D.M. Thomas: His Book “The White Hotel” Was a Surprise Best Seller

From a New York Times obit by William Grimes headlined “D.M. Thomas, 88, Dies; His ‘White Hotel’ Was a Surprise Best Seller”:

D.M. Thomas, the English novelist whose ingenious interweaving of Freudian themes and the Holocaust made “The White Hotel” a surprise best seller in 1981, died at his home in Truro, a small city in the Cornwall region of southern England.

Mr. Thomas was a former English teacher with a modest literary reputation when he began planning a novel in the style of a Freudian case study. By chance, he began reading Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel “Babi Yar,” about the slaughter of 100,000 mostly Jewish Ukrainians near Kiev in 1941, and the light bulb went on.

“Suddenly, I saw a connection between the mass hysteria of the Holocaust and personal hysterias,” Mr. Thomas said in 1981, “and realized I had a novel.”

“The White Hotel” tells the story of Lisa Erdman, a half-Jewish opera singer who comes to Sigmund Freud seeking treatment for her psychosomatic pains. Told in unorthodox fashion, through letters exchanged between Freud and his colleagues, long sexual fantasies written by Lisa in verse and prose, and a case study written by the fictional Freud, the novel leaps forward in time, following Lisa’s post-treatment career and her death at Babi Yar.

It had sold only a few hundred copies in Britain, where it met with what Mr. Thomas described as “restrained approval,” before its publication in the United States. Then it caught fire, as Americans responded enthusiastically to the novel’s blend of psychoanalysis, fantasy and historical fact.

“It is easy to get into this strange and beautiful new novel by the English poet D.M. Thomas, but not so easy to get out,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times. In Newsweek, Peter S. Prescott wrote, “‘The White Hotel’ is in its conception and design a daring enterprise, brought off with dazzling virtuosity.”

“The White Hotel” sold nearly 100,000 copies in hardback and more than a million copies in paperback. It was, Publishers Weekly wrote, “the sleeper novel of the season.”

It was awarded the Cheltenham Prize in Britain, and critics there eventually came around. It was also a finalist for the Booker Prize, although it lost out in the end to Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.”

Donald Michael Thomas was born in Redruth, Cornwall, to Harold Thomas, a plasterer, and Amy (Moyle) Thomas. He remembered his childhood years fondly. His family, he said in 1982, was “kind of like the Cornish Waltons.”

After his older sister, Lois, married an Australian airman she met during World War II, the family relocated to Melbourne in 1949 but returned to England two years later. Don, as he was known, resumed his studies at Redruth Grammar School.

While performing national service in the British Army, he studied Russian. He achieved only enough proficiency to carry out low-level interrogations, but he became infatuated with Russian literature. He would later produce translations of Alexander Pushkin, Anna Akhmatova and other classic poets, as well as writing the acclaimed biography “Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life” (1998) and a series of five novels, known collectively as “Russian Nights,” with Russian settings and characters.

Mr. Thomas studied English at New College, Oxford, where he published his first story in the student magazine Isis. After receiving his degree in 1959, he taught at Teignmouth Grammar School in Devon and later at Hereford College of Education.

Mr. Thomas had published several volumes of verse and a novel for juvenile readers, “The Devil and the Floral Dance,” when Hereford College closed in 1978. Adrift, he set to work on “Birthstone,” a novel about a woman struggling to gather the fragments of her personality into a stable identity.

He set it aside to enter a fantasy-novel contest sponsored by the publishers Gollancz and Pan/Picador. In four months he completed “The Flute-Player,” a political and sexual fantasy about a group of writers in an unnamed totalitarian state, loosely based on the lives of Ms. Akhmatova, the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak and the poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam. It won the prize and was published in 1979, followed a year later by “Birthstone.”

The runaway success of “The White Hotel” set expectations high for Mr. Thomas’s next novel, “Ararat,” the first installment in the “Russian Nights” quintet. Published in 1983, “Ararat” was curiously wrought: It used multiple narrators and intertwined story lines to address questions of life and death, reality and art.

The novel tells the story of a Russian writer, Sergei Rozanov, who is challenged by a blind woman he meets in a hotel to show off his legendary talent for improvising stories. He obliges with the tale of three writers — Russian, Armenian and American — who engage in a storytelling contest on the themes of Mount Ararat, in Turkey. Story begets story in a dizzying narrative that many critics found intriguing but hard to follow. Anthony Burgess, in the British magazine Punch, wrote that Mr. Thomas “is to be watched, but with great suspicion.”

In “Swallow” (1984), Rozanov reappears as the fictional creation of an Italian storyteller. In the third installment of “Russian Nights,” “Sphinx” (1986), Mr. Thomas introduced two new storytellers, the Soviet Jew Shimon Barash and the left-wing Welsh journalist Lloyd George. He was interested, he wrote in a note to “Swallow,” in “the mysterious way in which a word, an image, a dream, a story, calls up another, connected, yet independent.”

In “Summit” (1987), Mr. Thomas veered off into farce, telling the story of a summit meeting between a fictional American president and a Soviet leader. In “Lying Together” (1990), the final volume in the quintet, he returned to many of the earlier characters and themes in a series that many critics felt had devolved into overly complicated fictional games.

Freud reappeared in “Eating Pavlova” (1994), a fictional account of his last days, and again in Mr. Thomas’s last novel, “Hunters in the Snow” (2014), which imagined the young Adolf Hitler’s relations with the Freud family in Vienna. “I have been haunted by Freud since he appeared in ‘The White Hotel,’” Mr. Thomas told The Independent in 1994. “I so much enjoyed imitating his voice, almost ventriloquizing him, trying to hit his style. He has obsessed me.”

A severe bout of depression in the mid-1980s, for which he was treated by a Freudian analyst, spurred Mr. Thomas to write a memoir, “Memories and Hallucinations” (1988). Adversity again provided rich material when a succession of Hollywood producers tried, without success, to bring “The White Hotel” to the screen. Mr. Thomas revisited this nearly 30-year trail of tears in “Bleak Hotel: The Hollywood Saga of ‘The White Hotel’” (2008).

Quietly, he continued to produce poems at a steady rate, collected in “Flight and Smoke” (2010), “Two Countries” (2011), “Mrs. English and Other Women” (2014) and other volumes.

“I’ve decided I’m a poet who sometimes writes novels, rather than a novelist who used to write poetry,” he told The New York Times in 1981. “I think my novels follow the creative laws of poetry, based very largely on symbol and image. If I’d have lived 200 years ago, I’d have written a very long poem instead.”

William H. Grimes is a reporter for the Obituaries department of The New York Times. Previously he was a reporter in the Culture and Styles sections, and, before that, a nonfiction book critic for The Times.


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