D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas Penelope Lively - Essay

Penelope Lively

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading The White Hotel is like reading a Bergman film. You are battered with symbolism, in perpetual pursuit of images, of references, of bizarre surrealist objects—a flying breast, a petrified embryo, a gliding womb. I'm not sure that I enjoyed it, but I am certainly respectful; this is a powerful piece of writing, highly complex, carefully structured. Its meanings and intention fall gradually into place; I suspect that it would improve still further on subsequent readings….

Sex and death pervade the book. Lisa herself says, in the fantasy in the white hotel: "'If I'm not thinking about sex, I'm thinking about death…. Sometimes both at the same time'"; and the remark is bitterly apt, given what will come….

[Symbols] flow through the first half of the book in such profusion that the reader does at times feel snowed under by them, desperately flipping backwards through the pages to check on black cats, whalebone corsets, clots of menstrual blood…. "The unconscious is a precise and even pedantic symbolist", says Freud, pondering Anna's case, and yes, one supposes it must be; but even so one occasionally wriggles in resistance. Is a drying-out umbrella in a hall inevitably symbolic of a discharged penis, and not just recent rain? But that kind of objection is perhaps unfair, or, in a way, pointless; the novel either has to be accepted on its own terms, or not at all. Either the reader enters into Thomas's psychological construction—Freud, umbrellas, flying breasts and all—or he doesn't.

I did, though with one reservation about the final section, in which we appear to be meeting Lisa after her death, in some kind of paradise that has resolved all her tensions and perplexities. Or that may not be what it is…. Either way it seems a confusing coda after the harrowing account of Lisa's death. This last is a fine and searing piece of writing, as bleak as the events it describes. One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the dexterity with which Thomas moves from one stylistic form to another—straight narrative, case-history, exaggerated fantasy.

Penelope Lively, "Books & Writers: 'The White Hotel'," in Encounter (© 1981 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVII, No. 2, August, 1981, p. 55.