives Thomas the chance to let his own plus-freudien-que-freud unconscious run wild, with puns, jokes, obscenities, contradictions succeeding each other at speed, all of them around the theme of the life, times and character of Freud. The book may in fact have been carefully plotted, but it successfully creates the impression of absolutely free fall.

Characters move in and out of the dying man's dreams. Freud and fellow-analyst Lou Andreas-Salomé arrive with Darwin and Newton (both Fellows of the Royal Society like Freud) to discuss earthly and physical love. Victor Tausk, who committed suicide because of Freud's rejection of him, comes back for an argument, and Fleischl, whom Freud mistakenly poisoned with cocaine. Jacob Freud comes to tell his son he is a good boy but too clever for him—one day he will write books. The American poet HD, psychoanalysed by Freud in 1933, tells him he would have been a wow as analyst to a baseball team—the pretty cheerleaders would be screaming “Sigmund's our guy”. “He's no goy but he's some guy”, quips Freud, ready with Jewish jokes to the last. Hasn't he said, in reply to a comment on the number of suicides in his circle, “Yes, but I survived all the assassination attempts”?

Extravagant fantasy narratives loop out of the stream of consciousness: condensations of identity, convoluted incest patterns within the Freud family—which might have happened, might not. Historical events, too, hover between fact and fantasy: did Wittgenstein and Hitler really get their diplomas the same year from Linz Technical School? Was Freud's interest in dreams awakened by a book about Australian aboriginals in Manchester Public Library? Did Thomas Mann really announce the First World War as “purification, liberation and enormous hope”? Did dog-loving Freud say of Pavlov that it was easy enough to win the Nobel Prize if you were prepared to torture dogs? I don't know; and that, probably, is the point. After all, Freud muses, “The Achaeans set sail because of tall stories about how beautiful Helen was”, and turns his thoughts to his colleague Helene Deutsch's paper on creative lying.

One of the most ingenious fantasies is certainly Thomas's own contribution, though Freud may have shared in its voyeurism as well as its ben trovato irony. Much has been made by Freudologists of whether Freud did or did not sleep with his sister-in-law, Minna. So Thomas has Freud, in a wild moment, set up an epistolary romance between Minna and his friend Fliess. The two scarcely meet; Freud takes her letters and writes Fliess's replies, which get more and more sexual and which Minna, madly in love, always shows to her brother-in-law. Yes, she does sleep with Freud occasionally, but absent-mindedly and thinking of Fliess (as does Freud?). As good at teasing as Thomas is, Freud is cheered by the thought of future scholars poring over these Fliess-Minna letters. But: “No, of course I didn't write Fliess's letters to Minna for him! … A Jewish joke. … Or not.” And then in a dream-forest he meets Rebecca, one of his father's wives, who tells him that he wrote the letters in disguise for his real love, his cool wife, Martha. In these dying fantasies Freud's women are interchangeable: hieratic and soothsaying and not very real.

Dr Tod (yes, Dr Death), an English analyst who lives in a Victorian house in Dover called The Three Caskets, has to be Thomas's own creation. She sums up Freud's character for him in a brief—very brief—analysis. “All your life you have been a prey to demons. As a result, you have tried to make your life appear orderly and rational, and you fooled everyone. Secretly, however, unknown even to yourself, you wanted everyone to be drunk on sex and poetry and fabulous internal drama. Every man an Oedipus, and every woman an Elektra. … That will be twenty guineas.” She likes his idea, she adds that life is a paraphrase of a few important dreams. And through the book, Freud dreams and dreams. Of someone called T. S. Eliot: must be a boyhood memory of seeing the word “toilets” reflected in his nurse's spectacles, he interprets. Of a man in a prison cell accused of killing millions, named Eckermann or Eichmann; probably about his own identity, his Ich-man, and accusations that he attacked the Jewish race in his Moses and Monotheism. Of corpses falling from a train door and naked bodies screaming in a shower-room; puzzling, this one, reminding him of scenes of hell as depicted by early German painters. And of his daughter Anna, a quiet old woman in an immense food-store such as he never saw in Vienna, putting in her basket a few austere items.

The long love between father and daughter is at the centre of the book. Since when have you been interested in love? his wife has tartly asked him; certainly, he ruminates, love has always seemed “an unknown, as mysterious as gravity”. It is Anna who has it all and returns it. Her own dream (a true one this) is of the two of them alone on a mountain. “I lean myself against him, crying in a way that is very familiar to us both. Tenderness. My thoughts are troubled.”

To say that the novel is about very Freudian opposites—love/hate, truth/fiction, comedy/tragedy—is a cliché that could be slapped on many a worthy novel. Thomas is exceptional, though, in understanding and feeling such themes directly through fantasy, rather than imposing them intellectually. As its title suggests, Eating Pavlova is gross and elegant at once. Easy to recoil from, hard to forget.

James R. Kincaid (review date 23 October 1994)

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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.”

Seventy years later, D. M. Thomas, who had employed Freud earlier in his novel The White Hotel (1981), has better luck, probably because the love story he wants Freud to write, and actually coaxes him into writing, is so much more harrowing, funny and kind than anything Mr. Goldwyn would have warmed to. In his brilliant new novel, Eating Pavlova, Mr. Thomas grabs Freud just in time, only a day or two before his death in September 1939, and snatches for us these final imaginary memoirs: the dreams, recollections, hallucinations, fictions and elaborate lies of the most devious and tragically generous Freud ever envisioned.

Throughout Eating Pavlova (the title, like everything else in this novel, carries about a dozen teasing associations—to, among others, the dancer, the dessert, Pavlov and his dogs and Freud's dear daughter Anna), Freud is in London, “finding it is harder to die than I had anticipated.” His jaw is reduced to a set of cancerous perforations (“there's a hole right through to my cheek”), and out of the pain and the haze of age, morphine, guilt and fear, he recounts his life—or makes up his life. Perhaps he even starts now to live it, in the sense that he forms his life into a story with a purpose, even if that purpose can no longer avail him anything.

Responding only to his physician, Schur, and his faithful daughter Anna (who contributes an erotic short story to the stew), this Freud lets loose his memory, his analytic powers, material from his famous case studies, his libido, his storytelling craft—“I should have been Rabelais or Cervantes”—and his extraordinary generosity in order to confront and contort a moving, dangerous and funny past. In his account, time has no meaning, mistakes “inevitably creep” in and dreams are actually given priority over a very dubious “reality.” Freud's very being often seems to him fictional, and the central extended story of his cuckolding is, he admits, “a Jewish joke,” nothing but a pack of lies—maybe.

It is a measure of Freud's genius—and Mr. Thomas's—that as we read we become less involved with sorting lie from truth (or lie from lie) than in investigating whether lies might not be somehow more “true to life, to history,” certainly more true to the needs of the human heart. Freud tells us (or tells Anna, his true audience) that he has forged a series of letters to his sister-in-law, seeking to console her for the loss of a lover. Pretending to be the preposterous (and somewhat sinister) Wilhelm Fliess, scarcely able to distinguish between noses and vaginas, Freud portrays himself as a corresponding maniac, asking Minna for erotic reveries, then nude photographs and finally a proof of her love that can be produced only if she seduces Freud.

And that's not all: Freud's wife reads these erotic forged letters years later and is so kindled by them that she begins a quasi affair with the heretofore impotent Herr Bauer (the father of the famous “Dora”), reducing Freud to hiding, with binoculars, in the shrubbery and, in the climactic scene, charging in on the lovers, being told to “beat it, Sigi,” and dragging the wallowing, sweating Bauer off his wife.

Why does he concoct such a frenzied and disgraceful romp? Not, it appears, so we or Anna will believe it, exactly; but in order to explore possibilities within himself and to escape for a moment the true horrors: In the end, guilt “reaches unbearable proportions and we have no choice but to die, to escape.” Also, and most important for Mr. Thomas's tragic vision, we are allowed to feel that Freud does all this as a final gift to his daughter, a way of releasing her from his power. He has seen that he and Anna were “like two climbers roped together, like those English climbers who vanished, a year or two ago, while heading for the peak of Everest,” and he is trying not to take her with him as he disappears over the edge. In Mr. Thomas's version of King Lear, Anna—“I ask her to undo a button”—is not hauled off to prison, is not hanged as a poor fool. She is released into new life.

But maybe not. Nothing in Mr. Thomas's book is quite this smooth, as his sardonic irony keeps undercutting the simple readings we might want to impose. Like Freud, he will not minister easy consolation. Anna's feeling that life “is like a farm that I'm just visiting on holiday” is never erased; and, even more ironic, the final view we get of her makes us wonder if she was worth all the trouble: in her swan song, she grumps so vapidly about the decline in high culture that she seems to have transmogrified into William Bennett.

Besides, Freud has gone past even his daughter's needs at the end, dreaming and writing his way into the future: through the extermination of his sisters at Auschwitz, through Hiroshima, the Eichmann trial and the charges brought against “Lolita.” Interestingly, these horrors are preludes to visions that ought to be utopian, visions of the untrammeled libido: gay bathhouses and, unforgettably, modern supermarkets, where anything can be taken without even asking, where “mankind is sating its libido”—and nobody is happy. Well, Freud says, it seems that, after all, “people don't want happiness.”

Such stoic wit sustains Freud and this extraordinary novel as well. It was such wit, both furious and resigned, that allowed the historical Freud to mock the Gestapo to their faces—“I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone”—putting at risk his own escape. And it is with a similar elegant wit that Mr. Thomas escorts the novel from nightmare into high tragic compassion and then to a muted and unprotected quietness at the end, with nothing to sustain the goodbye but courage and a fiercely honest art. As Freud fades away, a friend floats into his dream and greets him, “How are you, Professor?” “Dying; otherwise, fine,” he says. Not a bad way to go.

David R. Slavitt (review date 21 July 1996)

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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 himself led workshops at the center on Skyros, which is, he says, nothing like that on the smaller, fictive island an hour's boat ride away.

While Hopkins is running his small and steadily diminishing writing group, other facilitators are leading workshops in gastric dancing, orgasmic consciousness, colonic massage and elementary shamanism, so the occasions for satire are hardly subtle. Still, Mr. Thomas's playfulness sometimes produces unobvious and pointed moments, as when Natasha, from Russia, who has been paired in the writing group with an American academic, explains that she now has a terrible choice: “Freedom or enslavement. East or West. … I can go back to Russia and freedom. Nowadays it's totally free there; you can say anything, believe anything. Only I was not used to freedom, and for the past two years I have a block. Well, since Priscilla has been my co-listener I have felt a craving to write, because she has maddened me with her censorships. You know, her university has 500 Sexual Harassment Officers! So like our old Political Officers, when anger made me creative! Yes, I think I must go there. … To the West. I choose enslavement for the sake of my writing.”

There are other such grand moments, like the workshop session in which Dusky Hogmann, a not quite fictitious enough movie actor, accepts a fictitious Oscar for a starring role in “Dark Desire,” the hypothetical movie version of the novel Hopkins's group is writing. Hogmann gets up and says, among other things: “This award belongs to every poor exploited Hispanic, Afro-American or Oriental, to every sexually abused child, to every gay person struggling to live productively in the midst of prejudice; to every handicapped person; to every woman enduring the daily pinpricks of discrimination. It's an Oscar for every lesbian. For every person with a weight problem. In the words of Federico Garcia Lorca, this is for all the poor beautiful dejected ones.”

“Dark Desire” is a series of bizarre sexual fantasies that involve, among other characters, Issei Kagawa, a Japanese cannibal who has become a literary celebrity. (What amusing things can you do with a Japanese cannibal? You send him off with his Dutch publisher to the movies, to see Alive.) Kagawa is based on Issei Sagawa, who exists in the novel's real world and, through Hopkins's good or bad offices, gets invited to be (ha-ha!) a facilitator at Skagathos.

But what does it add up to? Is there any thematic target of all this hyperbole and satire? If so, I must confess that I missed it. That tourists are often silly and disagreeable, that writers can behave badly, that New Age therapists frequently say and do strange things, that there is a certain degree of risk involved in open marriages—these are not exactly dispatches from the front. The suggestion that emerges from the novel's embellishment of the title phrase is that the burdens of poor peasants are harder to bear and of a greater reality than those of “our” kind of people.

That proposition is almost impossible either to prove or to disprove, but to assert it at the conclusion of a work like this is to abandon the waspishness that was the book's main charm. It's as if Evelyn Waugh, in one of his nastier exercises, suddenly exhibited a flicker of concern for the plight of the natives. Heartlessness is what makes the liberal fetishes dance like motes in Mr. Thomas's moral airlessness. Open a window and the effect not only vanishes but changes, so that we are slightly embarrassed at having laughed before.

Which is not to deny that some of the bits, however adventitious, are pretty good. I have no fault to find, for instance, with this letter the writer receives: “Dear Mr. Hopkins, I have been command to write to you to inform your novel ‘Transplanted Hearts’ has be shortlist for Shalimar Prize. As you shall know, this distinguishing prize is for best and most spiritously enhancing book from non-Islamic country. The exact amount of prize varies per year, but is always suffice to relieve author of all finance anxieties for many years. Before the last judgment takes place, I have to ask you one question. Should you be award prize, we would have be sure that you shall not use occasion to propagandize on behalf of author Salman Rushdie, but on contrary express sympathy of Islamic position. May we have your assure on this? I look forward to hear from you. Your sincerely, Ibrahim Rafsanjani.”

It's politically correct political incorrectness. But who's going to object?

Lesley Chamberlain (review date 15 February 1998)

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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 about Stalin written in a letter to a friend earned Solzhenitsyn eight years in the labor camps. He captured his camp experience in The Gulag Archipelago, and the directness with which he bears witness to the deprivation and suffering around him defies aesthetic canons. The very act of reading that book induces physical shock. No one who wants to understand any aspect of Russia and the capacity for good and evil in the human heart can afford to pass Solzhenitsyn by, and it won't do to say time has moved on. His experience is one of the few remaining benchmarks of the seriousness of the age, and Thomas has written this excellent and gripping tribute: a vade mecum through the life of one man that captures the Russian century.

Sanya Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 in Rostov, three months after his father died in an apparent firearms accident while serving in the White Russian Army. Sanya thrived in the young Communist state, despite his rich peasant (kulak) family's having been ruined by the Bolsheviks. He excelled at school, while “a kind of dignified destitution” at home taught him to disregard cold and discomfort.

If some of his drive resulted from his father's premature death, his natural ruthlessness and readiness to disregard personal needs were greatly encouraged by the Komsomol, the junior branch of the Communist Party. Courting his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya, he carried memory cards for the study of mathematics and physics in his pocket, so as not to waste a minute while with the woman or while waiting for a meal. Even as a boy, he imagined serving Russia with vast historical works, while a fascination with military strategy ensured that he would one day write battle scenes comparable to Tolstoy's. When Stalin's police plucked him from the front in 1945, he was an excellent Red Army officer. He was also, at 26, a consummate rationalist, believing that human nature could be more or less bullied into shape by, in Russia's case, Marxist-Leninist rules.

Prison wrought a spiritual transformation by weakening the Marxism. When he emerged at 34, Solzhenitsyn was more like Pasternak, a passionate spokesman for the nonrational integrity of man. He argued for moral decency supported by religious tradition and the rightness of a life led in poetic empathy with the world around, at odds with the Soviet impulse to dominate nature. Sanya held his new views with the same fanatical dedication that he had held the old and has not changed them since. He is, in some views, an illiberal moralizer making imperious and impossible demands on a tolerant modern consumer society. To others, he is a prophet.

Like so many writers in the Russian tradition, Solzhenitsyn made his greatest commitment to his country, with its ringing, never answered questions, posed by the tracts “What Is to Be Done?” and “Who Is to Blame?” In the Russian way, he began writing in prison and continued in exile, in Southern Kazakhstan, where he led the simple life Tolstoy only idealized. He wrote, taught and lived in a hut. Cancer he survived with the same grim strength that helped him survive hard labor, and it too entered his work, as a parallel metaphor for the metastasizing Communist evil.

In the 1960s, thanks to the Khruschchev Thaw, the world finally heard of Solzhenitsyn. Six years after One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in Russian in 1962, the suppressed manuscripts Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared in translation in the West. The Nobel Prize followed in 1970, but Solzhenitsyn's tense relationship with the Russian government precluded his leaving Russia to collect it. Implementing the renewed hard line under Khrushchev's successor, Brezhnev, the KGB even tried to murder Solzhenitsyn in 1971, but the prick of ricin, the same poison that killed the Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in London, succeeded only in inducing near-fatal illness. Solzhenitsyn was finally deported in 1974. He led a transplanted Russian life in New England, complete with hut and snow. But this replicated second home no longer provided true inspiration. When he returned to Russia in 1994, it was too late for a new beginning.

The great personal upheaval of Sanya's life was the breakup of his first marriage to Natalya Reshetovskaya and to call it an upheaval is to say much about the man who never rated the personal highly. Their love had seemed to survive the Gulag sentence, their brief divorce and Natalya's marriage to someone else. They even married again, but it turned out that his fame and her childlessness at the onset of middle age were too much to bear. Prison was to blame, but so, writes Thomas, was a deep sexual repression evident in Sanya since his youth, which was liberated late by a powerful affair with an academic colleague, then by the love of Alya Svetlova, who became his second wife.

Readers of Thomas' novels, excessively steeped in Russian poetry and Freudian eroticism, may be relieved to hear that Thomas draws out the erotic thread tactfully and persuasively, no easy task considering that all the main characters are still alive. Reshetovskaya, the wife who found herself abandoned in middle age after years of sacrifice, became bitter and attempted suicide. Sanya accused her of irresponsibility toward him. Both of Solzhenitsyn's wives perpetuated that Russian tradition of complete dedication to the husband's political-artistic cause. (In December 1825, the wives of Russia's first insurrectionists trudged after their husbands to Siberia. Tolstoy's wife, Sonya, copied out War and Peace seven times. Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of Osip, wrote her famous chronicles of life under Stalin, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.)

Solzhenitsyn's marriage with Western liberals broke up much more abruptly than his first marriage, and with no regrets, only a few years after he reached the West. Solzhenitsyn may have been anti-Communist, but he supported the Vietnam War, and he was never a democrat. In 1978, he told a Harvard audience that the West showed moral poverty and pursued the rights of man “even to excess.” The New York Times and the Washington Post in reply, according to Thomas, “could only celebrate skepticism and diversity.” Thomas observes that the liberalism upheld by the likes of Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer was too sure of its own exclusive rightness, but it utterly failed to grasp a single truth about Russia, which had nothing to do with Communism: that the Russian way is ambivalent toward Western “reason.” Solzhenitsyn felt that Marxism was a Western straitjacket Russia had imposed upon itself, whereas its true course was to follow its Orthodox Christian traditions.

The utopia in which Solzhenitsyn's kind of intellectuals exercise public responsibility would be an authoritarian, spiritually totalitarian world, certainly not a pluralist democracy. Anti-Enlightenment, or one might say Platonic, it is not a comfortable vision for most modern minds. In essence, his vision still had much in common with the scourging, puritan aspect of Communism. Thomas suggests that the Lenin in Solzhenitsyn's difficult interior monologue, “Lenin in Zurich,” is “Sanya without conscience,” and that “Lenin was the dark side of his own heart,” though he takes issue with the writer Tatiana Tolstaya's view that “Lenin's ‘dream’ and Solzhenitsyn's have something in common.” At least in theory, Lenin and Solzhenitsyn share basic means toward their different ends. Each has a terrible capacity for single-mindedness and a scorched-earth policy toward intellectual dissent. The evidence is there in Sanya's personality, encouraged by a formative Communist life.

Personally, Solzhenitsyn was always egotistical, and from the hour of his fame, he became dogged. His relationship with his Soviet editor, Alexander Tvardovsky, a man so torn between art and politics that he drank himself to death, showed up his humorlessness. He demanded service and sacrifice from everyone and grew ever more miserly with his time and more peremptory and righteous in speech. In the Gulag days, he boasted that his intuition could tell a good man, but that insight deserted him once he arrived in the West. Suspicious and withdrawn, he surrounded his house with a Gulag-style fence and turned on former helpers, one of whom said, with justice: “He is at best a Soviet character.” Symptomatically, Solzhenitsyn didn't reply to Thomas' letters, which is why this biography is unauthorized. Thomas wonders whether Sanya has been an impossible husband and father to his three sons but generously records that this is not so, according to them.

“At best a Soviet character.” How can one explain the bulldozing cultural intransigence of which he is a supreme example? There is a kind of psychological terrorism in the Russian tradition that comes of overpowering inner conviction. The unswerving utilitarians and their “spiritual” opponents equally represent it. It has something to do with religion and accounts for extreme dedication to whatever cause and a willingness to suffer. Solzhenitsyn's creed indeed is that “he who loses his life shall gain it.” But he never actually underwent religious conversion. He began referring to God and attending church when he discovered his own mission. A Christianity more Inquisitorial than compassionate perhaps has been his most useful ideological accessory.

Solzhenitsyn's art, argues Thomas, is “daylight art,” often transcribed directly from experience. He is a literal writer for whom literary modernism has no relevance, and his realism, great in a short early work like “Matriona's House,” has shortcomings in the later and more rambling pieces. Solzhenitsyn gives us the Tolstoyan epic without the unforgettable characters and, reflecting his own priorities, gives us mostly men without women and a world without erotic love. The art in the history finally expires in exile, crushed by a Stakhanovite routine. But Russian art has often seemed to subordinate aesthetic form to social mission. If something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it must be exposed.

In every pore and every weakness, Solzhenitsyn typifies what has been the Russian intellectual's responsibility for the last 200 years. Solzhenitsyn's life lends credence to the highly plausible view that Russia does not have history, it has only art an art in which writers across the centuries discuss the eternal questions that endlessly recur. Thomas makes heartwarming links with the rich tradition of Russian poetry and with Yeats, Auden and Frost. He deserves our thanks for writing a marvelously readable, indispensable book about an impossibly complex man of our recent times.

Josephine Woll (review date 1 March 1998)

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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 is so patently autobiographical that a biographer has only two justifications for his own work. One is to dig up information unknown to his reader, the other is to delve deep psychologically, offering insights of which Solzhenitsyn himself and earlier biographers are incapable. Thomas does very little of the first, and absolutely none of the second.

The KGB files on Solzhenitsyn, accessible only in the last few years, do provide a few tidbits. From 1961 until his exile in 1974, Solzhenitsyn dominated Soviet intellectual life more than any other writer. His early fiction, especially One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, overwhelmed Russian readers, and although the authorities denied him the Lenin Prize he so patently deserved, they acknowledged his importance with the dubious compliment of virtually nonstop attention.

The files contain nothing that significantly alters our understanding of Solzhenitsyn's treatment by the regime, but KGB memoranda exert their own awful fascination. Most are predictable, with their rote insults and ruthless strategies; a few demonstrate surprisingly astute perceptions, salutary reminders that the upper echelons of the Soviet hierarchy were not as monolithic as we once thought.

These archives were collected and published two years ago as The Solzhenitsyn Files (edited by Michael Scammell). They are not Thomas's find, but he makes good use of them. The same cannot be said of his other sources. Three are central: Solzhenitsyn's body of published work (he ignored two requests for interviews); the memoirs and memories of his first wife, Natalya Reshetovskaya; and Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, the “monumental” work (Thomas's adjective) that Scammell published 14 years ago.

Thomas was bound to mine these authoritative quarries, and duplication was unavoidable, though I prefer Solzhenitsyn's firsthand recounting of his experiences to Thomas's barely altered secondhand versions. The book's errors, however, were not inevitable. For instance, Thomas includes Khrushchev among those who, in Bertram Wolfe's classic though uncredited line, “died that most unnatural of deaths for an Old Bolshevik, a natural death.” “Old Bolsheviks” designates those who were already members when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917; Khrushchev didn't get his party card until 1918. Elsewhere, Thomas takes Anna Akhmatova's bitter comment that Soviet readers lived in a “pre-Gutenberg” age as referring to the Stalin period, when in fact she was speaking of the resurrection of genuine Russian literature thanks to samizdat in the 1960s.

Most of Thomas's mistakes are not serious, but they exemplify his slapdash approach. What matters more, and what makes his book worse than a mere recycling of familiar facts, is his consistent simplification of complexity, his vulgarization of situations and feelings that merit subtlety, and his nearly unfailing choice of banal thought and images.

Let me illustrate. Solzhenitsyn and Reshetovskaya had a long and painful marriage, with many separations even after his time in the gulag ended. In 1956, Reshetovskaya was living in Ryazan with her second husband and two stepsons, and Solzhenitsyn was sharing a wooden house with the landlady he immortalized in the story “Matryona's House.” Driven by desire, loneliness and an imperious egotism, Solzhenitsyn wrote to her encouraging a visit and, eventually, a renewal of their relationship. Thomas draws on Reshetovskaya's recollections of the visit:

“He caught his breath on seeing her step out of the train: she looked young again! Slimmer! Her whole face was aglow, as in their youth! … They felt, according to Natasha's account, inseparably close. Perhaps on this day they made love for the first time in twelve years; in any event they would celebrate this date as marking their reunion … She would make the last years of his life beautiful, ease his sufferings—or even give him the will to go on living.” The cliches may be Reshetovskaya's, but Thomas borrows them wholesale, throwing in a few of his own exclamation points for soap-operatic emphasis.

Thomas relies on Scammell as much as he does on Solzhenitsyn and Reshetovskaya. Here the loss is not of detail—in a book hundreds of pages shorter than Scammell's, something had to go—but nuance. When dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Iulli Daniel were tried for antistate activity in February 1965, 63 writers signed a protest. Solzhenitsyn did not. He disapproved of Sinyavsky and Daniel's decision to send their fiction abroad; he also believed such protests pointless and a distraction from his own mission. Thomas hypothesizes that Solzhenitsyn felt alien to “this tribe of Moscow intellectuals … he saw himself as an outsider: in him ran the peasant blood of Semyon Solzhenitsyn and Zakhar Shcherbak [his grandfathers]—individualists who had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” How superficial his comment compared with Scammell's:

Behind this puritanical attitude [toward publication abroad] there seems to have stood a more purely emotional and less rational impulse … namely, his drive to act completely alone and his instinctive recoil from groups or factions of any description … At the same time, this battle was saved from sterile egoism because it was not simply for his own personal satisfaction but also on behalf of all those who had suffered unjustly and, as he saw it, of the entire Russian people … Signing letters on behalf of others … paled into insignificance in comparison with the overriding purpose of his life.

My point is not to praise Scammell at Thomas's expense but rather to wonder why D. M. Thomas, a writer of experience and skill, would produce a book that has no originality, no analysis, and no felicity of language to commend it. He tells us, in his prologue, that he thought “hard and long” about whether to accept the publisher's invitation to undertake this biography. Not, manifestly, hard and long enough.


Thomas, D(onald) M(ichael) (Vol. 31)