Leslie Epstein

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718

What "The White Hotel" sets out to perform, clearly, is the diagnosis of our epoch through the experience of an individual; and the highest praise I can give it is that for some time it comes close to achieving that goal. Indeed, the opening sections of the novel are so authoritative and imaginatively daring that I quickly came to feel I had found the book, that mythical book, that would explain us to ourselves. The letters among the analysts (Ferenczi, Sachs, Freud), for instance, are themselves quite fine: playful and somber, full of information and suffused with a sense of high, shared purpose.

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But it is in the first of Lisa's compositions that Mr. Thomas comes closest to realizing his high ambitions. Not that these lines, scribbled on the score of "Don Giovanni," are more than the "poor verses" Freud calls them. It is precisely because Mr. Thomas (himself an English poet) so effortlessly stretches the laws of prosody that the poem seems to speak directly from the unconscious….

What is most brilliant in this record of obsession is the sense of apathy at the center of events. The lovers stare blankly at the carnage around them, the chef cooks, the gypsy band plays; and all the while more guests check in, oblivious, flush-faced, detached. The poem here does pinpoint with great exactness how the disease of the person catches and reflects the great ill of the modern age—the dissociation, the unhinging, of experience from feeling.

I wish that poem had continued. The fictional Freud's judgment upon the prose composition that follows—"embroidering every other word of the original fantasy"—does not strike me as unjust, and I believe it was a mistake to include it in the novel. But Mr. Thomas runs into more serious problems when he tries to duplicate an actual case history. What is so compelling about the real Freud's cases, apart from his brilliance in interpreting them and his great skills as a writer, is that we always know that the dream fragments and the experiences are authentic. It is not, of course, Mr. Thomas's fault that Lisa Erdman is not the Wolf Man (to take an instance of one of Freud's patients Lisa believes she has met), nor that her hysteria must necessarily pale by comparison to the fierce factuality of his neurosis. But what Mr. Thomas may fairly be blamed for is his decision to use Freud's concept of the death instinct to explain Lisa's suffering, to make of it the very linchpin between her need to relive the most painful moments of her life and the wide world's wish to annihilate itself.

The notion of the death instinct is shaky enough in Freud's own theory, and the application of a "struggle between the life instinct and the death instinct" to this poor patient strikes me as nothing more than a bald assertion, unsupported by the evidence. Not insignificantly, the writing here is the worst in the book, marked by grandiosity…. [With the failure of this] particular case and its "universal aspect" to mesh, to hold, the novel unravels at its most critical point.

Nor does the narrative section manage to make Lisa the representative figure that Mr. Thomas intends her to be…. Part of the problem may be that she has not fully recovered from the lack of affect she portrayed so well in her poem, so that she seems to float through the various crises that afflict her. But the greater difficulty, at least for me, is that Lisa has no intellectual life. Communism and Fascism, the survival of an artist in a totalitarian state, anti-Semitism, even psychoanalysis itself—none of these things seems to cross her mind as an issue, as something that might be thought about. (p. 26)

"The White Hotel" has a coda, in which Lisa and all the other dead gather in Palestine after all…. It is a remarkable and perhaps even necessary conclusion. It made me realize that I had, after all, read the story of a particular life, that it was one I could respect and for which I had come to feel real fondness. (p. 27)

Leslie Epstein, "A Novel of Neurosis and History," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 5, 1981, pp. 1, 26-7.

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