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D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas 1935–
English novelist, poet, translator, editor, and critic.
Thomas became a literary celebrity with the publication of The White Hotel (1980). Thomas's earlier work is also respected but was less widely reviewed. It includes several volumes of poems noted for their science fiction slant and two novels, The Flute Player (1979) and Birthstone (1980). Thomas has also translated some works of the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin.
The poems in Thomas's collections Dreaming in Bronze (1981) and Selected Poems (1983) range from graphic accounts of atrocities committed at Nazi concentration camps to interpretations of Freudian concepts of human sexuality. Many critics view Thomas's thematic concerns as "obsessions" with sex and death. These are also prominent themes in The White Hotel. The novel begins with a twelve-page erotic poem attributed to Lisa Erdman, a young Jewish woman whose hysterical sexual fantasies lead her to seek treatment with Sigmund Freud. Later, during World War II, Lisa's fears of physical mutilation are realized when she is killed during a pogrom in the Russian town of Babi Yar. Critics were impressed with Thomas's creative use of various narrative view-points—historical, psychological, and ethical—to convey the intensity of Lisa's fantasies and her fate.
In Ararat (1983) Thomas again examines the themes of sexual imagery and violent death. Constructed as several separate yet thematically linked stories, the novel exhibits Thomas's technical skill in translation, his surrealistic verse, and his knowledge of European culture. The major theme in Ararat, fantasy versus reality, is developed through a famous Soviet poet who entertains his lover by composing erotic tales about past and present Russian artists. Within these stories, each character travels to Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark is said to have ended its journey; it was also the site of an Armenian massacre by the Turks in 1915. Although critics have pointed out similarities between this work and The White Hotel, Ararat received less favorable attention. While the theme and originality of the book have been commended, a number of critics maintain that Thomas's multilayered narrative lacks unity and focus. Others have contended that the violence in Ararat is less relevant to the story than in The White Hotel. Thomas's recent novel Swallow (1984) is the first of a projected series of sequels to Ararat.
(See also CLC, Vols. 13, 22 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
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There is nothing underwritten about D. M. Thomas's new book of poems [Dreaming in Bronze]; many of them are vigorous monologues by the neurotic and obsessed. Mr Thomas is clearly a writer who takes it as axiomatic that obsession is artistically fruitful, and that extreme states of mind are in some way more real than sanity. (See his novel, The White Hotel.) Those who share these notions will enjoy most of the book; those who look to poetry as a means of providing a sane perspective on life will find less to attract them, though at least three of the poems, 'The Clearing', 'The Handkerchief or Ghost Tree' and 'Still Life', are worth their close attention. (p. 22)
Dick Davis, "Missed Worlds," in The Listener, Vol. 107, No. 2742, January 7, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗
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For some years [Thomas's] poetry was best known for a science fiction element but his collection The Honeymoon Voyage (1978 …) displayed a wide range of subject matter and was very well received. [Dreaming in Bronze] shows a continued progress in material and technique. The collection is divided into two sections. In the first, the poems are in the form of letters, journals or accounts by characters set in literary or historical context; Freud appears both as a character and as an influence on how the other characters are seen in situations of violence, repression and frustration. The importance of Freud continues in the second section where many of the poems are more personal, more immediately attached to the author, in his musings about growing up and his links with his family. The combination of a strongly erotic element with the familiar is sometimes brutal and discomfiting. Thomas's poems are never dull and they excite by pulling together different areas of life and different times…. Fantasy remains central to his poetry but what appeared as invention in earlier poems now operates as an extension of reverie and self-examination. His poems have scant involvement with places of work or the press of practical problems but, in their wit, speculation, intelligence and an underlying humaneness, they do comment, often profoundly, on our shared problems.
Alasdair D. F. Macrae, in a review of "Dreaming in Bronze," in British Book News, February, 1982, p. 114.
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[Thomas] considers himself primarily a poet, even in his fiction, which shares with his verse a preoccupation, or rather, an obsession, with sex and death. [In Selected Poems, the] graveyards and scenes of departure, particularly of Mother, are sufficiently depressing. But the "love" poems are more unpleasant. Though filled with sexual details, language, and symbols, the impression these often coarse and quirky lines convey is not so much erotic or sensual as gross and fetid. The voyeuristic camera sweeps over scenes of sweaty passion but is often obscured by a filter smudged with murky imagery scraped from that catch basin conveniently called the collective unconscious. Yet there is a curious mix of sparseness, even Oriental subtlety, amid these gross contrivances, unfortunately not extended to the tortured language, which is singularly without music or charm.
A review of "Selected Poems," in Booklist, Vol. 79, No. 4, October 15, 1982, p. 290.
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Thomas's poems are condensed narratives in much the same way that his prose is a logical extension of years of immersion in the poetic form. He is an unusual hybrid who has cultivated his own consciousness to create a personal myth composed of equal parts of morbid eroticism, his memory of a Cornwall childhood, a romanticization of Freud and Jung and a profound fascination for the Slavic variety of Weltschmerz. As poetry, [Thomas's Selected Poems] are most valuable for their obdurate shock value. More generally, they are admirable for their quirky, perseverant genius—an independence of mind and a courage of personal vision that are increasingly rare in the literary marketplace.
A review of "Selected Poems," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 222, No. 24, December 17, 1982, p. 72.
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Admirers of The White Hotel will find that the technique of that pseudo-novel (the term implies no disparagement) has been put to a similar use [in Ararat]—meaning that long stretches of verse, documentary facts about atrocities, journeys that get nowhere, insertions that look like pastiche but are straight translation, are in the service less of a structure than of an artfully deceptive object. The object—measurable and weighable—is a book, and the book looks like a novel. Indeed, it sometimes reads like a novel, but it is no more a novel than was The White Hotel….
Let me put it this way: if Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby and The Rainbow are novels, then Ararat is a sort of poem. What matters in fiction is character and the action that character begets: things happen, people change, tentative conclusions are reached. What matters in Ararat is the title (this is true also of The White Hotel) and the cluster of symbols that Mr Thomas has thrown at it, trusting that most of them will stick. What matters also is Mr Thomas's devotion to Russian literature. His portrait on the back cover shows him brooding … against bookspines, Pushkin pushing his name out above all.
A poet's book, naturally, and like, say, Auden's Orators, less of a structural unit than the poet hopes to persuade us to consider it. You can make such a book by taking various disparate items and pretending to glue them together. The glue will hold for a couple of readings but it turns out to be spittle. [Ararat] itself, being unclassifiable, will have to be called a novel, but it is only one in a very Pickwickian sense. Mr Thomas is to be watched, but with great suspicion. (p. 77)
Anthony Burgess, "Let's Parler Yidglish!" in Punch, Vol. 284, No. 7423, March 2, 1983, pp. 76-7.∗
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Readers of "Ararat," D. M. Thomas's new novel, will recognize its similarities to his earlier "The White Hotel."… To many critics "The White Hotel" seemed an unusual and major work, attempting to treat the largest subjects of our time—World War II, its relation to modern consciousness as described by Freud, and the implications of Freud for the writer of fiction—through the story of a young woman patient of Freud. "Ararat" shares these preoccupations—in particular the Freudian conjunction of sexuality and death; this time they are approached through the story of Cleopatra and her lovers and in the reminiscences of a mysterious figure, encountered on a dreamlike sea voyage, who obsessively recounts his part in all of the terrible massacres of modern history. Like the earlier work, "Ararat" provides an abundant display of the author's astonishing virtuosity in poetry, in prose, in translating—a writer combining an impassioned European soul with the formal instincts of a spider weaving an immensely complex, elegant and sophisticated web.
A close description of "Ararat" reveals a congruity of subject and form, that of a story within a story within a story. In the first framing story, a Russian poet, Rozanov, travels to Gorki on an erotic whim, to sleep with a blind woman who has written a fan letter to him, but whom, in the event, he finds boring. To beguile the night that he must in all politeness spend with her, he improvises a narrative to amuse her on a subject of her choosing: "Improvisation." His narrative begins with a second framing story in which three writers, drinking together in an Armenian hotel, challenge each other to a competition of improvisations; Rozanov then improvises these improvisations. The first teller begins a tale of Surkov, a Russian poet on his way to America by sea. On shipboard Surkov completes an unfinished fragment of Pushkin's "Egyptian Nights."
In Pushkin's fragment, a Russian poet, Charsky, befriends an Italian improvvisatore, who gives a dazzling public performance in verse on a subject proposed by someone in the fashionable St. Petersburg audience Charsky has assembled for him. The improviser's subject is Cleopatra and her lovers, three men who have by lot drawn the chance to spend a night with her and who will face execution in the morning. The third lover is a youth, very beautiful, at the beginning of life. Pushkin's fragment breaks off here. D. M. Thomas's Rozanov's Surkov's improvvisatore continues the tale to a satisfactory and amusing conclusion. Surkov must then go on to finish the tale of Charsky and the improviser; Rozanov must finish the tale of Surkov and two other tales, ostensibly by the two other writers.
The second writer continues the story of Surkov, now arriving in America by plane, the sea voyage having been only an anxiety dream in the mind of the apprehensive traveler, who, now in New York, plans to set down on paper the amazing improvisation on Pushkin which he has dreamed. Surkov's tale ceases, but he figures in the tale of the last speaker, an American writer of Armenian descent, who brings the two earlier speakers and herself to Ararat, the sacred Armenian mountain where in tradition Noah's ark came to rest. Then in an epilogue we return to Rozanov, and a reminder that these stories are only his contrivances which, in the course of our reading, have absorbed us in their reality.
The power of an artist, in his work, is absolute. When Surkov is finishing Pushkin's tale, he brings Charsky and the Italian improviser to a conclusion he does not like: The improviser has been made to face a duel, and when he and Charsky arrive at the appointed place, they hear that Pushkin has just been fatally wounded in an earlier duel with his brother-in-law D'Anthes (a historical fact). Surkov decides that if his improvisation had not included certain things, Pushkin would not have fought, and he rewrites the ending, in the second version sacrificing the improviser and attempting thereby to alter history….
In this tale the artist is God creating order, and he can be as arbitrary. In elaborately framed narratives such as these, the reader may resent being torn from one interesting situation and made to face another. But Mr. Thomas's powers are such, and the faintly repellent qualities of his protagonists are such, and the formal elements are so clearly going to prevail over the purely narrative elements, that we do not mind; in fact part of the pleasure we take in the work is in seeing the pieces fit together, and in Mr. Thomas's omniscient foresight: Art—or fiction—is the true subject of "Ararat."
Mr. Thomas's elaborate constructions have provoked reproaches for not being all "made up." "The White Hotel" draws upon the recorded testimony of a woman who had been at Babi Yar, material from Freud, lines from Yeats—all properly attributed, of course, by Mr. Thomas, who had done no more than the author of any "true-life novel" to document the congruence of truth and fiction. Yet the uneasiness provoked by "The White Hotel" seemed to testify more to a general discomfort with his protean powers of projection and assimilation—his witchery: "I can't help being others. I can't help becoming others. Everyone, everything," exclaims the writer Surkov in "Ararat."
We usually admire extremes of artifice—things made in miniature, purses made of stitches too tiny to see, projects which reveal that the artist has gone to an immense lot of trouble to make a thing that seems like nature but is not. Yet some critics have faulted "The White Hotel" for the conjunction of its ambitious themes—eros and thanatos, the Holocaust—and its formal virtuosity, as if fiction, with its elements of artifice and imitation, somehow does a disservice to the reality of events; implicit in this criticism is the notion that some aspects of history are so solemn they can never be a suitable subject for art (which is one theory of why there are no great Holocaust novels, unless you consider "The White Hotel" one). But if some subjects can be too large for art, there must be other subjects of perfect proportion; "Ararat," a work of artifice about artifice, a formal work about form, risks less, perhaps, but seems a work of perfect proportion. (p. 7)
Diane Johnson, "Story within Story within Story," in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1983, pp. 7, 39.
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It's not really necessary, of course, for a reviewer to make the plot entirely clear to prospective readers. But in Ararat, the whole point is the plot—its devilish cleverness, or its maddening obscurity, however you choose to view it. In any case, it's not an honest plot. If a contract exists between writer and reader that the writer will do his best to draw the reader in and the reader will do his best to follow, D. M. Thomas reneged on his part of the deal. To be fair, he didn't even agree to make the deal. He blurs events—the whole point is their blurring—and he swerves and doubles back in hope of losing us. And if we hang on, against all odds, and stick with his tale to the end, we're not rewarded with the final "Ah, now I see!" that would have made the hanging on worthwhile.
The central male figures of these stories—even Pushkin …—tend to melt together; no distinction is made between their various personalities. In fact, there's a deliberate attempt to merge them, to imply that these are really inner chambers of one and the same man. All of them are self-centered, self-indulgent, and unlikable. Rozanov is sleeping with the blind woman because "he had never slept with a blind woman," but he's disgusted by her thin legs and her "wandering, unattached pupils." The dream Surkov deflowers a childish little Polish gymnast and then feels oppressed by her ("I burn up women as a marathon runner burns up his flesh," he says), and the real-life Surkov, who shares Rozanov's distaste for thin legs, has the same attitude of conquest toward all the women he meets. Even the Armenian …, while a gentler man than the others, cannot function sexually until his partner has bitten his hand to draw blood and he has called her a "foul name." In general, sex on these pages is violent, unloving, and unpleasant.
The book's effect, a publisher's blurb tells us, is that of opening one of those little Russian dolls and finding other dolls inside. But it's not, exactly. The dolls inside those Russian dolls are different from each other, each with its own unique little face and costume. The dolls inside this novel are indistinguishable. Evidently the point is that there is no true invention in storytelling. Willy-nilly, the narrator passes his own traits and prejudices on to his characters; his characters are inextricable from him.
Ararat takes its title from its preoccupation with the Armenian diaspora of 1915. The shipboard Surkov, the one of the dream, is followed about by an old man who compulsively relates all the atrocities he has committed in his lifetime—or in several lifetimes, perhaps, for what he's describing is every instance of mass brutality that occurred during the twentieth century…. Special emphasis, however, is placed upon the Armenian events, and it's a mark of this book's strangeness that these horrors—chillingly, meticulously described—fill the only scenes in this book where there's the slightest bit of humor. If humor is what you want to call it.
The old man's appalling coolness as he catalogs his crimes is in itself funny, in a dreadful way. "… altogether there has been great exaggeration of the numbers killed," he says. "It is certain that no more than a million were killed." (pp. 30-1)
In The White Hotel, the account of the Nazi atrocities appeared to have some point; everything led up to it, and there was a moment where the reader heard that satisfying click of things coming together. The White Hotel was disturbing to read, but one felt it was necessarily disturbing. Ararat disturbs without purpose. The Armenian tragedy is merely one more quirky scene in a book that's full of quirky scenes.
Finally, Ararat lacks power. It seems almost to be consciously undermining its power—breaking off each narrative sweep the moment we're caught up in it, beaching us once again, leaving us looking around in bewilderment. Books are meant to carry us to other lives, I figure. When a book drives its readers to diagraming the plot, you know it's not going to carry you very far. (p. 32)
Anne Tyler, "Stories within Stories," in The New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 13, April 4, 1983, pp. 30-2.
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Ararat is a shorter book than [The White Hotel], but it picks its way through similar no man's lands between fact and fiction, life and literature, erotic fantasy and historic massacre. The poetic or cinematic structure challenges the reader to absorption, as into a hall of mirrors, without any tiresome demand to follow the sequence of thought and event: it is fides quaerens intellectum. The listener to Rozanov's story is blind, and the listener-by-extension to the story-within-the-story sometimes feels like a blindfold hostage, permitted glimpses of half-recognised street furniture that leave him well short of secure orientation. Unless, perhaps, he is as familiar as Thomas is with the life and work of Pushkin, whose 'Egyptian Nights' is translated and reinterpreted as the structural core of the book. The lambent presence of Pushkin, the author's guru or second skin, saves Ararat from being written off as a relatively lightweight re-creation of a popular success, and it also rescues Thomas's writing from sprawling psychoanalytical self-indulgence. Perhaps it is with justice that Pushkin's elegant strength is sometimes compared with Mozart's.
Certainly the effect of moving as a reader from The White Hotel to Ararat recalls a process familiar in the history of musical composition. Ideas, themes, patterns and juxtapositions of tonality that have been employed for a large-scale work often suggest to a composer in their working-out a further series of possibilities which demand subsequent exploration in a more intimate medium, a quartet or a sonata. In chamber music, tone can be lightened or darkened and an atmosphere changed in the space of a bar or two, without portentous build-up. This happens here with the mixture of emotion and embarrassment in the love-making of two Armenians, Khandjian and Mariam, at the close of Rozanov's long improvisation. When the couple begin to share 'the sorrows and miracles of their origins' in the holocaust and diaspora of their people, they are able to pass from affection to violence, and from a 'soapy erection' under the shower to a snowy vision of Ararat from an upstairs window, in the space of a paragraph or two, without apprehension of the mixture curdling under pressure of haste….
The central role allotted to Pushkin in this book allows Thomas the poet to deploy his virtuosity with translation from the Russian. But it is also important at a deeper level to Thomas the novelist. In The White Hotel—the hotel which was 'just my life, you see' in the dream the young Lisa Erdman related to Freud—Pushkin was parenthetical, but he was significantly present at the climax, after Lisa and her stepson had arrived at Kiev in September 1941. At Babi Yar:
During the night, the bodies settled. A hand would adjust, by a fraction, causing another's head to turn slightly. Features imperceptibly altered. 'The trembling of the sleeping night', Pushkin called it; only he was referring to the settling of a house.
This apparently casual quotation precedes the unifying paragraph of the whole novel, where fantasy meets reality and unites the dreamer-victim not only with the Jewish dead but with their German and Russian exterminators, who had encouraged each other—as a perceptive concentration camp graduate once remarked—to act out in public the most secret fantasies of the European mind. 'The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored.'
For the coda to that fearsome climax Thomas then side-slipped into a curiously Bunyan-like vision of a workaday heaven where a routine of human service freely given is punctuated by specifically Biblical references evocative of transcendence and inexhaustible resource: the wine at Cana, maternal milk, the image of an infinitely expandable refugee camp 'where Israel's tents do shine by night'. Pushkin, too, admired Bunyan, and wrote a poem called 'The Pilgrim'. He also lived an adventurous sexual life and died in his duel with d'Anthès as a jealous cuckold, which probably helps rather than hinders a modern writer's appreciation of his far-reaching humanism, his instinct for the universal. Pushkin, according to one critic, 'could think and speak as a pagan, a Christian, a medieval knight, a Renaissance man, a votary of Voltaire and a disciple of Rousseau'. It is surely as his disciple that Thomas in these two books seeks to embrace in the same unifying vision both the characteristic horrors and the fresh starts of the 20th century: in The White Hotel, the holocaust and Freud; in Ararat, the Armenian genocide and the Cold War.
Christopher Driver, "Pushkin's Pupil," in London Review of Books, April 1 to April 20, 1983, p. 11.
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When a novel called The White Hotel became a bestseller in 1981–1982, its author, D. M. Thomas, was not generally known as a poet…. Thomas is a Cornishman, not an American, and indeed his strange and fascinating novel had not become famous in Great Britain at all. Those who have read The White Hotel know that its title is the name of the long narrative poem that opens its pages, an erotic, even rather pornographic poem, and that The White Hotel of the poem is itself a fantastic place, a symbol of the female body itself, the mother's body, as projected from the deepest layer of Oedipal fantasy…. For some theorists, that place remains potentially retrievable, not in the imagination, but in reality; but how such a thing should be possible remains a mystery. Perhaps the problem of remembering the preconscious paradise of the womb's universe of oceanic bliss, and its continuation for some at the breasts of the mother is the chief problem of the human animal and the source of all our strivings for the (re)creation of Utopian worlds, for individual maturation, and the source of the religious impulse that seeks heaven beyond death in an afterworld of eternal beatitude. Certainly such a dream-fantasy poses what is perhaps the most formidable obstacle towards the understanding and acceptance of reality itself for the human animal, and for its reconciliation with existence itself. At any rate Thomas' exceptionally interesting and provocative novel is the work of an unusual imaginative intelligence, and is clearly the work of a thinking poet…. The long poem that prefaces and introduces [The White Hotel] was written by the patient at a point in her psychoanalysis by Freud when all progress towards the resolution of her illness had been blocked: she goes for a vacation, and the poem erupts from her unknown, unconscious self.
I mention all of this because a portion of that poem appears in print now in a volume by D. M. Thomas entitled Selected Poems where it's called "from Don Giovanni." It is as though Thomas sees this poem as part of his work through his several books, for he is primarily a poet, and now he has decided to select those of his pieces that still live for him and still represent "different phases and stages of [his] work," as he puts it in his Preface. This volume of selected poems is really quite an interesting one, and I would hope that all those readers who prefer fiction to poetry and who liked The White Hotel … will consider buying and reading his poetry too, for it will surely shed some interesting light upon this writer and his work.
Thomas has divided [Selected Poems] into three parts. The first contains love poems or erotic poems, which are not necessarily the same sort of thing; the second part contains a lot of poems that fill in our sense of his Cornish background, as well as his early years in Australia and the United States. The third part offers poems that handle broader themes, from history, culture, myth. What we have therefore is a compendium that provides us with much that this writer cannot show us in the novels, and is a kind of exposure and exhibition of the artist's personality as a whole…. One point strikes one with great force at a first reading: Thomas is not only various and wide-ranging in his imagination, but also humorous, witty, and really quite fantastical, even rather daring, willing to risk grotesqueries and brutalities. He is also satirical. A poet who indulges in erotomania, in passional love, in intellectual fantasies, as well as offering wide-ranging themes taken from history, psychology and anthropology, is a poet who will stimulate our own imaginations strongly….
[In "Peter Kürten to the Witnesses (Düsseldorf, 1931)" Thomas depicts the trial of a mass-murderer.] His note to the poem says, "When Kürten, the notorious mass-murderer was arrested and tried, the liberal German government agonised over whether he should be executed. The guillotine, in fact, had become rusted from disuse." What Thomas tells us in this one poem is more interesting and significant, I think, than whole libraries of works about the mentality of Nazi criminals during the years of Hitler's power. Thomas' imagination works itself into the quality of this man's mind and being, makes the inarticulate speak to us, and speak oh so clearly indeed about the years of Hitler that were to come; so that we must think again about our judgments of the values of life and death….
[If Selected Poems] brings to our attention [Thomas'] decades of writing poetry, that is his good luck and ours. I trust I have suggested that his work is fascinating in both modes, and well worth considering as a whole. There are other good poets who have written novels, but their work doesn't seem quite as much all of a piece as does Thomas'.
Jascha Kessler, "D. M. Thomas: 'Selected Poems'," in a radio broadcast on KUSC-FM—Los Angeles, CA, May 18, 1983.
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[In Ararat, D. M. Thomas attempts a balancing act somewhat like Umberto Eco's in The Name of the Rose]: on the one hand the book is loaded with Significance; on the other it's all Fiction Games receding in an infinite series. This creates an annoyingly schizophrenic effect in which the serious is undercut by the clever, and the clever made heavy by the portentous. It's a puzzling book, partly because it's made out of puzzles, partly because after two readings I'm still not sure exactly who's who or what's going on. On the game side of Thomas' brain the book is an improvisation on the word improvisation, or an M. C. Escher drawing of a hand that's drawing a hand that draws the hand that is drawing it, and so on. Many find this endlessly fascinating. Others find that once you've got the Concept there's no place much to go. (p. 556)
Then there's the Portentous side, a litany of the atrocities, genocide, massacres that have written themselves on the pages of our century: much about the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians in 1915, the Gulag, Babi Yar, Indo-China, Dachau, Treblinka, Charles Manson, Beria, and others. And there's a lot of sex, extremely coarsely presented, most of it of the numbed or bored variety. Sex, of course, is linked with violence. What are we to make of all this? That we live in a world that is horror in public, waste land in private, and that all that is left to do is improvise stories? I don't know. Surely Thomas is a clever and learned writer, at his best when he's performing acts of mimicry, and he can be a very funny mimic, one with perfect pitch…. The publisher finds Ararat a "brutally funny" book. Brutal, yes; funny, not often enough. Imagine Nabokov, coming toward you with Messages, wringing his hands over atrocities, sweating ever so slightly from the exertion required to perform his admittedly clever stunts. (pp. 558-59)
George Kearns, "World Well Lost," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 549-62.∗
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Swallow picks up where Ararat left off. Once again [Thomas] confronts his readers with the indefatigable Russian poet Rozanov, a womanizer with an extraordinary talent for literary improvisation. And once again Thomas's ability to weave a number of disparate stories into an uncannily unified whole has yielded a highly entertaining piece of fiction.
In Swallow Rozanov has not quite extracted himself from the dilemma into which he blundered in Ararat, a commitment to spending a night with Olga, a blind, unattractive scholar. Instead of sleeping with her, he held her spellbound with stories filled with enthralling characters who told even more stories. That technique, repeated in Swallow, has produced a literary hall of mirrors in which fact and fantasy become indistinguishable.
One of the most pervasive themes of the various tales is the mystery of literary creation. Rozanov tells Olga the story of an imaginary international Olympiad in which the competitors are literary improvisers. The Italian entry bitterly divides her listeners with a dark, passionate harangue. Surprisingly, some of the most intriguing passages in Swallow consist of the judges' private debates on that entry. It is a treat to hear an intelligent discussion of literature without cant or pointless complexity. But those passages also illustrate that literary taste is dominated by far deeper powers than rational discourse. Most of the judges initially dislike her offering, but they eventually approve of it—for no apparent reason….
Swallow is often affecting, especially in the sections in which Thomas recreates the unhappy period he spent as an adolescent in Australia. He presents that story as the original prose version of the poem improvised by Southerland, the English contestant. Southerland commits suicide when he realizes that the judges have discovered he has stolen his material. Thomas seems to be offering up Southerland as a somewhat ironic sacrifice to critics who charged him with plagiarizing the descriptions of the Babi Yar massacre in The White Hotel.
The author seems to have remained essentially convinced of his right to borrow and change the work of other writers. He makes his defiance clear by including sections of H. Rider Haggard's 1886 novel, King Solomon's Mines. As Thomas writes in his preface, he has "scandalously amended" those excerpts by peppering them with hilariously obscene epithets. Most readers will not mind the transformation of the rather prim Haggard. Indeed, readers can forgive Thomas almost anything in return for his unflaggingly witty and charming book.
John Bemrose, "Tales of Brilliant Wit," in Maclean's Magazine, Vol. 97, No. 26, June 25, 1984, p. 51.
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Whatever else may be said of D. M. Thomas, he certainly knows how to stir up the literary shit. My dentist, who is Jewish, nearly rammed the drill through my windpipe when describing his reaction to The White Hotel: its detailed, almost loving account of the massacre at Babi Yar was perceived by him as a pornographic insult to those whom the Nazis butchered there.
Others were more outraged by what they saw as that passage's plagiarism (from the writer Anatoli Kuznetsov), while others, me included, have been generally upset by Thomas's female characters. From his first novel, The Flute-Player, to last year's outpouring, Ararat, their primary function seems to have been as receptacles for brutality.
Swallow is Ararat's sequel: number two in a threatened sequence 'of improvisational novels … [concerning] the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected yet independent'. But if Ararat's improvisations felt like a pointlessly nasty game, those in the new book begin to acquire a not uninteresting purpose. From his 'Author's Note' on, Thomas is challenging his critics. What, he is asking, does plagiarism mean when all stories are triggered off by something the author has heard or read? And why, come to that, do we place so much value on words that are fixed to a page?
It now transpires that the stories-within-stories of Ararat were being told by Corinna Riznich, an italian improvisatrice, as her contribution to the final heat of a story-telling Olympiad. The judges of the contest represent the 'detached' voice of literary criticism but, in his many-layered narrative …, Thomas shows how the critics, too, are enmeshed in the common fantasies, symbols and myths of the story-tellers. The world of the imagination (unlike that of nationalistic or cold-war, East-West politics) is not disfigured by boundaries. Its language is universal.
At the same time, we all of us speak it differently. And, despite an integrity more obvious than in his earlier books, Thomas's accent still jars. Making his principal character a woman is a facile response to feminist quarrels with his work—his female characters still live only as breasts and cunts to be conquered. An anti-nuclear-war theme is invoked with embarrassing gaucheness; a narrative poem (17 pages) reads like a car engine failing to start. Thomas is certainly more original than some of his detractors maintain, but his shocks to the system are still too like those of a consciously outrageous adolescent.
Harriett Gilbert, "Echo Chamber," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2780, June 29, 1984, p. 26.∗
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