The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
But he would have us remember most of all
To be enthusiastic over the night
Not only for the sense of wonder
It alone has to offer, but also
Because it needs our love: for with sad eyes
Its delectable creatures look up and beg
Us dumbly to ask them to follow;
They are exiles who long for the future
That lies in our power…
—W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”
A recent series of odd coincidences, during which The White Hotel arose in conversation or correspondence three times in four days, inspired me to read D. M. Thomas’s sensational 1981 novel about, among other things, Freud. Freud, I recall, believed there were no such things as coincidences.
Freud also believed for a while—in the 1890s, early in his career—that the etiology of his patients’ hysterical symptoms lay in their experience of childhood abuse and molestation. (For the most part, as I understand it, he inferred such abuse from the symptoms themselves rather than being told about it by his patients, who often denied having been abused.) Due both to the sheer frequency of hysteria and neurosis, which seem to afflict almost everyone from time to time, and to the absence of evidence that such widespread abuse took place, Freud abandoned this hypothesis. He devised instead his theory that the origin of neurosis and hysteria could be found not in actual early sexual experience but rather in unconscious and repressed sexual fantasy. Later critics, particularly feminists, faulted him for this; they accused him of retreating from a bold and radical critique of pervasive sexual predation to the usual patriarchal omertà around such subjects. Sexual violence is not fantasy, but a reality, inflicted not by the unconscious but by history and society, the critics imply.
At first, I thought that this might be the argument of The White Hotel. The novel’s structure is strange and very complex, but its macroscopic narrative can be retold simply (and with unavoidable spoilers): a Ukrainian Jewish woman is analyzed by Freud due to inexplicable and disabling pains in her breast and side; Freud diagnoses her as a repressed homosexual, which she denies being; later, she dies in the Holocaust, tortured and murdered at Babi Yar, where her breast and side are particularly wounded. Her sufferings come not from repressed fantasy in her past, but from the social and political doom awaiting her in her future; her symptoms are the lacerations of history.
But the novel, when read more carefully, turns out to be a validation of Freud. Thomas does not quite praise Freud as a scientist or a physician—before the novel even begins, he refers to him in an “Author’s Note” as
discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.
The Viennese physician, so expert in analyzing the feints and dodges of the conscious mind, would recognize that final clause as protesting too much. No, Thomas emphasizes Freud as a writer—as proud winner of the Goethe Prize. He lovingly parodies Freud’s style in a chapter modeled on the psychoanalytic case study, and if Freud does not get the novel’s protagonist “right,” he was right to pay her psyche and her own literary production such respectful attention. Later in the novel, she writes to Freud:
I am touched, beyond words, by knowing that so much wisdom, patience and kindness were devoted to a poor, weak-spirited, deceitful young woman. I assure you it was not without fruit. Whatever understanding of myself I now possess, is due to you alone.
The White Hotel, written by a then-obscure Cornish poet, became both a bestseller and critical hit when it was published in 1981; it almost won the Booker Prize. (Martin Amis memorably parodied the reviewers’ performative fervor: “‘I walked out into the garden and could not speak’, and so on.”) It was also a source of controversy in its blending of the Holocaust with pornography, and in its borrowing, for its most intense and climactic scenes, from the testimony of a real-life survivor of Babi Yar, Dina Pronicheva. Enough time has gone by, though, to assess the novel more neutrally.
It is a 20th-century novel in the very best sense, in that it does not take novelistic form, genre, or mode for granted. It begins with a series of letters among Freud, Ferenczi, and other psychoanalysts about an erotic document by one of Freud’s patients. There follows, in the first chapter, a fantastical pornographic poem and then a prose gloss on the poem, both detailing a singer’s sexual adventures in the titular white hotel. She romps with a young man she met on a train; she allows a priest to drink milk from her breast; she also takes a corset maker as a lover. While this is going on, the hotel is beset with catastrophes, as fire, flood, landslide, and falling cable car kill most of the guests.
In the next chapter, we shift style and genre again: now we are reading Freud’s own case study of the previous documents’ author; we learn about her troubled family background (she was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, and her mother died when she was a child), her complex sexual history and failed marriage, and the psychosomatic symptoms that have bedeviled her for years. Freud eventually concludes that repressed homosexual desire is at the root of her problems.
The next chapter alters our and the novel’s perspective again; now, halfway through the book, we are privy to objective third-person narration telling us about Lisa Erdman, now named for the first time in the text (Freud had concealed her identity as “Frau Anna G.”), and her real history and experiences; her poem and its prose gloss had been a fantasy, and much of what she told Freud was not quite true, while his own interpretation was sometimes fanciful. The novel now does get behind these texts to reveal something of the truth, and yet Freud’s method of seeking for buried truths and unraveling densely knotted symbols is validated, because Lisa reveals her memory that her mother and her aunt were involved together in a sexual relation with her uncle, and that her mother and uncle died together in a hotel fire.
The subsequent chapter carries on in this objective narrative mode as Lisa moves to Kiev with her new husband and his child from a previous marriage; her husband, though, dies in Stalin’s purges, while Lisa and her son are tortured and killed by the Nazis.
A controversial concluding chapter seems to re-enter the fantastical mode of the novel’s early passages, as we encounter Lisa, and most of the other characters, including Freud, in an ambiguous afterlife, a Zion of the mind where none are excluded. Here, Lisa is allowed a redemptive re-encounter with her mother—they suckle each other—and she becomes a nurse.
During the painful sequence of Lisa’s torture and murder, the narrator occasionally departs from grimly neutral reportage and grows didactic:
The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms). Though most of them had never lived outside the Podol slum, their lives and histories were as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Bernstein’s. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored a single group, even a single person.
In other words, the novel and psychoanalysis together are beneficent because they are the opposite of discourses like Nazism or Stalinism; in taking the individual as an inexhaustible absolute, literature and psychoanalysis bar the ideological way to viewing any people as disposable. Moreover, the baroque pornography of the novel’s first third, in which sexual pleasure is indeed braided with death and destruction, suggests that literature and psychoanalysis are the safest zones for our exploration of our ineradicable destructive impulses. In fantasy, we can explore rather than indulge the death drive; that way, we do not have to act it out in murder, suicide, genocide, or war. Finally, just as Lisa’s symptoms were premonitions rather than recollections, a study of our psyches may reveal the nature of the future in the present; we may even attempt to forestall the worst of our possible futures. It does not matter if Freud got it right or was “scientific”; what matters is that his method—narrative, description, interpretation, reinterpretation; myth; poetry; drama—is a way to peace.
Critics have objected to the novel’s fantastical ending on the grounds that it obscenely provides a Christian paradise for its Jewish victims. While that would be offensive, it is not what the novel is doing. I grant that some rebuke to Zionism is implied when the narrator decisively states of this Holy Land encampment that one does not have to be Jewish to be admitted; but Thomas’s fancied afterlife is not exactly paradise—it is a refugee camp—and it is a territory not of religion but of poetry. Not only the King James Bible but also Eliot (“there was rock which provided a little shade”), Yeats (“‘Sick with desire'”), and Blake (“‘Where Israel’s tents do shine by night!'”) are recalled, as are all the novel’s major refrains. In an excellent recent article, Cates Baldridge persuasively argues that the novel’s afterlife represents an allegory for literature’s redemptive capacity to imagine new possibilities; moreover, he interprets The White Hotel, despite its first half’s textual game-play, as a quintessential modernist novel that holds out the hope of an aesthetic utopia, rather than a postmodern one that mocks all visionary drive.
I wonder not only about the afterlife in but also the afterlife of the novel. Once a ubiquitous text, a major novel of its time, it seems to have faded somewhat in significance; what recent fictions, if any, might it have influenced? I suspect the final chapter may be lingering in the background of Coetzee’s Novilla, the socialist utopia/dystopia of The Childhood of Jesus, which I interpret as the ethical polity implied by the tradition of the European novel, just as Baldridge finds in Thomas’s Camp a social space embodying aesthetic ideals. And Thomas’s pornotopic modernist and Mitteleuropean hotel abraded by the catastrophes of European history must have at least partially inspired Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, a graphic novel that suggests fully as much as does Thomas’s book that war and oppression may be quelled by an aesthetic excavation of unconscious desire.
How does The White Hotel look from the vantage of the present? If now less overwhelming than it was to its early reviewers, it is still an intellectually formidable and imaginative novel. It is also very well-written in its own distinct way. The third-person passages have a fascinatingly stilted tone of translationese, as of a version from the Russian or German, that very much reminds me, as implied above, of Coetzee. The recreation of Freud’s style is very persuasive—Thomas catches the peculiar warmth and seductive wit that always comes through even in his most clinical observations—and even the pornographic poem, which could have gone badly wrong, is energetic and strikingly surreal, its stream-of-consciousness iambic slant-rhyme couplets just a cut below John Shade’s bravura neoclassicism in the annals of “fictional” poetry:
Asleep at last
I was the Magdalen, a figure-head,
plunging in deep seas. I was impaled
upon a swordfish and I drank the gale,
my wooden skin carved up by time, the wind
of icebergs where the northern lights begin.
The ice was soft at first, a whale who moaned
a lullaby to my corset, the thin bones,
I couldn’t tell the wind from the lament
of whales, the hump of white bergs without end.
Then gradually it was the ice itself
cut into me, for we were an ice-breaker,
a breast was sheared away, I felt forsaken,
I gave birth to a wooden embryo
its gaping lips were sucking at the snow
as it was whirled away into the storm,
now turning inside-out the blizzard tore
my womb clean out, I saw it spin into
the whiteness have you seen a flying womb.
When a man writes so extensively from within his imagination of female sexual experience, he will be accused of sexism or misogyny; but Thomas’s sensibility is so submerged in Lisa’s that this charge is not compelling in this case. As for Thomas’s collaging in of actual victim testimony: I do grasp the ethical difficulty involved, but Thomas credits his borrowing on the copyright page, and, more importantly, the novel’s whole point is to create an imaginative context in which such an experience as the testimony recounts can be received by the reader as an inner, emotional event. The perhaps disturbing implication is that it takes fiction to make life real. For better or worse, I believe this myself. But I hope that even if I did not like much of what The White Hotel has to say, I would be charmed by its weirdness; we need more weird novels!