on December 13, 2008
I first read DM Thomas's novel The White Hotel when it was published in the early 80s. I loved it but found it extremely disturbing. This week, after 27 years, I read it again. My second reading was profoundly different from the first. It was still rewarding and disturbing. I cried pretty steadily for the last hour of reading and a while after. But the world has changed so much in 27 years that it's a different book.
The White Hotel (don't read on if you don't want to know what happens) is about several things, but is essentially about Freud's article Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he posits that humans are motivated by the life instinct (creativity, harmony, sexual connection, reproduction, and self-preservation) and the death instinct (destruction, repetition, aggression, compulsion, and self-destruction) - by sex and death.
In the novel, the historical Freud is helping a young woman who has debilitating pain that doctors think is psychosomatic. As part of her treatment she writes Freud a poem, followed by a narrative explaining the events in the poem, in which she describes a passionate tryst she has in a hotel in the Alps (which she calls the White Hotel) with a man she identifies as Freud's son. She has never met Freud's son. In this fantasy, while the lovers have sex other guests are killed in all sorts of horrific ways. Bodies fall outside their window.
The poem is meant to be shocking: it's obscene, erotic, sometimes gross, and jarringly personal in the way she keeps referring to her lover as "your son". When I read the book in 1981, the sex section at the beginning of the story balanced the shocking death scene at the end. However, in the intervening 27 years our measure of what is sexually shocking has changed markedly. Now the sex can't provide that ballast, and the brutal violence at the end of the book doesn't fit as well - it might almost, to a first-time reader, feel a little tacked-on.
The story could be read as a novelization (and hence sort of proof) of Freud's theory of sex and death as the two great motivating forces. It's also a repudiation of Freud, as in the story Freud has let the young woman read his papers, and then she creates a fantasy that perfectly proves his theory. But also, in the novel the character Freud believes in clairvoyance, by which he means the ability to read minds and see into the future. (I don't know if the real Freud believed this, but he probably did, given Thomas's scholarship.) Given that Freud believes that, all his explanations for his patients' problems are turned on their heads, because he was treating mainly young Jewish women 30 years before the Holocaust, which would profoundly affect all of them: if they had any clairvoyance at all, it surely would explain their hysteria.
At the end of the story our heroine is killed, along with thousands of others, by German troops at Babi Yar. Thomas was criticized for lifting some of the description of the massacre directly from the text of a survivor (although he credits him on the copyright page), but I thought it was appropriate. Certain things are so horrific that they shouldn't be fictionalized. Thomas' handling of this portion of the book is extraordinarily sensitive.
The book has a coda in which all the characters (Jewish or not) are in heaven, which takes the form of Palestine. I don't see how the book could exist without this coda. It's like Thomas is taking the reader by the hand and leading us to the end of the experience, helping us cope, reminding us that although many died, life continued.
In one sense, things feel a little over-explained in the book: explanations are a bit too pat. I think Thomas was trying to write for a wide audience that wouldn't necessarily be able to fill in gaps. But I also feel after my second reading that I need to read it many more times. I don't understand the purpose of the various perspectives (different narrators and the disturbing second case in "your son") or the reason the plot unfolds as it does, or why our heroine spends so much time on trains.
Not that you need to understand any of the mechanics of the novel to feel the emotional impact. In an ironic twist, the book leaves me thinking about Freud's rival Jung. The novel has added to our collective unconscious this image of a large, stately hotel in the mountains, a place we might unexpectedly find ourselves while on a journey somewhere else. If it hadn't been for the coda I might have thought of the White Hotel as heaven, but instead I see it as our inner life (maybe the id). The lulling sound and motion of a train might hypnotize us into a visit to the White Hotel, deep in our psyche, where every character is an aspect of ourselves and events show us - well, that's the mystery.
on October 20, 2000
I had a warning before reading this book, it was that nothing would ever seem the same and my awareness of my own femimine sexuality would escalate. Well he was right on both parts.
This book is so beautiful and so hard to explain. It's one story told in three ways: Poetic, symbolic and narrative. Some people do find it confusing, but it is absolutely necessary to re-read the book many times, only then will you see how each part is intertwined with the other, how the devastating end is actually told in each of the first two parts, told in those different ways. It makes you look at yourself in different ways too.
I read this book on holiday (in Israel!). I didn't put it down, reading it from cover to cover 8 times. I dreamt the story for many nights over the next two months. My heart and soul soar just thinking about it. I changed after reading this book. If you understand it, if you let your soul be touched by it, you will change too. Luxuriate in its warmth, and wrap yourself in its imaginary.
Finally, The White Hotel is one of only a handful of books I could not imagine living without.
on September 27, 2000
I could throw around superlatives and they would not have much impact. Too many reviews are written about mediocre books that one would think them, from the reviewers reaction, modern masterpieces. "Flawlessly-rendered scenes of incomparably lyrical, powerful, acute, seamless, ineffable, gorgeous, unassailable, tender, dynamic, lush, titillating, cerebral, divine, a libidinous, self-revelatory paean to the inexpressible in art and life that packs an emotional wallop!," or some such phrase.
Sometimes a person just has to come right out and say "This one grabbed me by the rear," and let it go at that. This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand. My only word of advice is not to give up on the book too soon. It's absolutely unclear in the first 40 or 50 pages where Thomas is taking you and he doesn't present too promising a train ride at that stage. Settle in for the journey. Look out the window and watch as the landscape starts becoming more recognizable. The landmarks with which you thought you were earlier familiar, start revealing themselves in entirely new patterns. For this is a novel about revelation, more than anything else. Readers just have to trust that "all will be revealed" by novel's end, and it is, magnificently.
Thomas performs a near-miraculous feat in this novel. Reading The White Hotel is akin to looking through a an extremely high-powered telescope and what at first looks likes fuzzy, indiscreet blurs, become unbelievably colorful and complex nebulae and galaxies as the instrument's focus is adjusted. The book begins with a long poem, full of erotic imagery and near-incoherent description, that we are startled to learn is written by a woman. Following this is a prose version of the story that we learn is written by a young woman who is a semi-successful Opera-singer who comes to Sigmund Freud for analysis as she suffers from acute psychosomatic pains in her left breast and her womb. She will become the Frau Anna G. of Freud's famous case-study (Freud's "Wolfman" also appears as a peripheral character in the novel). Thomas lets us in on Freud's analysis, as well as his ambiguous feelings towards his patient. At several stages, Freud is ready to throw up his hands and tell her that he won't continue his treatment as he feels she is not forthcoming enough to make any real progress. He always relents, however, because he senses that "Lisa" (the Opera-singers real name) has enough redeeming attributes to warrant his time.
As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Lisa's past and the seminal childhood incident (occurring when she is 3-years-old and vacationing with her parents in Odessa) that estranged her from her mother, and more particularly, from her father. This will be the central motif of the novel as well as Lisa's Cassandra-like ability to see the future through her dreams and her imaginative powers. If this begins to strike you as psychological clap-trap, rest assured it isn't. The novel at no point devolves into psycho-babble or pretentiousness. Everything in the novel, we come to learn, is there for a reason. There is absolutely nothing amateurish about the master-plan and the sublime architecture that Thomas erects (no Freudian pun intended). This is as carefully-constructed a novel as anything I've ever read.
I am certainly not going to spoil the read for anyone by giving away the novel's ending, but suffice it to say that it's as powerful as anything-written in the past 30 years, at minimum. The only drawback to this book is that I didn't give it enough of a chance on first-encounter. Hopefully, that won't be the case with those reading this review.
on May 24, 1999
The White Hotel is a work of such genius that it deserves to be read by all. The story which connects a nuerotic opera singer in the 1920's who is treated by Sigmund Freud and the holocaust of world war two is both deeply moving and shocking. The first half, through the use of poetry, letters, pschological analysis and dreams gives the reader great insight into the main protagonist's mind and life. The second half sets her life among the many who are trapped in the winds of hell that was the holocaust. Thomas shows us that each life is valuable and by focussing on one who would perish in the murder at Babi Yar he reenforces the truth that terms such as "holocaust" leave us unconnected with the reality of the horror, and thus allows us to forget. By depicting one persons fragility and inner thoughts the reader cannot dissasociate themselves from her death. The novel leaves the reader gasping for breath and led me to stare blankly afterwards lost in the possibilty that such inhumanity towards fellow human beings is possible. This novel, Solzhenitsen's work and others such as Primo Levi ensure that the mass murders of millions this century will never be forgotten. It is a great read, poetical and at times frankly realistic, and most importantly, it is a work which (something so rare nowdays) deserves to be read
on March 20, 1999
His greatest literary work to date has taken the most reprhensible crimes against humanity and conveyed them through a sexual psychosis background/dialogue. The disturbing brilliance of that provokes the reader to examine oneself individually, and to judge humanity corporately. This book is not for the light-hearted. It is profound and deeply intellectual while at the same time subtle and emotionally challenging. One cannot read this book and not have some kind of emotional reaction to it. Upon my first read-through (this is a book that takes several reads to fully absorb all the nuances and insights), I was disturbed by its presentation. On the second read-through, I was amazed by the artistry of the picture painted by the words written. This novel will have a forceful impact upon the reader. You will come away fully embracing the writing or standing in judgement of the writer. There are no inbetween views. This novel takes the story of a young woman as she lives life in the midst of the Holocaust, and conveys the depravaties, the dehumanizing activities, the destructions that were exerted against humanity. A unique combination of massive war crimes and psycholanalysis makes this a book near impossible to put down. If you want a true challenge in your reading, if you want to be provoked out of your personal comfort zone, if you want something to deeply ponder, then look no further than The White Hotel. You'll go to that place and not return the same individual.
on May 1, 1998
It is the story of a lovely, very neurotic Jewish girl named Lisa Erdman who goes into therapy with Freud himself because she suffers from a chronic psycho-somatic pain in her left breast and pelvis. He sort of cures her so she can go on to lead a more or less normal life before being killed by the Nazis in a lime pit. Thomas' goal in writing this book was to show that any individual human life, no matter how seemingly insignificant or inconsequential, is priceless. The first half of the book basically chronicles Freud's sessions with Lisa. She retells this recurring dream of hers in which she meets a man on a train going nowhere. They go together to a fluid, serene white hotel, where they make love every night and day, amidst a series of horrible accidents and tragedies that befall many of the other guests staying there. After revealing this dream, Lisa tells Freud about things she remembers from her childhood, and other events, tragic and mediocre, that shaped her life. Freud then interprets the dream, using the things she told him about her life. The result of this deciphering is a great self- revelation for Lisa, as she begins to understand her failed relationship with her father and why this resulted in her ruined marriage; she "learns" of the adulterous relationship between her mother and her uncle, knowledge she already had but had repressed for so long she practically forgot about it. These stresses in her life had caused her neurosis, and confronting these memories makes her pain disappear. Reading Freud's diagnosis becomes almost tedious halfway through the novel, but the length and intricacy of them, as well as the attentive whole-heartedness with which Freud renders his treatment, force the reader to appreciate the amount of work that can go into the betterment of one human life. It is this work, this creation of memories, that gives life its inestimable value. And Thomas very clearly makes the point, at the end of the book, that! every single person killed in the Holocaust, every person that ever lived, has a tale to tell that is just as interesting, just as amazing, just as precious, as Lisa's. This book strengthened a deep appreciation that I already had for life. And this appreciation has dramatically shaped my behavior and thoughts, not only those towards myself, but towards others. As a result, I try to be kind and considerate. I want the people I touch to develop the same appreciation that I have for life. If everybody had this appreciation, there would be no such thing as racism, bureaucrats would help the starving children in Africa with a greater sense of urgency, we wouldn't see the news of senseless violence splattered across the headlines, and there would be no need for the sin we call war.
on March 2, 2000
This is the kind of book you need to read twice, at least. The second time I read it was when I realized that the long, surrealistic dream-poem in the first part was actually a premonition of horrific events to come. Lisa is haunted by this premonition her entire life, seeking psychiatric therapy to explain it. She is also haunted by mysterious "hysterical" pains in the parts of her body that, years later, will be brutalized. I love touches in the poem like the orange trees falling into the lake and vanishing -- a premonition of her brief hope of her and Kolya going to Israel - a hope which is also defeated. Faced with the horrifying premonition of the Holocaust, Lisa's psyche chooses to change the horror into something beautiful and mysterious -- the White Hotel.
on March 28, 1997
Giving this book a 10 as a rating is sort of like writing my own eulogy; it's something that upsets me but that I feel it's my duty to do. White Hotel is one of the most amazing novels I've ever read. It is a wonderful story, at times erotic, often surreal, unfortunately tragic, always captivating. When you start this novel, you are introduced to a slightly off-balanced Jewish opera singer and her strange and unexplainable neuroses. She chats with her therapist, a very amusing and true-to-life fictional Sigmund Freud. Time goes on, her life goes on, joys come and go, and the War starts in Germany... I didn't sleep for 4 days after reading this book, and if that isn't a recommendation for people strong of heart, I don't know what is
on February 27, 1999
After a third reading, I am still in awe of the beautiful language and the contrasting horrible events of The White Hotel. With each chapter I think "So that's what it's about..."; only to be perplexed as I read on. Thomas uses poetry, prose, non-chronology, and limitless imagination to sing the life of a woman who lives with the sense of her own aching death in the Holocaust. Masterfully Thomas gives the reader a taste of events in the life of Lisa Erdman, but gives just enough information to challenge the reader to imagine the rest. It is a novel about so many things, it can barely be described! Definately something to wrap your brain around.
on March 18, 1997
Mr. Thomas is a poet, not a novelist, and has bent the latter art form to his will in this once in a lifetime combination of Freudianism and a personal view of the bestiality of Nazism and the Holocaust. Akin to great poetry, the imagery and presepctive of the central character of the White Hotel grows more powerful in a second and third reading. Thomas has, somehow, managed to bring the insanity and brutality of a terrible story to the reader with elegance and a style of pen that does not seem to fit the subject matter but makes the horror all the more compelling. This combination is not seen in other works of art and for that reason alone this is a book for the ages