WHATEVER ELSE may be said about this mysterious, resonant novel -- and there is plenty -- the first ought to be that it is compellingly readable, and the second that it is very good. These qualities do not necessarily go hand in hand, as do, say love and death, the double conundrums life presents us with.
They are the conundrums of The White Hotel , which is, in its way, to Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle as Joyce's Ulysses is to The Odyssey : a latter-day transmogrification. Probably it wouldn't have been written without either modern precursor; certainly it couldn't have been written without Dr. Freud, who himself is fictively portrayed in the novel as he surely must have seemed in life - distant, reserved, Apollonian, in contrast to the libidinous, Dionysian fantasies of his patients.
"One could not travel far," the author writes in an introductory note, "in the landscape of hysteria -- the 'terrain' of this novel -- without meeting the majestic figure of Sigmund Freud . . . as discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth. . . ."
The fantasies of one of Freud's (imaginary) patients, an ordinary-appearing opera singer of the second rank, are part of what D. M. Thomas' novel is "about"; the rest is history, the 20th-century "landscape of hysteria." It is the period of European civilization from the end of the First World War to 1941, when the Germans murdered hundreds of thousands of the population of Kiev, beginning with 70,000 Jews, in the ravine of Babi Yar. One of them is Lisa Erdman, the singer and central character of this novel. At the end of the Great War she had been a patient of Freud. Her luxurious, obsessive fantasies of sexual ecstasy and excess, and of violent death, both on a grand operatic scale, in a resort she calls "the White Hotel," corroborate Freud's theories set forth in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The essence of those theories, badly stated and reduced by the master himself to a sentence, is "the aim of all life is death."
The novel is preceded by a prologue, an exchange of letters between some of Freud's colleagues and Freud himself. Freud writes to Sandor Ferenczi: "I have . . . found myself drawn back to my essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle , which had been hanging fire, with a strengthened conviction that I am on the right lines in posting 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 to the rocks in the engulfing darkness."
This letter, like Freud's history of Lisa's case, which makes up the third part of the novel itself, is the product of Thomas' imagination, an imagination that projects itself into the mind of Freud and comes out sounding as much like Freud as Freud himself -- an impressive feat, but no more so than his rendering of Lisa's voice in a 14-page poem addressed to the doctor and in the journal of some 60 pages in which she expands her poetic fantasies. The last half of this unconventional novel could pass for conventional narrative, if writing as exact, as stark and as crystalline as this could be described as conventional, if the history it recounts could be other than the fantastic nightmare it in fact was.
The end of life -- death -- is not the goal of psychoanalysis, which is to convert repeating into remembering; not to repeat in some disguised form the trauma of the past but to remember it, to see it for what it was, an event belonging to the past, and thus, through recapitulation, to avoid repetition. Long after her analysis has ended and Freud pronounced her returned from neurotic misery to "ordinary human unhappiness," Lisa experiences the analytic "cure", a Proustian epiphany, in a visit to her childhood home, now a Soviet health resort."She had the feeling that she was no more than a spectre. . . She was cut off from the past and therefore did not live in the present. But suddenly, as she stood close against a pine tree and breathed in its sharp, bitter scent, a clear space opened to her childhood, as though a wind had sprung up from the sea, clearing a mist. It was not a memory from the past but the past itself, as alive, as real; and she knew that she and the child of forty years ago were the same person.
"That knowledge flooded her with happiness. But immediately came another insight, bringing almost unbearable joy. For as she looked back through the clear space to her childhood, there was no blank wall, only an endless extent, like an avenue, in which she was still herself, Lisa. She was still there, even at the beginning of all things. And when she looked in the opposite direction, towards the unknown future, death, the endless extent beyond death, she was there still. It all came from the scent of a pine tree."
To forget truly, we must first remember clearly. Lisa, however, also possesses an eerie kind of prescience, a kind of prophetic second sight, in which her memories of the past -- flaming hotels, falling bodies, secret erotic pleasures -- and her present fantasies become inextricably entwined with the realities of the future -- the death of Freud's daughter, the ravine of Babi Yar, the scent of a pine tree -- a future that, despite the awful events it well reveal, is in some odd ways joyous: "She smelt the scent of a pine tree. She couldn't place it. . . It troubled her in some mysterious way, yet also made her happy." Lisa's present moment is the reality not only of the past but of the future; reality is her memory, memory her reality. Like Cassandra, she has the gift of prophecy, but also like Cassandra, could make no one believe her. Her prophecies were ecstasies, and those to whom she delivered them, including Dr. Freud, thought her an hysteric. With reason, of course.
D. M. Thomas, born in England in 1935, has written two previous novels. The Flute-Player was published here a year and a half ago by the late Henry Robbins at Dutton.