Edith Milton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

[In The White Hotel D. M. Thomas's] interweaving of psychological symbols and cultural myth, of prophetic intuition and the dismal truths of twentieth-century history, did not seem to me merely the fabric of a convincing fiction, but the brilliant representation and clarification of some troubled and important mystery at the heart of my own world.

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The novel is built quite simply as an expanding spiral of explanation that centers on a single fantasy: the obsessive dream of Lisa Erdman…. She is introduced through some fictional letters between Freud and his colleagues as one of Freud's patients….

The first four sections of the novel are a marvelous exercise in antithesis: The letters between Freud and his colleagues and Freud's fictional analysis of [Anna G./Lisa Erdman] are delicious evocations, replete with footnotes, of the style, the mood, the rivalries, and the self-deceptions of the day, in splendid contrast to the wild tangle of erotic invention and morbid hallucination that are the raw material of the fantasy itself. Lisa writes these out first as a ballad of dream lusts and disasters, and then expands her poem into a more formal prose transcription, which adds a good bit of local color and character development but loses nothing of either terror or heat. We are at the center, Freud tells us, of the conflict between Eros and Thanatos, the libido and the death wish.

We are also, as we soon discover and as Thomas's Freud himself seems to suspect, in a primeval jungle of perceptions into which the rational approach of analysis penetrates only a short distance. The roots of images and symbols here are in the future as well as in the past. In the fifth and sixth sections of the novel, which cover the twenty years between Lisa's "cure" by Freud and her death in the massacre at Babi Yar, the narrative is, on the surface of it, entirely conventional…. The themes of Lisa's fantasy recur again and again as fact: the train journey with a stranger, the empty platform, the white hotel, the cat, fire, flood. With each recurrence, their meaning enlarges, as Lisa's life and death unfold fully to view the realities she has already glimpsed in her prophetic imagination….

But truth in this novel is multiple, many-layered, and seldom final, and the symbols of Lisa's fantasy have a universal application as well as one particular to her own existence. Freud translates the language of her dreams in terms of Mozart and Shakespeare: Greek myth and Christian tradition, Dante, Yeats, Pushkin, and Janáček form a sort of chorus of reference throughout the text, the voice of an entire culture about to vanish. For Lisa's dream of love and death is more than an exercise in clairvoyance. It is an apocalyptic vision of the eternal destruction and resurrection of the human spirit. And Freud's interpretation of it is the rational man's battle to make some sense of the senseless equilibrium between chaos and survival.

Edith Milton, "Grand Hotel," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1981 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 14, No. 11, March 16, 1981, p. 50.

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