All human beings are survivors. They love and they work, as Sigmund Freud said. They also march toward their deaths from the moment they are born. Wanting to return to the womb is a flight from death toward oblivion. The White Hotel is a poetic/dramatic expression of this dialectic. It moves relentlessly toward a paradoxical conclusion: that living and dying, loving and hating, despair and hope are complex unities.
The White Hotel creates its context through the character of Lisa Erdman-Berenstein. Through her life, a dispassionate yet penetrating portrayal is presented of a European culture in the process of change and crisis. Lisa’s inner struggles echo those in the outside world. Her consciousness becomes a metaphor for social and political reality. Throughout the novel, her visionary inner life finds expression in the real outer world. She even foresees her own death at Babi Yar. As the novel progresses, “reality” becomes too complicated to unravel. It becomes thoroughly mixed with fantasy, hope, and denial. The dead come to life at the end of The White Hotel, and one must ask: in what ways do they live on? In what ways have they perished? How do human beings survive the experience/recognition of their own mortality?
Freud would have enjoyed The White Hotel. D. M. Thomas skillfully weaves in some actual events in Freud’s life along with his (fictional) psychoanalytic work with Lisa Erdman. Freud becomes a character in a story which concerns him. He is historically real; artistically fictional. He goes on being Freud, even with an imaginary patient. Using a Freudian framework for the novel, Thomas is able to set out his portrayal of Lisa on many levels. Lisa is a real person (within the novel), and she is a fictive person in her own writings. She is the object of a case study by Sigmund Freud and therefore also becomes a combination of her own life and Freud’s imaginative recreation. The novel peels away the layers of her life, exposing the lies, distortions, and half-remembered incidents, yet her story ends with a reality which is beyond belief (Babi Yar) and a conclusion that is clearly a fantasy. Freud’s work, of course, uncovered and called attention to these paradoxes in human experience. He changed the way people view themselves and their society. In the face of death, people continue, and beyond their deaths, others continue for them.
The White Hotel uses the Freudian theory of the repetition compulsion as a structural device. Events are repeated, twisted, repeated. The novel opens several times. There is an author’s Note and a Prologue, a poem, a recapitulation and expansion of the poem and then the case study, Frau Anna G. Almost a third of the book is used to set the scene and to preview the rest of the book. One begins and begins again, and as one begins one learns about ending. The slaughter and the sweet redemption are both foreseen by Lisa. She contains within her psyche the essence of humanity. She sees destruction and love, hatred and replenishment. She has been there before and will return again.
Lisa Erdman is introduced by Freud in the third chapter, entitled Frau Anna G. Although the reader has already met her via her journal and sexually provocative poetry, the case-study approach serves to combine a view of Lisa as both a real person and as a figment of another’s literary imagination. She is simultaneously a universal, vital consciousness and an individual subject for study. Freud says that Lisa was the second child of moderately well-to-do parents. Her father was a Russian Jewish merchant and her mother, a cultivated Polish Catholic. Throughout her life, the burden of religious choice weighed on her. Although she marries in her twenties a young anti-Semitic lawyer and wears a cross around her neck, her interest in Judaism and her ambivalent wish to be Jewish and be close to her father remain. Her second marriage at age forty to Victor Berenstein, a Jew, almost reverses her position. When she dies at Babi Yar, she at first tries to escape by showing papers that prove her non-Jewishness, yet she cannot free Victor’s ten-year-old son because he has papers that attest to his Jewishness. Her ambivalent commitment to a religious ideal is solved. She dies with the Jews and awakens as a Jewish refugee in Palestine.
A central conflict for Lisa is her sexual life, both real and fantasied. In true Freudian fashion, the story of Lisa’s childhood unravels through dreams, associations, transferences, screen memories, and workings through. When she is five, her mother dies in a hotel fire, and soon afterward her uncle, who is married to her mother’s twin sister, dies. Lisa’s father becomes morose and withdrawn, and although Lisa grows into a multilingual, well-educated teenager, she suffers from a deep unhappiness and loneliness. At seventeen, she leaves...