Anne DuchêNe

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535


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[The White Hotel] is extremely complex, ambitious and demanding. Freud himself is a central character—in itself a fair index of earnestness—and the book is largely an act of homage to the "discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis". The title-page, however, quotes Yeats … and the author does himself less than justice in describing the novel's territory as "the landscape of hysteria". He in fact moves his story beyond the Freudian confines—into a modern world where public horror can eclipse private nightmare, and finally on into a vision of an after-life. His essential concern is how we may learn to bear the contrary loads of the pleasure- and the death-instinct in our nature….

At first, though, loyally embarking under the Freudian flag, he makes some pretty unreasonable demands on unprepared readers…. The sexual fantasies of the young woman who becomes the book's chief protagonist, they have to be undergone, by committed readers, as part of the raw material for the later, much more interesting sections….

The story only settles down in the third section, when the young woman, emerging as Lisa Erdman,… presents herself to Freud as a patient….

This whole sequence describing her analysis is masterly. It recreates all the tension between the delicately articulated theoretical process and the stumbling actual progress…. Mr Thomas weaves a wonderfully thick web of echoes and reflections, making reverberations back and forth inside the book and in the reader's mind. Purporting to be written by Freud himself, this section also allows a splendidly discreet pastiche of his tone—concerned, perceptive, disciplined, prissy and ultimately tentative.

It also very delicately conveys Freud's own sense of his method's limitations….

This humane, contemplative tone prevails in the fourth section of The White Hotel where Lisa is allowed a respite in which to take up a career, contemplate remarriage, assimilate her Jewishness, and enjoy goodwill and friendship as positive, unqualified impulses….

The penultimate section has Lisa in Kiev in 1941 after the German arrival, electing to stay with her stepson when the Jews are sent to what they imagine may be Palestine but is in fact the hideous massacre of Babi Yar…. This is a monolithic, appallingly grey panel in the book…. It contrasts with the tentative radiance of the final, purgatorial sequence, in a desert camp of Palestinian/Biblical/divine simplicity….

This, if it somewhat suggests a technicolour sunset with angelic choir, also accounts for the doubts which may dog any reading of this novel. It is not that Mr Thomas has tried to put too much into too small a compass. The trouble lies rather in the patchiness of the writing—extremely delicate and engrossed in the study of Freud, often coarse or perfunctory elsewhere (and always unable to resist a bit of bravura)…. An uncomfortable sense remains that when Mr Thomas stops taking a ring-masterly stance towards his prose, it still tends to curl up and lie down in the bottom of the cage—from exhaustion, perhaps, after being put through so many hoops.

Anne Duchêne, "Feeding the Heart on Freud," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4059, January 16, 1981, p. 50.

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