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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Dick Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Alasdair D. F. Macrae

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Diane Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christopher Driver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jascha Kessler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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;...

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George Kearns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Bemrose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Harriett Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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