Both epistolary novel and poem, erotic fantasia and Holocaust memorial, homage to psychoanalysis and lament for the failures of communism, The White Hotel, first published 30 years ago, still feels somehow singular in spite of the countless similarly structured postmodernist novels that have appeared in the interim. Something to do, perhaps, with the book's uncompromising commitment to the distinct formal challenges of each of its disparate parts. It's certainly proved singular in the career of Cornish writer DM Thomas, now in his mid-70s. For all his many accomplishments in poetry, memoir, translation and fiction (including 13 novels, by my count), The White Hotel, shortlisted for the Booker and a bestseller, may be the only one of Thomas' works to have ever enjoyed sustained acclaim.
Sadly, it's the only one I ever come across in bookstores anymore (though some years ago I did manage to pick up Thomas' fascinating, if adoring, biography of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn). Is it really possible that Thomas, who so dazzled readers back in 1981, failed to write anything else worthy of further recognition, of keeping in print? I haven't done the homework to answer that question, but I can tell you that The White Hotel does bear some resemblance to that rare achievement that many authors dread: the one book so rich and expansive, so formally and thematically dense, so sweeping and impassioned that it could be taken as everything its author has to say in one compact volume.
The White Hotel's protagonist is Lisa, a Ukrainian opera singer and possible clairvoyant of Russian-Jewish and Polish-Catholic extraction. She becomes a long-term patient of Sigmund Freud, who, with Lisa's permission, publishes her fantasy journals, which detail a hallucinatory excursion to the white hotel. Outside the hotel occur a string of catastrophic disasters, while inside Lisa and one of Freud's sons (who she's never met in real life) fornicate, eat and socialize. Freud regards the journal as a valuable document on “severe sexual hysteria,” the text's erotic reveries, its images of falling stars, orgiastic breastfeeding, landslides, blowjobs and glaciers, function as the manifestation of a repressed childhood memory and its thorny emotional residue. Freud's perspective on Lisa reads about as patriarchal and benignly sexist as you might imagine, yet there's a tenderness between the characters evident in their correspondence that Thomas evokes movingly, while still leaving space for the reader to question the limitations of Freud's analysis. (His diagnosis of homosexuality feels particularly reductive.) In any event, The White Hotel, along with Tom McCarthy's recent C, whose protagonist was based on Freud's famous “Wolf-Man” case study, has me itching to finally read Freud's own writing.
What strikes me as the most compelling aspect of The White Hotel is its manner of merging the personal with the historical, the factual with fiction. In a letter to a colleague, Freud notes how dreams of trains always symbolize death. Elsewhere he writes of his increasing conviction about the proximity between libido and the death instinct. Over the course of the novel, Lisa's visions of civilized passenger trains ushering her to a place that prompts a torrent of previously forbidden sexual activity lead to a reality in which barbaric, over-crowded trains usher millions of Europeans to places of industrialized humiliation and death (and Thomas' appropriation of testimonies from survivors of Babi Yar).
But along the way Lisa will sing, travel, make friends, wrestle with her past and even marry and become a mother. She'll see the Shroud of Turin, which ironically crushes her faith in the Resurrection, and read about Peter Kürten, the so-called Vampire of Düsseldorf, who will fascinate and confuse her sense of human need and desire. Throughout the novel's shifting tones and perspectives Thomas nurtures our understanding of Lisa' psychology with more nuance and complexity than any tidy analysis could completely fathom. So though the final stop on her journey is a harrowing one, the depth and dignity of the journey itself balances the novel's overwhelming horror with a deeper sense of a single life having been lived and examined. V