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 …