D. M. Thomas 1935-
(Full name Donald Michael Thomas) English novelist, poet, dramatist, translator, biographer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Thomas's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 13, 22, and 31.
English writer D. M. Thomas attracted a large audience and widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic with the publication of his third novel, The White Hotel (1981). This unanticipated best-seller explores archetypal themes of sex and death in the graphic, and often shocking, context of Freudian psychoanalytic theory and the Holocaust. In this and other works, Thomas employs metafictional literary techniques, including hallucinatory temporal shifts and a combination of poetry, prose, and verbatim texts by other authors, to challenge conventional notions about genre and authorship. Thomas has also won distinction for his earlier poetry and subsequent “Russian Nights” series of novels, though he remains best known for The White Hotel.
The descendent of generations of Cornish tin miners, Thomas was born in the coastal village of Carnkie, England, in 1935. At age 14 Thomas moved with his parents to Australia, where his older sister had relocated upon her marriage. The family lived there for two years, after which they returned once again to England, where Thomas completed secondary school and then entered two years of compulsory national service. During this time he was assigned to an army intelligence section involved with producing Russian-speaking interrogators. While he scored poorly on his final examination, the experience sparked his interest in Russian literature and inspired his future translations of Russian works. He went on to study English at Oxford University, where he received a B.A. in 1958 and an M.A. in 1961. He taught at a grammar school in Devonshire from 1960 to 1964 before joining the Hereford College of Education as a lecturer in English. A large portion of Thomas's early poetry involved science-fiction themes and was published in related magazines. A sampling of the writer's poetry was published for the first time in a book in Modern Poets 11 (1968). His first individual collection of poetry soon followed with the release of Two Voices (1968). While still at Hereford, Thomas published several more collections of poetry as well as his first translation, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem and Poem without a Hero (1976). There he also began the novel Birthstone (1980), but interrupted its progress to quickly complete The Flute-Player, (1978) for which he won a Gollancz fantasy-novel contest. Thomas was head of the English department at Hereford when the college was closed in 1978. Deciding to make writing a full-time career, Thomas returned to Oxford to write The White Hotel. Initially regarded with little enthusiasm in Britain, the novel proved a major critical and popular success in the United States. He was invited to lecture at American University in Washington, D.C., but, unwilling to be perceived as a “successful author,” he returned after just a week to Cornwall, where his children and two former wives resided. Since his return, he has remained in Cornwall, continuing to compose poetry, translate Russian-language works, and write novels. He published a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1998.
While Thomas is best known for his novel The White Hotel, he is also an accomplished poet. Following the publication of Modern Poets 11, the author quickly began to reject the conventions of science fiction to include images of contemporary life. The collection Two Voices includes the ten-poem sequence “Requiem for Aberfan,” which tells of the deaths of more than one hundred children and adults in a landslide in the coal-mining village of Aberfan. The sequence juxtaposes Thomas's poems with actual prose accounts of the event, a technique he would also employ in later works. Thomas continued to experiment with literary styles and images in the poetry collection Logan Stone (1971), after the publication of which he began to move away from elaborate poetic constructions. The Shaft (1973), for instance, found its focusing image in the reopening of the Cornish tin mines. The volumes Love and Other Deaths (1975) and The Honeymoon Voyage (1978) explore the themes of death and sexual attraction. The poems of Love and Other Deaths range from “Lilith-prints,” in which Lilith is Eve's apocryphal rival, to poems about his dying parents. The title poem of The Honeymoon Voyage, in turn, explores his mother's death through his newlywed parents' trip to California. The controlled form and simple images for which Thomas strove in his poetry is reflected in his appreciation for the works of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. He has translated several original volumes of her poetry, as well as her Selected Poems (1983). Akhmatova became the inspiration for the protagonist in Thomas's novel The Flute-Player. Elena is a beautiful young musician who helps a group of persecuted artists survive in a totalitarian state. Thomas's second novel, Birthstone, involves an American woman and her son who travel to Cornwall in search of their ancestry. Their guide is a Welsh woman with a split personality who moves between the past and present. His next novel, The White Hotel, is divided into six sections, preceded by a prologue involving a fictional correspondence between Freud and his colleagues about one of his female patients. The first section is comprised of a graphically sexual and violent poem in which the patient describes her fantasy of an affair with Freud's son at a white hotel, an image of both innocence and death. The following section is a prose version of the fantasy. The fourth section, a pastiche of actual Freud case histories, consists of Freud's analysis of his patient, who is revealed to be Lisa Erdman, a Russian-Jewish opera singer. The next sections depict Lisa, after her treatment by Freud, moving to Kiev with her Russian husband. Following her husband's disappearance in the Stalinist purges, she and her stepson are killed along with thousands of other Russian Jews in the massacre at Babi Yar. (Thomas inserts into this portion of the novel the testimony of the massacre's sole survivor, taken from Anatoli Kuznetsov's book Babi Yar.) The final, surreal section of the novel finds Lisa reunited with such figures as her mother and Freud in the new Jewish paradise of Palestine.
After The White Hotel, Thomas began what would become the “Russian Nights” quintet of novels. This series of books on storytelling begins with Ararat (1983), in which a Russian poet named Rozanov improvises a story about three writers who meet at a conference and agree to collaborate on their own improvisation. Among them is a poet named Surkov who invents alternative endings for an unfinished story, “Egyptian Nights,” by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. (Thomas translated and inserted an actual fragment of Pushkin's “Egyptian Nights” in the novel.) The Pushkin story involves a poet named Charsky who befriends an Italian storyteller, who has his own tale to tell. The subsequent novels in the series—Swallow (1984), Sphinx (1986), and Summit (1987)—continue the trend of improvisations and stories within stories until concluding with Lying Together (1990), in which the earlier fictions are found to be the work of a British writer named Don Thomas and his Russian friends. Among Thomas's more recent novels is Pictures at an Exhibition (1993), a novel set during the Holocaust, in which, like The White Hotel, Thomas combines dreams and Freudian analysis, mass murder, and the textual use of historical documents. Thomas's other novels include: Flying in to Love (1992), which revolves around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; Eating Pavlova (1994), an imaginative depiction of Freud in London shortly before his death; and Lady with a Laptop (1996), a satire on writing workshops and New Age therapy.
Thomas was a little known poet and translator of Russian verse before writing The White Hotel, which remains the work for which he is most famous. Critical response to his writing reached its peak with that novel, and reviews of work subsequent to The White Hotel rarely, if ever, fail to mention his magnum opus. His pre-White Hotel poetry has been commended for bringing together different textures and texts, reflecting the author's fascination with eroticism, dreams, and death. These same observations were made regarding The White Hotel. The novel initially attracted little attention from local reviewers in Britain, but when it arrived in the United States it became a bestseller. American reviewers lauded it as a brilliant tour de force, praising its adroit series of narrative voices and thematic consideration of psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, and female sexuality. The frank depiction of sexuality seen in Thomas's earlier work received reactions ranging from “pornographic” (mainly from British reviewers) to “erotic” (mostly American). Thomas, however, received a significant amount of negative criticism for his use of outside texts in The White Hotel, including passages taken directly from Freud's writings and testimony taken from Kuznetsov's book on the massacre at Babi Yar. Thomas has received similar criticism for relying too heavily on previous translations for his own translation of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (1982), and for inappropriately incorporating Nazi documents into the narrative of Pictures at an Exhibition. Since The White Hotel, critical reaction to Thomas's novels has been more reserved. The “Russian Nights” quintet was praised for its intricate layering of stories within stories, but generally thought to lack substance. While his more recent work has failed to duplicate the success of his breakthrough novel, The White Hotel is still regarded as a remarkable accomplishment, and it continues to receive much critical interest and ongoing scholarly evaluation.