Fugue and fantasy in ‘The White Hotel’, D. M. Thomas


Artwork: John Craxton, Hotel by the Sea, 1946

“love ran without a seam

from lake to sky to mountain to our room”

by Fred Baxter

I have an awful habit of never finishing books. 30 pages in, I put it down, and pick up another: maybe the writing style was irritating, or the plot too confusing to care. Sometimes, however, I love a book so much I simply can’t finish it; ‘How could I possibly finish this now? While it’s raining?’ Tender is the Night, How Green Was My Valley, some of my favourite books I have left unfinished in order to finish them at a better time, when I would appreciate them more. When reading The White Hotel, and enraptured in its layered sensuality, I just couldn’t bring myself to read on. Going back to it close to two years later, the fact I had waited to finish it made me understand its fundamental yearning a whole lot more.

After a series of letters between Sigmund Freud and a colleague, the first part of the novel is an exquisite, semi-pornographic poem written, as we will find out much later, by Lisa Erdman, an opera singer and sex-obsessed patient of Freud. Set in the titular ‘white hotel’, it concerns the patient’s hallucinatory affair with Freud’s son, written in vaporous erotic metaphor. ‘Odd things have been happening, however’; the hotel is witness to falling stars ‘large as maple leaves’, a ‘floating orange grove’, ‘a flying womb’. Everything here is vaporous and mutable; the sky one evening turns ‘into a huge crimson rose, with endlessly inwoven petals’, a ‘nightgown dissolved and melted into a dress.’ The poetry is beautifully written, melding descriptions of a mythic landscape with brutal sexuality. ‘The stars, in flakes/of snow, come down to fuck the earth’, ‘his tongue churned every sunset’. The poet is obsessed with orality, letting the whole hotel suckle from her breast ‘so hard it flowered beads of milk’. Sensation takes on vivid transubstantiation; semen into milk, milk into blood. ‘No one was selfish in the white hotel’.

Amid the almost constant sexual portrayal, the lovers barely seem to notice the ‘bodies being brought to shore’ from a violent storm, and the ‘charred bodies’ from the fire that destroyed one wing of the hotel. They console a grieving widow by having sex with her; ‘love ran without a seam/from lake to sky to mountain to our room’. Although this dense poetic section can seem grotesque in its eroticism, D. M. Thomas adroitly renders even the most graphic image with delicacy and tenderness.

The novel then takes the form of Freud’s case notes for this ‘young lady who had been suffering for the past four years from severe pains in her left breast and pelvic region’, as well as breathlessness. Here Lisa’s hallucinations are related to her past and childhood, the symbols of the first section elucidated. We find out her mother had perished in a hotel blaze (perhaps the cause of the recurring hotel motif, and breathlessness), she had lost a baby in ballet accident, and discovered her mother had been sleeping with her sister’s husband. The description in the first section can seem oppressively totemic until Lisa’s troubled life is referenced, now an endlessly layered patchwork of compulsions and repressed urges from her dragged-up past.

In The White Hotel these events and symbols recur throughout the narrative, each with new contexts and embellishments. In the opening, Lisa moans of her need for a toothbrush. Later, her breathlessness is related to her guilt at oral sex, and in the last section she is embarrassed at having false teeth, mourning a loss of youth and ability to communicate. The recurring train journeys represent liminality within the structure, from one place in Lisa’s life to another. Sometimes she is propositioned, sometimes claustrophobic. One final train journey will characterise the rest. The ‘white hotel’, Freud surmises, is a symbol for the womb and early childhood, with its purity, sensuality, brutal orality.

The White Hotel is a fugue, with subject and counter-subject rippling through the novel, ornamented and explained in dazzling polyphony. Voices enter like waves, intricate variation inter-linking separate lives into one linear passage, a train ‘travelling non-stop’. ‘Fugue’ comes from the both Latin fugo (flight), and fugere (to flee). Lisa is a refugee of sorts, fleeing from her past and rapidly oncoming future; she’s ‘not even sure where home is’. Loneliness and alienation run through the book, poignantly alluding to the cultural and religious displacement of the 20th Century.

The plot takes on a more conventional narrative approach in the ‘Sleeping Carriage’ section, which describes with grim actuality the massacres at Babi Yar in 1941. The symbols explored in the opening return in hideous irony; the train journey leads to nothing, just ‘the ditch at Babi Yar’. I had no idea that The White Hotel dealt with issues of the Holocaust; even half-way through the book I was clueless to its inevitable, shocking ending. Yet symbols of anti-Semitism are sown throughout, the clues scattered, made horrific with the knowledge. When half-Jewish Lisa is raped and she and her adopted son are murdered, it is recounted in impersonal, brutal terms. Lisa is just ‘the old woman’, one of the ‘quarter of a million white hotels in Babi Yar’. I have never read a Holocaust novel that so profoundly described the plurality of grief, and even though this section only accounts for 30 pages of the ‘daring colossus of a work’, the gift of D. M. Thomas is to interlace voices and symbols, one symbol becoming an event, an event becoming a whole life, one life an age. This, surely, is the art of the fugue.

In his famed New York Times review, Leslie Epstein referred to The White Hotel as ‘the diagnosis of our epoch through the experience of an individual’. Might the hotel blaze, then, act as a personal foreshadowing of the horrors of Jewish persecution, rather than as a symbol for Lisa’s mother, as the fictional Freud puts it? After reading these hideous passages the ‘charred bodies’ of the opening are certainly put in bleak context.

The White Hotel is a lustrous and moving novel, intricately displacing fantasy, myth and sexuality to make sense of the despicable events of the 20th Century. In Lisa’s wretched experiences is an epoch harrowed by grief and suffering, a white hotel weaving together the desolate ‘lives and histories as rich and complex as Lisa Erdman-Berenstein’s’. This novel is a reminder of how inter-linked seemingly disparate lives are, spanning an age of the human condition within it.

I wonder why, nearly two years ago, I never finished it.

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