D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas Brian Martin - Essay

Brian Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

D. M. Thomas gives himself many problems in The White Hotel. The novel, part epistolary, part poetic, part narrative, tells the story of the half-Russian, half-Jewish singer, Lisa Erdman. She becomes a patient of Freud, after the first world war, in order to cure herself of hysterical sexual fantasies, which she envisages taking place in a white hotel. Psychoanalysis with Freud enables her to take up her operatic career again and return to Stalinist Russia, only to be trapped by the Nazis at the beginning of the next war. Her fate at Babi Yar is the same as that of so many Jews consumed in the holocaust.

Several problems arise. Thomas represents—first in poetry and then in prose—Lisa's sexual delirium. How successfully can he, being a man, do this? Then, there is no doubt that the accounts of Lisa's stay at the White Hotel with Freud's son are pornographic….

So, The White Hotel starts with the pornography of sex (hardly mitigated by a few defensive remarks—'it may be we have studied the sexual impulse too exclusively') and works its way round to the pornography of violence in the machinegunnings of Babi Yar and the bayonetting of a three-quarters dead old woman. Better to have left Babi Yar to the elegising of Yevtushenko.

It was a good idea to exploit a typical Freudian case history, to introduce Freud himself as a character, to afford a final chapter of fantasy for Lisa on the point of death. But, in the end, The White Hotel is a failure. There might well have been 'a quarter of a million white hotels in Babi Yar', but none of them, surely, like this. At the close of the novel's second section, Lisa is said to have 'felt happy that part of her body was occupied by someone else. The spirit of the White Hotel was against selfishness': but not against self-indulgence, it would appear. And it is to this temptation that Thomas surrenders. (p. 21)

Brian Martin, "People from the Provinces," in New Statesman (© 1981 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 101, No. 2600, January 16, 1981, pp. 20-1.∗