Here today, gone tomorrow: Usually a haggard cliche' of literary fame, it also happens to be author D. M. Thomas' precise itinerary.
The British author of the best-selling, erotically daring novel "The White Hotel" fled Washington in secret last Sunday, breaking his five-month teaching commitment to American University and astonishing literati from New York to London.
"I deeply regret that I must resign my position," Thomas telegrammed to AU's Literature Department chairman Barry Chabot on Monday, but "unanticipated publicity exposure within an unfamiliar environment would create problems I could not deal with."
Few American authors tire on the talk-show treadmill or quail when works of art are sold like muffin mix on TV commercials. But after only a week in the United States, Thomas, a professorial recluse by temperament, was already turning green in the limelight. Chabot says Thomas was "very perturbed" after an interview last week during which he was shown the promotional materials prepared by Pocket Books, which has marshaled 1 million paperback copies of "The White Hotel" for release in March.
Thomas told no one of his decision in advance, and might have made a clean escape. But he was spotted on board the train by novelist Susan Shreve, who suspected the worst. She had met Thomas the previous week, when as a "sort of desperate thing" he wanted some first-hand advice on the promo biz, and had asked her for John Irving's phone number.
Thomas, who is 47 today, is staying with friends in New York, where he said in a prepared statement yesterday that he regretfully resigned for "personal reasons" which "could not have been foreseen." He will return to his home in Hereford, England, later this week.
"I don't think he quite knew what he was getting into," says Chabot, whose office had been getting interview requests for six weeks before Thomas' arrival. "It's just regrettable for him and for us and for 40 some-odd students. I feel sorry for him."
The Critics Said 'Masterpiece'
You could see it coming -- if you like objective correlatives -- even early last week in Thomas' Tunlaw Road apartment provided by the university. There sits a big bowl of senescent oranges surmounted by a claw-heap of age-blackened bananas, their cheery red Dole sticker like a wisecrack at a wake.
"Yes, they put that here to welcome me," says Thomas, glancing at the dead fruit. It is immediately clear that he will make a very unlikely literary lion. Even in this airless room, his hair sprouts a gust-ruffled tuft of bardic indifference, and 20 years of teaching have given him an aura of donnish disdain. On his first day here, he locked himself out of the building, and two days later, "I don't even know where the nearest shops are."
Confusing enough. But as he tends a constant conflagration of Dunhills, he seems even more bemused by success. There were "moments of euphoria when I thought that I had written a really good book," he says, and "I knew it would get more readers than my poetry -- but then you'd have to write a pretty lousy novel not to."
The word the critics used was "masterpiece." The figures the agents used were sextuple: 100,000 copies of the Viking hardcover sold; $200,000 from Pocket Books; $500,000 for the movie sale to Keith Barish, producer of "Endless Love" and the forthcoming "Sophie's Choice."
To the man who recently got $200 for a book of poems he agonized over for three years, $200,000 "was for me an absolute fortune! I didn't believe it when I got the call. In fact, I was somewhat disturbed -- I cried a little at that point. I said to myself, 'The fools! They'll never get their money back.' " But then he saw that Pocket Books had paid over $2 million for John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire," and "I thought, well, maybe they got a bargain." And Thomas permits himself a rare small laugh.
"The White Hotel" spans 20 years in the life of Lisa Erdman, a Ukrainian singer treated for sexual hysteria by Sigmund Freud, who finds in her "an extreme of libidinous phantasy combined with an extreme of morbidity." The chapters change from Freud's letters to Lisa's disturbing poetry -- in which the most lubricious sexual couplings meld into images of fire, flood and slowly falling bodies -- to psychoanalytic case study to conventional narrative. The labyrinthine reaches of Lisa's character are laid bare until her death in the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar -- and beyond.
Not exactly pop fiction. Yet in March, Pocket Books will dump its million copies of Thomas' complex, demanding literary creation into bookstores, airport lobbies and supermarket racks. The $150,000 promotion budget supports such huckster doodads as "White Hotel" keychains, at the first sight of which Thomas is highly delighted: "Do you know where I can get any more of those?" And he seems genuinely disappointed that there are no T-shirts: "Oh. That's too bad -- my son would have loved one."
But anxiety rises when he is shown the five different covers (designed for maximum-exposure rack display), with their surreal and sexy painting by Gillian Hills, who did the creepy tableaux for the V. C. Andrews trilogy. Thomas' voice goes flat with stupefaction. "Yes," he says, plainly agog yet carefully circumspect. "Well. There you are." Five days later, he will be gone.
At Home in England
But then he is hardly afraid of unconventional behavior. For one thing, he lives with one ex-wife and spends time with another. "It's unorthodox," Thomas says, a slight Cornish burr on the polished Oxford syllables, "but it's simply the way that life has turned out." Life, in this case, meaning the red brick semi-detached house in Hereford, "a very pastoral English landscape on the border of Wales," which he shares with his first wife, a high-school sweetheart whom he divorced 10 years ago. The couple, too, is semi-detached: "We agreed to divide our house because we were still good friends and it seemed to me a reasonable thing to do" to remain near their children, Sean, 18, and Caitlin, 21. "I didn't fancy being a father who takes his children to the zoo on Sunday afternoons. And besides, the nearest zoo is 70 miles away."
Meanwhile, two miles down the road is his second wife and their 5-year-old son Ross. "My second marriage was really a matter of legitimizing the child," Thomas says. "My girlfriend and I wanted a child, but we really didn't want to be married. We didn't start to live together when we got married, and when we got divorced, we didn't stop seeing each other. The normal traumas of marriage and divorce didn't apply. It's a very cool thing."
Equally unorthodox is his imagination. An exile by nature, he "likes a kind of distance" between him and his subjects. In general, "the more genteel the surroundings, the more ungenteel the actual writing."
So from gentle Hereford, Thomas plumbs the dank churn of the id to come up with fables of lupine lust and butchery that would blanch a Caligula. But commingled with throat-thickening tales of plain human heroism. In his 1979 novel "The Flute-Player," set in an unnamed fantasy land very like the Soviet Union, a long-suffering young woman named Elena who between several ghastly marriages befriends and succors a half-dozen persecuted artists. In "The White Hotel," Lisa's mental disorders give way to acts of such moving selflessness that by the time she finally lies lifeless in a gore-sodden ravine, the reader has experienced not a mere cipher in the calculus of evil, but a catastrophe of consummately human scale.
Both books can be read as Kafkaesque fables, quasi-allegories of the soul's persistence in the face of overweening horror. "I tend to use these cataclysms in society as metaphors for individual fates. People have talked a lot about 'The White Hotel' as a Holocaust book, but it's almost accidental that she's half-Jewish. What's important is that she got wiped out, brutally treated."
"I don't understand the Holocaust. Nobody does," says Thomas. And "I haven't had any traumatic events in my life. But all of us end up in holocausts as individuals. It maybe won't be a Nazi machine gun, but the death is the same. And we all stay at The White Hotel."
Puberty and Poetry
Thomas was born in a small town in Cornwall. "All my forefathers were Cornish miners," and so might his father have been. But when the mines closed down, the elder Thomas moved in 1919 to California, where he became a plasterer working on movie sets. Thomas' elder sister, Lois, who now lives in California and who influenced so much of his writing, was born there. "They used to say that Clark Gable had once patted her on the head." The family had returned to Cornwall by the time Thomas was born in 1935.
"We never had any books in the house, but there was never any sense of deprivation. My parents were very keen musicians, good amateur singers," who would often bring friends in for music in the evenings. "A bit Lawrencian, really," says Thomas, "in the warmth, the feeling of bodily intimacy without the polite repressions you can get in the middle class." They were, he says, "kind of the Cornish Waltons." He had a fabled grandfather who once took his whole family to New York, but never got off the boat. "He took one look at the city, said, 'I don't like this!' and went home." Apparently, it runs in the family.
His parents convinced his sister, somewhat against her wishes, to marry an Australian. Her resulting unhappiness, Thomas says, meant that "we all emigrated to join her" for two years. He was 14 when he embarked on that "crucial experience" which would later lead him to writing. The exile-to-be says "I reached puberty at sea" during the month-long cruise. "I discovered the Southern Cross at the same time that I discovered the existence of sex -- vicariously through the ship's library. For the next two years, I battled with this discovery. I didn't meet any girls, but it came out in poetry.
"I wrote these stories, fantasies even then! I wrote one about taking Princess Margaret to the movies and fondling her in the back row. Unfortunately my sister found it and shamed me at the dinner table by reading it aloud. Chuckles. I rushed to my bedroom in extreme embarrassment, and my sister came after me," clutching a book on English gardens. "She said, 'Don, you write like this. Not like that.' But as I've told her since, I never took her advice."
It was in this period that he developed his thematic affinity for female anima figures: "There was a familial eroticism probably due to my beloved sister in that period. She was a very attractive 25-year-old and she was the only woman around. Nothing ever happened, but I'm sure that I conceived romantic or sexual fantasies about her."
To this day, "my male figures tend to be unpredictable and unpleasant, whereas the female figures are much more wholesome." No wonder he found an instant affection for Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose work he has translated in two celebrated volumes. Reading her verse, he found that "I was in love with her, and certainly there was an erotic component to that."
Even now, "when I'm writing a poem, I'm very conscious of the muse directly, a feminine psyche brooding over me." Going from teaching to writing, "I would switch to another side of my personality -- the intuitive. That cliche' that women are intuitive, I think that's perfectly true." Expository prose comes from "the male side."
As a teen-ager in Australia, he discovered poetry in a less ethereal way: at the movies. Specifically, "The Blue Lagoon," which Thomas remembers as "very trashy" except for one sequence in which a character started reading from John Donne's "Good Morrow." Thomas quotes the lines by heart: "I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved/Were we not weaned till then, but sucked/On country pleasures . . ." It was a "magic" instant, which "began to make some glimmer of sense of sex. I said, 'So this is what the wet dreams and the Southern Cross are reaching for!' Passion and poetry were woven together at that moment."
Back in England, he completed grammar school and had secured a place at Oxford when fate changed his life again. Due for his two years of National Service, he was assigned to learn Russian for an intelligence section. He "fluffed" his final exam, a mock-interrogation in which he was supposed to ask, "What is your rank?" Instead, Thomas blurted out, "How is your member?" But the language stayed with him through the next four years as a "workaholic" at Oxford and later became a permanent obsession.
He studied to be a teacher of English, and hadn't considered writing until one day at Oxford, "I saw a girl who had been knocked down in a street accident. Somebody had put a red cloak over her. It affected me, and suddenly I wanted to write a poem about it." But that would be a "spare time" activity until 1968 when, while teaching at Hereford's college of education, he published his first book of poetry. When the college closed in 1978, "I then had the choice of trying to make a go of writing full time or finding another job. There weren't any other jobs that were suitable, so I took the risk."
His first novel -- "Birthstone," set in his native Cornwall and not yet published here -- was set aside when a fantasy-novel contest prompted him to write "The Flute-Player" in four months. It was based "about 50 percent" on the lives of Soviet artists Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and, of course, Akhmatova. Shortly thereafter he finished "Birthstone" and returned to Oxford to study translation. It was there that he began what would become "The White Hotel."
The Lure of Lucre
The long erotic poem in a woman's voice that appears in an early part of "The White Hotel" was written before the idea of the book came to him. And he had been thinking for some time of writing a novella in the style of Freud's case studies. But while reading a history of the slaughter at Babi Yar, he realized that in a novel he could yoke those "two very important psychic events -- the Freudian explosion at the beginning of the century and the Holocaust. I put them together as a metaphor does in poetry."
The book was completed in nine months. "I'm a bit surprised myself" at the speed, says Thomas, considering the "immense technical problems" of devising a credible Freudian case study. He had read many and considers them "literary acts of sex, really . . . love affairs with the patients." But the novel also draws on Freud's notion, articulated in "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," that there is "a death instinct, as powerful in its own way (though more hidden) as the libido," as Thomas' fictional Freud says. And Thomas believes that "there is pain in joy. And there is obviously some terrific urge toward destruction in some people. Else why take 30,000 Jews from Babi Yar and just shoot them? Maybe such events happen in small ways in our individual lives."
In the quiet of Hereford, "I write about repression. I feel very strongly about the Soviet Union although I've never been there, and communism although it hasn't affected me. No man is an island. The Orwellian vision is coming true." The specter of tyranny is "a necessary mask -- as a writer you need something to fight against, and I lean toward the East to find that dictatorship."
But to find readers, he had to lean West. "The White Hotel" had sold only a few thousand copies in England by the time it was getting its first reviews in the United States. Meanwhile Chabot and Myra Sklarew of American University's literature department were looking around for a foreign guest professor, and Sklarew called Thomas. "I had no other offers," he says, and at that time, "I still thought that I would have to go on teaching for financial reasons." He says he probably would have turned down the request if it had come by letter. "But she actually had the gall to find out my number, and rang me up one Saturday afternoon. So I sort of thought, 'I'd better do it.' "
While here, he was planning to finish a radio play of Pushkin's tragedy, "Boris Godunov," and perhaps work a little on his next novel about a Russian poet "who is trying to walk a tightrope between not offending the regime in Russia and yet remaining acceptable to the West." While holed up in Gorky, waiting to emigrate to Armenia, the poet and "a blind poetess" tell each other stories.
Not, perhaps, a mass-market natural. But then one might have said the same about "The White Hotel," and besides, Thomas doesn't care. Even though "I don't hanker after a big house with a swimming pool," he has confronted -- and spurned -- the lure of lucre. "For a few weeks there" after the big-money sales last year, "I was pressurized by the thought, 'What are they going to expect next time?' But then, I thought, 'This is stupid.' " Besides, "I've written all my books -- poetry or novels -- to please myself and a small audience of dead writers like Pushkin, Hardy, Joyce and of course Akhmatova.
"The book, when you write it, is a virgin. And then if it's produced in a mass-marketing way, it obviously loses its virginity," and "one's own attitude toward the book changes. When I see it now, it is up to a point a product." But "in a couple of years, the ballyhoo will have gone, and the book will simply be 'The White Hotel' again. And maybe in 20 years, some poor student who has never heard of it will buy a second-hand copy and be moved by it."