I listed Ararat, reviewed below, by DM Thomas as one of my favourite books when setting up this blog a few weeks ago. It still is but after just finishing The White Hotel, by the same author, I have to admit it is a far better book.
As I mentioned before, Thomas is not afraid to plunder the big themes and major historical events in middle and Eastern Europe in his novels. That also goes for people and a central figure in The White Hotel is Sigmund Freud.
The novel is centred on the figure of Lisa Erdman, a part Jewish opera singer of Russian descent who was born in Ukraine but settled in Vienna.
The White Hotel opens with a fantasy sequence, often sexually explicit, firstly written in verse and then expanded on in poetic and image-driven prose.
It is followed by a case study in which Freud analyses Lisa and tries to cure her of debilitating physical ailments using psychotherapy.
He constantly refers back to the fantasy sequences to try to identify how Lisa’s suppressed memories and childhood trauma are behind the hysteria that is undermining her physical health.
Of course, being Freud the motivating psychic energy is sexual and during his psychoanalysis he uncovers childhood memories where Lisa witnessed her mother and her mother’s twin sister and her uncle in a threesome.
He also catches Lisa out in lies and denials during her therapy – she fiddles with a crucifix, which formerly belonged to her mother, when she is being dishonest.
Other memories, inhibitions and suppressed sexual desires emerge and Lisa’s health seems to improve following her sessions with Freud allowing her to resume her career as an opera singer.
The following years see her enjoying modest success on the stage but unable to form a relationship until when she is in her early forties and she travels to Kiev where she marries a Ukrainian Jew who she once performed with in La Scala opera house in Milan and helps to bring up his son, Kolya.
Lisa had shunned her Jewish heritage and practised her mother’s Catholic fate. In fact she resented her Jewish ancestry – her first husband, who she married when she was in her early twenties, was anti-Semitic and she had hidden that aspect of her background from him.
By 1941 Lisa is scraping a living with her adopted son in a Jewish district. Her husband has been shipped off to a gulag for supposedly complaining about the Soviet government.
However, in September that year Kiev is invaded by Nazi Germany and Lisa and Kolya are rounded up and marched to a train station where they believe they are going to be shipped to Palestine.
Lisa at first tries to ignore the sound of gunfire as they approach the train station but she soon realises that they are going to be shot in a nearby quarry known as Babi Yar.
Despite being able to prove that she is not Jewish and given an opportunity to escape, Lisa refuses to leave her adopted son, whose papers state that he is Jewish, and they both die with more than 30,000 others who tipped into the quarry after being shot by Nazi machine guns.
Thomas’s narrative is often matter of fact and dispassionate in this section of The White Hotel which makes the more poignant observations unnerving when he suddenly drops them in.
After describing the massacre and the subsequent plundering of the piled up dead bodies he writes:
“The soul of a man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms)… If Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.”
What Freud also missed was the aspects of premonition is Lisa’s fantasy writing where he had interpreted certain images as evidence of sexual hysteria when they were in fact a foreboding of Lisa’s death.
That is one of the reasons why this novel will drag you back to the start as soon as you’ve finished to try and pick up those elements again that you thought you had sussed out only to find that Thomas was planting information that would develop into something entirely different.