Alan Hollinghurst writes about the poems and novels of the author of ‘The White Hotel’
Poets often mature earlier than novelists; behind the romantic image of young poetic genius lies a clearly identifiable pattern whereby all but the greatest poets write their best work before the age of forty; the novelistic genius, on the other hand, tends to ripen with experience – to accumulate slowly. D.M. Thomas was told at the age of 25 by his ex-tutor John Bayley that he would be a late developer. The truth of Bayley’s remark has been demonstrated by the switch Thomas has made, in his forties, from poetry to prose, and though last month saw the publication of Dreaming in Bronze, a new collection of poems, it is now as a novelist that he will continue to be known most widely. His third and most recent novel, The White Hotel, has been especially successful in America, with the film rights lately sold for half a million dollars.[*]
In his literary sympathies as well as his choice of subjects Thomas has tended to be something of an outsider in this country, and in his free and ‘poetic’ technique an outsider, too, to the novel. It seems almost fitting, therefore, that while The White Hotel has been twice reprinted here since its first publication in January, its real success has been in the States, where Viking reprinted it prior even to its first US publication. This American success is in part the result of the larger readership, and of the marketing techniques of American publishing houses. But there must also be more profoundly temperamental reasons for its appeal. Rarely, one US reviewer declared, does a critic find ‘a novel so original in concept and design, so dazzling in technical virtuosity, that he need turn to a thesaurus for superlatives’. But this technical admiration proves to be a vehicle for his real point, which has to do with the question he feels the novel overwhelmingly to pose: ‘what happiness can there be for half-Jews, Jews or nearly anyone in this blood-drenched, savagely cruel century?’ It requires little perspicacity to see that in the country where the TV series Holocaust was such a success, a novel which climaxes in a brilliantly sustained evocation of a genocidal massacre will secure, by daring into this agonising territory, a passionate gut-reaction of Jewish feeling. The method of the book is celebrated as a means to this feeling; the passion of the reaction sweeps over its complex terrain, making the novel seem ‘gloriously generous’ and unambiguous, whereas a more detached attitude, without remaining insensitive to the novel’s humanity, might find at its core something more obscure and possibly even offensive. Faced also with the very original structure of the novel, few reviewers really scrutinised the way it connects its central events, a connection which is the articulation of its metaphor, the meaning of the whole thing. Thomas himself has said that ‘reviewers in the UK want a safe, well-made novel. They are suspicious of new forms ... The Americans are excited by risk-taking, but I think it was too strong meat for some British reviewers.’ This is not a perfect, or of course a disinterested, explanation: the strong meat is ambivalent, both brawny and rank – and the new form is unstable, both analytical and evasive.
What happens in The White Hotel is this. There are six sections, prefaced by a fictional exchange of letters between Freud and colleagues about a confessional ‘poem’ written by a female patient of his, called Lisa Erdman, during a period of sexual hysteria which Freud wishes to write up as a case-history. The first section consists of this poem, imagined to have been written between the staves of a vocal score of Don Giovanni. The second section is an expansion in prose of the same fantasy material, which centres on a stay at a white hotel of endless oral gratification and sexual generosity, which in the third section Freud interprets as an autoerotic paradise, analysing the dispersal of herself and others in the fiction she has created. In the fourth section Lisa has recovered under Freud’s analysis and resumed her career as an opera-singer, remarrying and going to live in Kiev with her Russian husband, also a singer, whose first wife Lisa had understudied. He disappears in the Stalinist purges, and in the fifth section Lisa and her stepson are murdered in the Babi-Yar massacre. The sixth section revives them in a fantasy of Israel, their imagined earthly destination when told to leave their homes before being exterminated. Though the symbolic coherence may lie beyond her, it is in the experience of Lisa that the disparate structure must justify itself.
It is customary for Thomas to place a female consciousness at the centre of a fictional structure, and for that consciousness to dictate the structure. In his earlier novels realism was eschewed for a kind of subjective modernism, centring on female fantasy: this fantasy, and the sexuality it expresses, are associated – by a dream-like allegory or a morbid psychological impressionism – with a theory of creativity. Elena in The Flute-Player is an angelic whore of artistic inspiration, a symbol of the irrepressible instinct towards art. Joanne in Birthstone is a schizophrenic whose disintegrated personality is posited as a key to creativity: she writes poems of which Thomas thinks highly enough to reprint them in Dreaming in Bronze. In The White Hotel Thomas is more bravely making the nature and meaning of fantasy the subject rather than the substance of the book; the inventor of the ‘beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis’ himself plays a prominent part, and it is to him that Thomas’s own preoccupations are submitted. The substance of the female fantasy is compartmentalised at the beginning of the book, and the side-stepping and elliptical structure attempts to hold it at an analytical distance so as to develop the larger aspirations of the novel. According to this larger design, Lisa’s life becomes the theatre for the conflicts of Eros and Thanatos: she is both Ceres and Medusa, and contributes to Freud’s preparation of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. She undergoes the liberation of psychoanalysis and the ultimate repression of genocide; her fecundity and her death wish are metaphorically enlarged to represent a general dialectic of humankind – and it is the scale of this aspiration which has impressed the American readership. But for a man to found these connections within the fantasy of a female character involves him in many dangers, and whatever distancing of the material takes place, Thomas’s own fantasy will still inevitably affect the outcome.
One of the problems is pornography. Readers exposed to the interminable and charmless (to most) goings-on of Birthstone – the obsessive fantasy, the fetishism, the group-sex, the masturbation (mutual and solo – or sola), the self-mutilation, the incessant oozings and ejaculations and enemas and even, occasionally, some relatively straightforward coitus – are likely to have a distinct feeling of ‘Here we go again’ when on the first page of the first section of The White Hotel juices are running down thighs and fingers being crammed into vaginas. In Birthstone, however, there was no relief from the first-person narration apart from the narrator’s own lapses into her other, non-writing, personality; as a technique it was experimental, but it was an experiment without a control, without an ironising normality. It exaggerated the monotonous and boring irreality which characterises the ‘poem’ of Lisa Erdman; there was skill in it, but it was at best, as Andrew Motion said in the TLS, ‘impressively unlikeable’. In The White Hotel the pornography is more calculatingly deployed. The rioting fantasy which constituted the kind of ‘free novel’ Thomas wanted to write is ironised by those sections which are furthest from formal freedom: the Freudian case-history which Thomas has rightly chosen as a gripping literary form, and expertly pastiched, and the description of the Babi-Yar massacre, which has, too, a historical responsibility and is done with meticulous sobriety and realism. Yet this necessary carefulness is vitiated by a vulgar carelessness almost at the end of the section, where the nearly dead Lisa, lying in the heap of bodies, is impaled through her genitals with a bayonet by a German soldier. The initial sexual penetration of the book is horribly parodied in this gesture, which might be seen as a reflection on the pornographic impulse itself: Thomas presents us with a pornography of violence which, like that of Pasolini’s Salo, manipulates our responsiveness to pornography to lead us to an almost unbearable recognition of the human capacity for inhumanity. In both cases, there is a highly literary and symbolic confrontation with the most unthinkable manifestations of fascism.
In terms of the story, though, this emblematic presentation of Thomas’s extrapolation of Freudian theory, connecting sex and death, has to be sustained by a compassionate portrayal of Lisa. Thomas has said that, after he had envisaged the earlier part of the novel, it was on reading Kuznetsov’s Babi-Yar that the shape of The White Hotel offered itself: he knew Lisa would end up there. But why was it so obvious? The bold Eros/Thanatos diagram Thomas is intent on constructing is achieved at the expense of the sympathetic realism of the later parts of the novel, and the details of Lisa’s end conform to a literary and superimposed scheme. Thomas tries to justify this by giving her powers of precognition, so that the catastrophe will seem a predictable fulfilment of Lisa’s fantasies of penetration and of being buried alive – when, in fact, it has nothing to do with them. This coming-together of fantasy and prophecy resolves the book in a theoretical way that seems in both a physical and an emotional sense an abuse of Lisa. Some reviewers kept cool enough to notice this, Elaine Feinstein remarking that this gratuitous association of sexual and literal impaling served ‘to trivialise horror to the point of barminess’; and Ms Antoinette Burton, in a letter to Time Out, exposed the inevitable implication of Thomas’s fictional structure:
the widely held male supremacist belief that highly sexual women (Jewish, needless to say) bring their own punishment on themselves or at least deserve what they get. By exploiting an interest in the relationship between sexuality and death, Thomas trivialises the radical nature of Freud’s work. Worse is his use of the Babi-Yar massacre as the pivot for his reworking of Freud. This is a trivialisation of history.
What this partly suggests is that Thomas, in choosing a structure which will most dignify and objectify his private interests, has unavoidably revealed those attitudes with the more reprehensible clarity.
The signs were always there in Thomas’s creation of female fantasy in which women see themselves as victims and/or sexual objects, whilst men are regarded with no eroticism at all. Thomas’s women characters are not infrequently raped and find pleasure in it after a bit, or they indulge in rape-fantasies. In Birthstone women ‘need to be taken against their will’, ‘open their legs to authority’, and fantasise a gang-rape by ‘seven brutal forwards’ from a rugby team on a train. On the first page of The Flute-Player we are wondering, ‘Was that the cry of a woman’s orgasm or a knife in the breast?’ – and though in this book and The White Hotel the intention is to elevate humane values, there is often an after-taste, a residue of authorial abuse of women which is not thoroughly mediated in the logic of the fictions or the derangement of the personae.
To turn from The White Hotel to Dreaming in Bronze is, however, to recognise how far in advance Thomas is as a novelist of his performance as a poet. Like its predecessor The Honeymoon Voyage, the book is a somewhat haphazard assembly of pieces amongst which a quite strong narrative tendency is increasingly felt: as the novels escape from their early ‘poetic’ treatment, so the poems too move to the fictional or historical and away from the lyrical. Broadly speaking, there are two categories within the collection: dramatic monologues of varying kinds, and autobiographical poems. The work which most shows the influence of the more analytical method of his latest novel (which was itself foreshadowed by a poem in The Honeymoon Voyage: ‘Vienna. Zürich. Constance.’) is a sequence about Freud in seven letters, each of which has the form of a bizarre 13-line sonnet. Such technical sophistications sit oddly with a generally underworked and even crude manner, and a disappointing lack of verbal interest; the book actually closes with a pantoum (which Thomas has essayed before in a sequence called ‘Ninemaidens’) – one of the most intractable of poetical forms; the result is bathetic if compared with, say, John Fuller’s beautiful riddling pantoum ‘The Silent Woman’ in Cannibals and Missionaries. The attempted lyric concentration of Thomas’s poem is recognisably less accessible to him than the broader manner of most of the book, where, for instance, he reworks historical material in poems about Peter Kürten the murderer, who is discussed in The White Hotel, and the Wolf-Man, Freud’s famous patient, whom Thomas’s Lisa and Freud have talked about already. In poems like these Thomas’s poetic output seems to have become a gloss on his more effective novelistic one, taking up and embroidering some of its preoccupations. In the case of the poems which elaborate the imagery of Birthstone, many readers will find them too obscure without prior knowledge of the novel.
There are some more engaging poems about his family and childhood, his sister and her ‘Anzac fiancé’, but when they swing round to himself they are boringly explicit in their details of masturbation and sexual initiation, and their straightforwardness robs them of any sense of genuinely poetic urgency: they seem motivated more by egotism. At one point he evokes his ejaculation as entailing ‘more deaths than in the purge of Leningrad, and the siege’: the effect is partly comic, though not without allowing a twinge of bewilderment at the unstable tone of the remark. His intense interest in Russian literature is partly responsible for encouraging a romantic and heroic notion of the role of the artist, an attitude again untypical in Britain, and susceptible to an overstatement the opposite of the reticence and irony of Akhmatova, for instance, whom he has translated memorably. When the poet’s subject is the survival of poetry he reflects obliquely a vanity of his own (one which may license the writing of poems about his penis). ‘The life of a great man is fraught, demonic,’ he says of Freud: ‘His face graven with battles, genial-eyed.’ There is something silly and embarrassing about this kind of posture. Elsewhere, too, there is discomfort from carelessness, in the poem ‘The Stone Clasp’ where (unless it is a deadpan Oedipal joke) Donna Anna is made the wife, rather than the daughter, of the Commendatore. It is additionally odd when Lisa Erdman’s ‘poem’ was written in a score of Don Giovanni: on the other hand, Thomas has Boris Godunov sung by a baritone, and Italians saying ‘Bravo!’ to a soprano. His care for detail is erratic: sometimes (in part three of The White Hotel, for example) contributing to an uncanny conviction; at other times undermining his authority. That authority, though, is strengthened by the degree to which he tests himself: the way forward lies through the increasing impersonality of his latest novel and not through the unsolicited intimacies of his new autobiographical poems.
[*] Dreaming in Bronze is published by Secker (71 pp., £4.50, 7 September, 0 436 51891 0). The White Hotel was reviewed in this journal by Robert Taubman (Vol.3, No 2).