Robert Taubman

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581

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[The White Hotel] is a short and comprehensive novel, and ingenious in suggesting connections between its different narrative levels—psychoanalytical, historical and moral.

Anna G.'s sexual fantasies centre on the events of a lake-side holiday at Bad Gastein. Anna herself attributes to the white hotel and its polymorphous satisfactions a certain moral value: 'the spirit of the white hotel was against selfishness.' In Freud's more clinical terms, what is expressed is 'her longing to return to the haven of security, the original white hotel—we have all stayed there—the mother's womb.' But the fantasia of Anna's poem and journal contains almost as much horror as pleasure…. The horror, however, is remote, with the distancing effect of fantasy, just as the sex is not real and erotic but has the unconvincing look of pornography. The analysis that follows sounds an authentic note…. At the same time, it provides the reader with an absorbing Chinese box narrative of hidden memories, reversals of meaning and deceptions uncovered….

Anna G.'s visionary writings have a double meaning, in more than a Freudian sense. They aren't only clues to the unconscious mind: they contain precognitions. The fire, the flood and the fall observed at the white hotel turn out to have their meaning at Babi Yar as well as in the depths of Lisa's childhood repressions. The novel is held together by these symbols, which point both inwards and outwards for Lisa, and forwards and back in time. And this use of symbols is more than a structural device: a fine imaginative achievement. I'm not sure that Lisa/Anna, as a character, holds together so well—a divided self whom we never know intimately; a casualty at first of her psyche and then of history. But if we don't know her well enough, she has her own moment of triumph when she knows herself: and what this means to her, on a visit to her old home in Odessa, is a sense of continuity….

The idea of continuity is carried further in the last chapter, which looks like an alternative ending with Lisa after all safe in Israel, but turns out to be set in an after-life where the characters reassemble, including Sigmund Freud himself. It's a more sentimental fantasy than that of the white hotel at the beginning, and too insubstantial for Lisa's final conviction—'we were made to be happy and to enjoy life'—to carry much weight. All through the novel there's a good deal about happiness or its absence, but no convincing picture of it. Can it be intended by what the white hotel represents, the pornographic fantasies and womb-like satisfactions, and are these as 'unselfish' as Anna's journal suggests? I don't think that any positive values in the novel ever emerge from the realm of fantasy. Evil, on the other hand, is very vividly present, and this is where its moral interest really lies. If the evil inside Lisa, the evil in the psyche, is one she learns to cope with, she has no such power over the evil that destroys her at Babi Yar. Both are representative but barely understood evils of our time, and the hallucinations at the white hotel, which seem at first to have no meaning, turn out to be ways of seeing them both more clearly….

Robert Taubman, "Casualty Reports" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, February 5 to February 18, 1981, p. 18.∗


Paul Ableman


Leslie Epstein