D.M. THOMAS includes a tour-de-force in his new novel Swallow, a lengthy imitation of Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, the distinctive stanza pattern of which Thomas copies. His purpose is at least three-fold: this poem is the Russian competitor's entry in Thomas' supposed Olympiad of poets and tale-tellers, which is the frame for Swallow; it tells the story of two Russians, Olenin and Charsky, both artistic, both rou,e, both self-indulgent and infantile, yet both admired by Thomas, who sees them as enobled, by their lives and by their country; finally Thomas wishes as well to convey to a wider Western public his own adulation for Pushkin, the dissolute, Mozartian genius who could compose poetry of unearthly beauty after long nights of drunken whoring.
Oddly though Thomas misses one of the fundamental elements of the Onegin stanza, that lines rarely enjamb, and never (with one famous and quite specific exception) run past the barrier of a stanza. Although ostensibly imitating the classic form closely, Thomas enjambs freely, seriously undermining the effect of his own Onegin stanza.
Admittedly, this failing will not strike more than a handful of fellow-Slavicists among Thomas' readers, nor will most readers be disturbed by other anglocentric solecisms, such as the characters who wander about sipping vodka ruminatively (vodka is chugged, not sipped, and is neither an ambulatory nor solitary pastime; Russia has no shortage of places or partners for drinking). Equally obscure, but no more comforting is Thomas' choice of names for his characters -- Markov, Surkov, and Rozanov; are they to be read as caricatures of a real Markov (of which Russian literature has several), the real Surkov, a minor and unsavory Soviet poet, and the real Rozanov, a distinguished, Whitmanesque philosopher who, among other things, elaborated a phallic cult which Thomas' Rozanov seems dimly to honor, yet not to acknowledge?
These questions could be dismissed as niggling, if Thomas did not make so much of Russia and her literature himself, in both Ararat and Swallow. Not all of Thomas' homage is even overt; although he is not mentioned, Nabokov clearly lurks behind Swallow. The story-within-story structure of his book permits Thomas to play a number of textual tricks, such as his revelation that Ararat, was, in toto, no more than the improvisation of the Italian contestant in the Olympiad. Thus Thomas is able to review his own book; "The author has very limited powers of description" says one judge of Ararat, while aher complains "There is no subtlety . . . no delicate effects," which a third refutes with an icy "It is time someone pointed out how wonderfully original it was. Not only in its overall design . . . but in innumerable images and metaphors."
The tricks go deeper though, for character after character is shown to be only the product of someone else's imagination, as for example in a vignette of nuclear holocaust, which proves to be but the musings of the Soviet journalist Surkov; he in turn is but the hero of an improvisation by the Soviet poet Rozanov, who turns out to be made up by Corinna Riznich, the Italian improvisatrice, who of course is made up by Thomas. It was something of this same technique which gave the massively successful White Hotel its haunting quality, for the horrific images of the holocaust, of sexual obsession, of death were played over and over again, as dream, as vision, as fiction, and finally as fact.
IN Swallow though Thomas seeks not the nature of neurosis, but the nature of artistic inspiration, the mysteries of composition. As Nabokov does in The Gift, as Pasternak does in Dr. Zhivago, Thomas repeatedly gives an incident from life, then its artistic transformation, in an attempt to show, as he says, "The mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story calls up another."
However, because Thomas undercuts the authority of each character by insisting so strenuously that each is fiction, the effect of this repetition is less haunting than numbing, producing a feeling much like that of Rozanov, who suddenly becomes "dimly aware of a d,eja-vu. He had said this before, today, or someone else had said it. He couldn't remember."
In fact, this textual infolding quickly destroys the traditional concepts of character and plot, since these are stressed as fictional, so Swallow becomes only patterns of recurrent themes, visions of death, sex, and disfigurement; in White Hotel they had the vigor of freshness but now grow familiar. True, there are refinements; to infidelity, satyriasis, and graphic copulation Thomas adds necrophilia, cannibalism, and sexual humiliation, twice picturing middle-aged men who are enthralled to younger tormentors who will bare themselves for massage but never yield to penetration. Even more innovative is a two-directional incest, if that is the correct term for a woman who claims to have made love properly only twice, once with her father and once with the fruit of that union, her son.
Though these obsessions are parcelled out to Russian and non-Russian characters alike, Thomas seems most puzzled by the Russians, who are famous for their complex and selfish love lives. How, he seems to ask, can they be so dissolute, yet remain in such high public regard; in Russia poets enjoy a status which Western intellectuals can only envy, yet none (save a tiny, poorly-regarded handful) wrote public poetry. Osip Mandelstam observed that only Russia values poets, because only Russia kills them; Thomas is tormented by the companion question, why the West neither kills nor values its poets.
He seeks the answer in his own childhood, which he offers in both prose and a private, elliptical poem, comparing his personal obsessions and failings with those of his Russian characters; that he is disappointed with the results is clear in the judges' reaction to the poem at the Olympiad; it is, they rule, too personal and too subjective to be a contender for the laurels.
Intercut with Thomas' prose version of his childhood is a "scandalous amendment" (Thomas' term) of King Solomon's Mines, which suggests an answer to Thomas questioning. His parody of this piece of High Empire britannica emphasizes, among other things, Haggard's extreme anglocentrism, which judges the world by the yardstick of British behavior. Haggard's characters may circle the globe oberving the outward forms of foreign behavior, yet remain forever English in their hearts.
THIS IN TURN suggests the cause of Thomas' disturbing anglicizing solecisms; in understanding Russian literature and life, Thomas remakes them in his own image, in a manner disturbingly like that of his own final scene in Swallow, where the poet whom Thomas would have us accept as most talented of all studies her own reflection and murmurs, "I love you! Forget these stupid people . . . I love you!" In the end, a kind of English parochialism overlays Thomas' Russian literature, reducing Swallow to a catalogue of personal obsessions with age, death and copulation.
Nabokov once observed that Edmund Wilson had suffered a life-long unrequited love affair with the Russian language; in Ararat and now in Swallow, D.M. Thomas shows distinct signs of that same hapless passion for Russian literature and life. CAPTION: Picture, D.M. Thomas. Photo Copyright (c) by Thomas Victor