The White Hotel
D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel is a novel of immense ambition and virtuosity. With the strength of its precise and risky use of language, it moves us from the self into history, subjecting the self to relentless analysis, subjecting history to the intrusions of the self, implying that both will elude analysis and judgment. The novel begins in a documentary way, with a letter dated September 8, 1909, describing Freud and Jung’s voyage to America for the famous seminar at Clark University. It ends somewhere beyond history, in a place never defined—perhaps at last the promised land—inhabited only by the dead, who act with the complexity and pain of the living. Between these extremes, we follow the life of a fictional woman, Elisabeth Erdman, a singer who comes to Vienna from Russia and then returns there, and who finally dies at Babi Yar.
The audacity of Thomas’s achievement can be felt most immediately in its ambition. Freud is one of the major characters, both investigating the experience and participating in it, speaking the reticent and revelatory language of his obsessive pursuit of scientific truth; and Babi Yar is its climactic historical event. But neither Freud nor Babi Yar is cheapened or exploited by the fictionalizing, and neither diminishes the fictional heroine, Elisabeth, who becomes a case study, like “Dora,” “The Rat Man,” or “The Wolf Man,” and a victim of the slaughter.
Thomas’s cleverness in mixing fiction with history makes the facts reverberate. Elisabeth’s case becomes the case of “Anna G.,” echoing Freud and Breuer’s case of “Anna O.,” but, more important, implying a complicated relation to Freud’s daughter, Anna. “Anna G.” reads the case of “The Wolf Man” during her therapy, which is, like the Wolf Man’s, marked by the image of sex, a tergo. Thomas finds convincing voices through all this for Doctor Freud, for his patient, for the “case study,” for people in a world which seems to become a reservoir of Freudian symbols.
Thomas’s virtuosity manages to avoid becoming its own self-admiring subject. He does not mistake the local echoes and parallels of authentic history of the sort I have been suggesting for primary matter. Absorbing as the narrative is (whatever else the book is, it is a pleasure to read), virtually every detail serves to remind us that the language is not to be trusted. Elisabeth Erdman escapes Freud’s brilliant analysis, as Freud will escape ours, and as the monstrous inhumanity of Babi Yar escapes the testimony of its only surviving witness. Beyond the language which Thomas uses to invent his fictional world there is an unmanageable, inexpressible reality.
The novel suggests this reality by leading us into the experience through a series of documents, all of which require decoding. First, there are letters (all having some historical basis, but most of them fictional). These are often by Freud, and all of them imply that he is the subject of the novel, seen first on the edge of his neurotic battle with Jung, then suffering personal losses, then connecting those losses with his developing theories. Thus Elisabeth enters the book almost as an aside, in a letter of February, 1920, by Freud to his friend and disciple Hanns Sachs:
I am on the right lines in positing a death instinct, as powerful in its own way (though more hidden) as the libido. One of my patients, a young woman suffering from a severe hysteria, has just “given birth” to some writings which seem to lend support to my theory: an extreme of libidinous phantasy combined with an extreme of morbidity. It is as if Venus looked in her mirror and saw the face of Medusa. It may be that we have studied the sexual impulses too exclusively, and that we are in the position of a mariner whose gaze is so concentrated on the lighthouse that he runs on the rocks in the engulfing darkness.
The images here (which will recur throughout the book) seem almost more important than the patient.
The patient appears first to us in her “writings,” and these alone (though they leave their author a mystery) are enough to justify the admiration this novel has already evoked from critics. Her first violent and pornographic “phantasy” is written in a loose blank verse between the staves of the score of Don Giovanni; the second, supposedly written at Freud’s request as an analysis of the first, is instead a prose elaboration of her verse, carefully repeating images, developing them, but never quite providing the narrative details that will “explain” them. The language of the poem and the letter ranges from the merely vulgar, or banal, to a lush, romantic intensity, with a remarkable precision of imagery. Her writing is full of dislocation and surprise; it is seductive, frightening, and beautifully alive. The range of the language, and the risks it takes, may be suggested in the vulgarity of the early moments, when Elisabeth fantasizes that “Freud’s son” half carries her up the steps of the building she calls the “white hotel,” his hand deep between her legs:
…his thrumming fingers filled
me with a great gape of wanting wanting till
he half supported me up the wide steps…
juices ran down my thighs, the sky was blue
but towards night a white wind blew
off the snowcapped mountain above the trees….
And then it slips into another mode, prosaic, broken, yet incantatory:
…I was split open
by your son, Professor, and now come back, a broken
woman, perhaps more broken, can
you do anything for me can you understand.
The urgency of the plea is almost tangible in the strange divorce between image and action, the unaccountable juxtapositions, the fierceness of the pleasure and the numbness as it registers a reality that is vividly perceived. Here, for example, is “Anna G.“‘s fantasy of watching a fire in the white hotel from the distance of a cruise ship on the lake:
…It outblazed the sky
—one wing was burning, and the people rushed
to the ship’s prow to stare at it in horror.
So, pulling me upon him without warning,
your son impaled me, it was so sweet I screamed
but no one heard me for the other screams
as body after body fell or leapt
from upper storeys of the white hotel.
I jerked and jerked until his prick released
its cool soft flood. Charred bodies hung from trees….
Such language immediately establishes the mysterious “Anna G.” as a powerful presence, although when these images recur throughout the book they reveal her in ways that we hardly expect when we first read them.
But here Thomas once again interposes a document between his protagonist and the reader. Anna G. appears as the patient in Freud’s case study, which is the centerpiece of the book. From this perspective, her writings must be read as expressions of personal neurosis, subject to Freud’s brilliant methods of investigation. In effect, however, Freud’s study becomes another fantasy—a prosier one, to be sure. It requires explanations, as traditional novels do; but as a realistic fantasy, it at least begins to demystify “Anna G.” We learn that she is the daughter of a Russian-Jewish father and a Polish-Catholic mother; that she is an opera singer, “disguised” for the case study as a “musician” (the difference, given her symptoms, is crucial); that she once had an affair with a young Russian anarchist, and that her brief marriage with an Austrian anti-Semite has failed. She suffers from “hysterical” symptoms: anorexia (she takes only “oranges and water” for a while), hoarse and rapid breathing, unbearable pains in her left breast and pelvic region.
Discovering that her mother died in a hotel fire during an illicit affair with her uncle, Freud seems able to account for much of the imagery in the fantasies. He penetrates beneath the facts, forces the patient out from behind her firmly willed deceptions, and, in the long run, he seems to help her. Her symptoms abate. Yet Thomas has left too many clues for us in Freud’s own language to allow us to feel satisfied with the analysis. The case of Anna G. is clever, if not brilliant, but its function in the narrative is precisely not to be adequate. Anna’s case is, Freud says, “less complete than most,” and the historical Freud says in this moving, stoic passage:
No analysis is ever complete; the hysterias have more roots than a tree…. I told her I thought she was cured of everything but life, so to speak. She did not dispute this. She took away with her a reasonable prospect of survival, in an existence that would doubtless never be less than difficult, and might often be solitary.
Wrong in many of the details of his analysis, Freud is even wrong here, in part because Babi Yar turns the stoicism into tragic irony.
Elisabeth only emerges from behind the documents, in her name, in the following sections. Adopting at last the conventional third-person narrative mode, Thomas forces us to reinterpret the language he had previously constructed with such mimetic virtuosity. In effect, while telling us what happens to Elisabeth after analysis, he redoes her “case.” She makes a good but not brilliant operatic career, and she marries a famous Russian-Jewish opera singer, a widower with a small child. She returns to live in post-revolutionary Russia, while her beloved aunt (her mother’s identical twin) and her brother go to America.
Although Elisabeth’s moderately happy life partly confirms Freud’s success, her reflections on what she had not told him suggest that he had helped her more by virtue of his concern for her than because of the validity of his interpretations. Even her fantasy had been written in a more calculated way than we or Freud understood. It was cunningly copied from her original into the score of Don Giovanni. Moreover, what had seemed her revulsion from sexual activity with her husband is now revealed as a deep unease about her Jewishness. When history, in the shape of Stalinism and the Nazi invasion, violently catches up with Elisabeth in the midst of the domestic life she riskily chose over America, or over stoic solitude, the narrative no longer has to be reconstructed from the language of elusive documents. Elisabeth’s heroism is unreflecting, and when she dies at Babi Yar protecting her husband’s child we witness events for which no documents exist.
Elisabeth’s most intense experiences, then, exist beyond the analysis, yet they are evoked by the language of dream and art, and some of them are even present to Freud on the periphery of his vision. Despite its dislocations and fantasies, The White Hotel is, in this respect at least, in the realistic tradition. That realism always implied a reality too large to be encompassed in the most expansive narratives; it implied, too, that history might explode at any time upon the ordinary lives of ordinary people. It seems artistically necessary that The White Hotel should tell Elisabeth’s story by way of Freud, who reached toward the literally unspeakable and who always knew—despite the apparent arrogance of his scientific certitude—that he had never quite spoken it.
In finding a language for the “Unconscious,” Freud knew that he could only talk around his subject. The “Unconscious” is, by definition, beyond the reach of discursive language. But Thomas’s Freud goes further, finding himself drawn to the almost Schopen-hauerian idea that “all living things are in mourning for the inorganic state, the original condition from which they have by accident emerged.” The “death instinct” is everywhere in the novel. Freud knew he had no scientific evidence for it. Yet he needed it to account for what he had been discovering not only among his neurotic patients, but, during the First World War, in the early death of his beloved daughter, Sophie, and in the inexplicable way human beings (and their cultures) everywhere re-enact their disasters. He notes perceptively that Elisabeth’s expression “reminded me of the faces of the victims of war neuroses.”
Thanatos exists in the energy of Eros, or so Freud thought. Elisabeth’s fantasies provide evidence for this view, and it is true that the effectiveness of the pornography in her writing makes the inevitably accompanying fantasies of disaster the more frightening. When, for example, one of the mother figures in her second fantasy falls to her death from a cable car, there is an almost serene sexuality:
He was not sucking at her nipple but vibrating it rapidly with his tongue; like a child setting up ripples by skimming the sea with a flat stone. Their skirts blown up around their waists by the motion of the air, the women fell more slowly than the men. Madame Cottin, her heart in her mouth, saw a handsome Dutch lad falling only a few feet away from her, quite vertical, as was she, and she had the strange impression that she was not falling to her death but being lifted high by his strong arms. She had once, unforgettably, seen Pavlova dance; now, young and thin, she had become Pavlova. The men and boys struck the ground or the lake first. Madame Cottin saw the baker’s boy land in a pine tree, feet-first, and contriving somehow to turn onto his back (which instantly snapped) in a way that made sure the cat was safe.
When Elisabeth dies protecting her husband’s child many years later, it is no fantasy. Crushed at Babi Yar among the women and children, who “died more slowly than the men,” Eros becomes Thanatos for her when she is killed by the obscene probing of a Nazi bayonet. None of this can be accounted for by the conventional Freudian workings of the pleasure principle. The case of Anna G. pushes Freud and us toward a confrontation with a deathly force that must surprise us, and does, but that, at the same time, leads with powerful logic to the unmistakable reality of Babi Yar.
For the most part, however, Elisabeth is there for us not in Freud’s vision—in the vision of conventional neuroses—but in the fantasies that transcend day-to-day reality. The documentation of fantasy helps us to recognize that fantasy and reality are not so far apart as earlier realism had implied. At Babi Yar, the fantasies join with history, providing a different interpretation of every symptom and every image, in what seems to me one of the most powerful moments in contemporary fiction. When Elisabeth leaps into the ravine with the child she had neurotically refused to bear, she experiences all the neurotic symptoms that had brought her to consult Freud earlier and that he had to some degree relieved: the suffocation, the blood, the deadly penetration which had “broken her in two.” A soldier kicks her in the left breast and, with another kick, cracks her pelvis.
In its apparent attempt to control the fantasies it releases, Thomas’s narrative almost seduces us into a reading that would make it much less powerful than it is. As in the works of nineteenth-century realism, we find that the protagonists who aspire or dream are crushed, forced at best to compromise with their desires. Freud, the great doctor and explorer (or inventor) of the psychic landscape, may seem here to be suffering from such hubris, and to be set up for ironic treatment in the way, say, George Eliot treated Lydgate.
Indeed, in his early discussion of Elisabeth’s case we are made to feel how much Freud is missing when he describes Elisabeth’s charged fantasies as “pornographic and nonsensical.” Himself invoking the themes of the nineteenth-century realists, he speaks of Elisabeth’s “inflated imagination that knew no bounds, like the currency of those months—a suitcase of notes that would not buy a single loaf.” But Freud’s own ambitions may be “inflated fantasies.” Even during treatment, Elisabeth cannot accept Freud’s assertion that she had strong homosexual tendencies (who, among Freud’s patients, did not hear that?). Against such resistance, Freud sets up his impregnable and maddening strategy of attributing all denial to unwillingness to face the truth.
But such reversals are not merely ironies. Discrediting Freud is neither a particularly interesting narrative enterprise, nor Thomas’s true purpose. Thomas’s Freud is both vulnerable and heroic, ambivalently confirmed in his unscientific guesses, made touchingly human in his reading of the death instinct into history. In one of the letters that begin the novel, the fictional Freud writes what the historical Freud actually wrote. Uncharacteristically, he describes a wholly personal feeling, about the loss of Sophie. It is a moving post-Victorian suggestion of the blankness that being “profoundly irreligious” casts over the experience of death and loss:
…there is nowhere to which my complaint could be addressed…. Blind necessity, mute submission. Quite deep down I trace the feeling of a deep narcissistic hurt that is not to be healed. My wife and Annerl are terribly shaken in a more human way.
The neurotic “Anna G.” provides a moment of potential healing for Freud himself; later during her analysis she tentatively offers herself as a substitute daughter for his declining years, when the other Anna was in fact to take the responsibility. In the background of Elisabeth’s story, Freud moves painfully in pursuit of the truth that shadows him through cancer and exile.
But Freud is not merely a background figure here. Shrewd enough to know he is missing something, and willing enough to concede the value of the fantasies he had denigrated—“not without a touch of skill and feeling,” he admits—Freud is locked into a rationalism that will not, finally, account for anything. He speaks at one point, with a predictive accuracy he could not know, of how a “secret trauma in the mind of God had been converted to the symptoms of pain everywhere around us.” He is a hero of the quest for a world that makes sense, and he is himself a victim.
Remembering this, we find the moving sequence at Babi Yar, in which the narrator abruptly intrudes, something other than a mockery of Freud’s work. The passage would seem gratuitous were it not qualified by the generosity of the narrative itself:
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…. If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.
To which Freud might have responded, “of course.” The narrator could only say this, as the narrator knows, because Freud had been there before him.
But it is not simply in the ideas, in the criticism of Freud or in the dramatic confirmation of him, that this novel achieves its power and significance. Treating the “death instinct” with the respectful skepticism it gives to other attempts to make sense of things, it finds the forces on the side of life more powerful still. In the proximity of actual death (of Freud’s mother and child, and even of his sisters in the Holocaust) to a theory that explains it, we sense the pressure of life is close as well. We feel it in the Freud who survived thirty operations on his jaw, and the pain of exile from Austria. We feel it, too, in Thomas’s refusal to end his novel with the shocking finality of Babi Yar.
Instead, the last section of the novel is a final demonstration of Thomas’s daring, a mysterious aftermath in a world beyond death. For a moment, it seems as though Thomas is cheating on his own achievement, for the dead characters all reappear, including Elisabeth. This is, in fact, another, final, fantasy, but this time it is the novel’s, not Elisabeth’s alone. It is a fantasy steeped in reality, for though Elisabeth’s personal neuroses seem to disappear, historical suffering remains. Freud is there, in his cancerous last years. The shattered victims of Babi Yar arrive, seeking their lost relatives. If this is the promised land, the end of neurosis, the object of history, it is a land that provides no palliative to the catastrophe of Babi Yar: existence remains difficult, often solitary. But in the last sentence, the images of the fantasies return, now beyond Freudian interpretation, beyond any interpretation, but full of hope, sensuous and real as “the scent of the pine tree.”
I wonder about this hope. The use here of a conventionally phallic symbol to get beyond Freudian interpretation suggests the major difficulty of the novel. Its dramatic power tricks us into unquestioningly accepting devices that might otherwise be seen as evasions. The criticism of Freud, for example, depends on the implausible implication that Elisabeth’s early neurotic symptoms and fantasies were in some sense previsions of her fate at Babi Yar. And that we are to take prevision seriously is clear from earlier episodes in which Freud acknowledges, almost casually, that Elisabeth has that power. (She had, in fact, foreseen the death of Freud’s daughter.) This is an odd device to dramatize the way the merely personal is always implicated in the larger forces of history.
One can see why Thomas found some such device necessary, if not such an implausible one. The world he creates is historically convincing partly because its characters have no sense of history. Even Elisabeth and Freud focus narrowly on their careers; neither confronts the implications of Jewishness for their work or will face the growing dangers surrounding them. Freud, we know, remained in Austria to the last minute. Nevertheless, in its extrasensory moments, The White Hotel sometimes seems guilty of the very evasions of history that destroy its charcters. We have to consider how much of its supernatural machinery we need to accept, how much the sensuous hope of that post-Freudian pine tree has been earned.
Of course, it is inevitable that a book taking so many risks, in a manner distinctly less English than continental, or even American, should be marked by some unevenness. Whatever one’s doubts its strengths remain. The image of the “white hotel” is an image of the womb, an image of peace, but the novel that takes this image for its title suggests that life can be seen neither as a matter of peace or of violence. Its narrative has at times an almost Rabelaisian energy as it tries to insinuate history into the enclosed spaces of the psyche, into ostensibly ahistorical theories. In his emotionally precise and inventive prose, Thomas suggests a reality at once vital and deadly, and more accessible than we—protected behind our documents and books—might care to know.