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on 30 January 2007
In February 1982 I took my first edition hardback copy of The White Hotel to a pub in north London where I saw DM Thomas read from his novel. Afterwards he signed my book. I have never forgotten meeting him. I have read hundreds of novels since my first reading of The White Hotel in 1981, yet none have quite matched the intensity, imagination or sheer daring of this particular story. For anyone who is familiar with Freud's writings, it is sheer poetry to read Thomas's ingenious passages based on the Professor himself. Freud simply comes alive on the pages! It is difficult to write anything new about the holocaust, but The White Hotel has managed to. I believe that a movie is in the making as I write, but I don't think anything will quite match the sparing prose or the moving undercurrents of this book. Be afraid. Be very afraid. But it's worth reading it through to the end so that you can recall the final pages, as I do now, with a sense of sorrow and admiration.
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on 30 November 2002
I could throw around superlatives and they would not have much impact. Too many reviews are written about mediocre books that one would think them, from the reviewers reaction, modern masterpieces. "Flawlessly-rendered scenes of incomparably lyrical, powerful, acute, seamless, ineffable, gorgeous, unassailable, tender, dynamic, lush, titillating, cerebral, divine, a libidinous, self-revelatory paean to the inexpressible in art and life that packs an emotional wallop!," or some such phrase.
Sometimes a person just has to come right out and say "This one grabbed me by the rear," and let it go at that. This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand. My only word of advice is not to give up on the book too soon. It's absolutely unclear in the first 40 or 50 pages where Thomas is taking you and he doesn't present too promising a train ride at that stage. Settle in for the journey. Look out the window and watch as the landscape starts becoming more recognizable. The landmarks with which you thought you were earlier familiar, start revealing themselves in entirely new patterns. For this is a novel about revelation, more than anything else. Readers just have to trust that "all will be revealed" by novel's end, and it is, magnificently.
Thomas performs a near-miraculous feat in this novel. Reading The White Hotel is akin to looking through a an extremely high-powered telescope and what at first looks likes fuzzy, indiscreet blurs, become unbelievably colorful and complex nebulae and galaxies as the instrument's focus is adjusted. The book begins with a long poem, full of erotic imagery and near-incoherent description, that we are startled to learn is written by a woman. Following this is a prose version of the story that we learn is written by a young woman who is a semi-successful Opera-singer who comes to Sigmund Freud for analysis as she suffers from acute psychosomatic pains in her left breast and her womb. She will become the Frau Anna G. of Freud's famous case-study (Freud's "Wolfman" also appears as a peripheral character in the novel). Thomas lets us in on Freud's analysis, as well as his ambiguous feelings towards his patient. At several stages, Freud is ready to throw up his hands and tell her that he won't continue his treatment as he feels she is not forthcoming enough to make any real progress. He always relents, however, because he senses that "Lisa" (the Opera-singers real name) has enough redeeming attributes to warrant his time.
As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Lisa's past and the seminal childhood incident (occurring when she is 3-years-old and vacationing with her parents in Odessa) that estranged her from her mother, and more particularly, from her father. This will be the central motif of the novel as well as Lisa's Cassandra-like ability to see the future through her dreams and her imaginative powers. If this begins to strike you as psychological clap-trap, rest assured it isn't. The novel at no point devolves into psycho-babble or pretentiousness. Everything in the novel, we come to learn, is there for a reason. There is absolutely nothing amateurish about the master-plan and the sublime architecture that Thomas erects (no Freudian pun intended). This is as carefully-constructed a novel as anything I've ever read.
I am certainly not going to spoil the read for anyone by giving away the novel's ending, but suffice it to say that it's as powerful as anything-written in the past 30 years, at minimum. The only drawback to this book is that I didn't give it enough of a chance on first-encounter. Hopefully, that won't be the case with those reading this review.
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This brilliant and sometimes brutal book combines fragments of narratives to give us a compelling tale that spans twentieth century Europe. Building on Freud's theories of dreams, eros and thanatos, and the practice of psychoanalysis, it expands outwards from the individual to a whole culture, from an excavation of the past to a glimpse of the future, and from dream to prophecy.

Based on Freud's case studies, and the historical documentation of the massacre at Babi Yar (Babi Yar ), this draws a disturbing picture of Lisa Erdman from her life in 1920s Vienna when she is a patient of Freud's, to her presence in Kiev in 1941 when the Nazis tried to exterminate all Jews from the city.

The link between Lisa/Anna's story and the holocaust is a muted one which creeps up on us as the book progresses, and that Freud himself, of course, was forced to flee Vienna for sanctuary in London in 1939 is kept in the background.

To Thomas's credit he manages to find a kind of catharsis with which to end this book, though that doesn't - and shouldn't - make parts of it almost unbearable reading.

So this isn't light or easy reading though it is very accessible. I first read this as a rather precocious teenager and don't think I had the maturity or knowledge then to really appreciate it. This is haunting, difficult and brilliantly audacious - highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 30 June 2008
This book has come back to haunt me- several weeks after closing out on the third reading - it's so stimulating it demands reading again and again.
It's an astonishing parabable of the first half of the last century.
Fascinating and disturbing - graphically violent and sexually explicit.
A fable of incredible depth - surreal and symbolic - mixing historical fact with fiction.
A blending of dark fantasy with psychological insight.
Written in prophetic prose with ominous poetry - it is phantasmorgorical yet convincingly real.
Hallucinatory, dark and magical - unimaginable but believible.
A tragedy unfolds - telling the tale of the gradual demise and eventual degradation of a woman in an increasingly evil world.
Charting her psychosomatic illness, her brief joys and continuous forebodings - her constant sense of doom.
Occassionally harrowing - always rewarding.
If you found this book enthralling - I'm sure you'll be spellbound by Styron's 'Sophie's Choice' and Kosinki's 'Painted Bird' too.
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"Thomas takes us beyond Freud, beyond Eros and Thanatos, and thus challenges the very substance of the Freudian text. Within the analyses and, he suggests, buried within her individual neurosis, is the subtext of history--the Final Solution. And beyond the horror is the transcendent vision of salvation through love in the mythical state of Israel. In this bold, intellectually challenging novel, Thomas goes beyond both history and historical fiction: he explores the shadowy realm of perception and perceiver with breathtaking vision and artistry." Reviewed by Daniel Weiss, Virginia Quarterly Review

'The White Hotel' is an extraordinary book. It was given the highest recommendation by my best friend, and it is a read I will never forget. It is taken from the case history of Lisa Erdman, an early patient of Sigmund Freud; the book explores her case of sexual hysteria and finds the way to self destructiveness. The scenes with Lisa and Dr.Freud are fascinating. They take her back into childhood and into her dreams. Lisa's erotic dreams are almost visions. They are premonitions to Lisa of death and destruction. Freud helps Lisa to resume her normal life as an opera singer, and we are brought into the world of opera as Lisa finds it. She remarries and settles in the Ukraine with her husband and step-son, and then the unraveling begins. Their harrowing adventures will leave you on the edge. As life as Lisa knows it begins to crumble, so do we.

"Lisa's story is told three times. Once, as a long letter of erotic ramblings by a psychotic, once in image steeped poetry, and finally, as narrative prose, in the dry tone of a doctor discussing a case, complete with musings and asides. By the end of the third rendition, the reader begins to understand something the eminent psychologist never will. That Anna is not only a product of, but a metaphor for the collective fall of European consciousness into madness that still scars the entire century."


'The White Hotel' is much like a mystery, and we are part of the unraveling. I was filled with melancholy and a dream like stance while reading this book. I have not read a book that is so well written. and at the same time lays groundwork of the extraordinary. A trip for Lisa becomes a trip that we will not soon forget. Highly Recommended. prisrob 2-18-07
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on 3 August 2007
A really enjoyable read which takes you on a journey into the fevered mind of a young woman suffering from hysteria as she is treated by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. What I admire about this novel is how skilfully Thomas allows the hidden meanings behind Lisa's hysteria to gradually emerge, but how things sometimes never appear as they seem, with Lisa herself an unreliable witness.

The novel is really a mix of sexual fantasy, buried memories and psychic power. Lisa's pain (left breast/pelvis) and fear to have children are finally revealed as a telepathic anticipation of the horrors of the Second World War and I admire the way Thomas juggles past, present and future in his narrative. It is a psychological puzzle which finally makes horrific sense.

My only criticism of the novel is its final, perhaps sentimental, conclusion. It did not seem to ring true with what preceded it.
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on 16 November 2010
This book just missed winning the Booker Prize in 1981, losing out, controversially, to Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark - controversially because the latter is not written as fiction at all. If Keneally's book is still remembered at all, it's because of the film Spielberg made of it (and he had to change the title, to Schindler's List, because otherwise cinema-goers might have thought it was an Indiana Jones film).

I digress. The story begins with a young woman in the Vienna of 1919 who seeks treatment from Sigmund Freud for persistent inexplicable pains in her breast and ovary. Freud delves into her past, believing that the pains must stem from traumatic episodes in her childhood. What the young woman does not initially mention to Freud is that she believes she has second sight. Freud discounts this, of course, but in the course of her treatment and the rest of the novel the evidence starts to amass that she may in fact be right. And this do we discover that these strange pains, along with her dreams of burial alive and her stabbing anxiety around children, arise from terrifying events not in her past, but in her future.

Thomas sometimes writes in a faux-naif style, and can switch this on and off with disconcerting ease. This has led many to pay him the backhanded compliment of supposing that the Freud case study he presents here is lifted from a real one. The voice that tells it is so different from that heard elsewhere in the book. It's not genuine at all, of course, it's just a very well-executed copy of the Freud style. It is as skilfully done as Peter Ackroyd's knock-offs of seventeenth-century English, for example.

What is going on, I think, is that Anna G starts out by personifying female sexuality, then the European mind, then European high culture and finally Europe itself, whose mid-century fate she accidentally shares.

It takes some serious artistic nerve to write a character like that, and it also takes several readings - at least three or four - to absorb and lace all this together. The first time I read it I didn't even realise it was the same character all the way through, and I still don't get what is going on with the letters at the beginning. These feel like the snatches of intelligible signal you get when tuning into a radio station; they do, however, contribute to the book's elegant symmetry as it moves from one fantastical dream state to arrive at another.

It's moving, it's erotic, it's compelling, it rewards re-reading; nearly thirty years later I'm still rereading it. What can one add? - except to say that to film it would be a travesty and a disaster. It's unfilmable and works best inside your head, which is where it will stay, for ever....!
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on 18 May 2007
The reviews above say it all, and I have nothing significant to add to them. This is a magnificent book, stunning, a masterpiece. When I first read it, I was gripped by the poetry, the eroticism, and the mounting horror. I read the final chapter with tears streaming down my face. Bruce Kendall's advice is correct - don't read it expecting it to make sense from page 1. Just go with it, and by about half-way through it will start to make sense. By then end you will be staying up all night and turning pages frantically to see how Thomas resolves it. Not an easy book in any way - challenging on many levels, but ultimately life-changing. If you only read one book this year, make it this one. I cannot recommed it highly enough.
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on 5 July 2006
This is an exhilrating read oscillating from the extreme of explicit sex to that of graphic violence, leaving you shocked and almost stupefied with disbelief that something like this could affect you so much. It is this sudden appearance of pain and oppression coming straight after the physicality of sex that blew my mind away, and you have to read it for yourself to experience what I mean. You'll still be thinking about this book for days after you've finished it, I have never read anything quite like it before. Very strange but gripping novel that I would recommend to everyone.
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on 23 August 2008
I've had to think hard before writing this review. Principally because I read this book some 25 years ago during a very difficult period in my life and I find it hard to recall it in any detail. That said, I cannot bear to see it lapse into obscurity because it affected me more deeply than any other novel I have read before or since. I am not sure I can describe its impact - the shock and horror, and the overwhelming sense of grief it provoked, coupled with sheer awe at its stunning profundity and great beauty.

It is a work of absolute genius, and when I was at university I had the privilege of meeting Mr Thomas and having dinner with him. He at there chain-smoking, seeming very awkward and nervous, and I hardly knew what to say to him. What can you say to someone whose work has rendered you almost suicidal with sadness and loss?

I would love to reread "The White Hotel", but in truth I daren't. It took me on the most incredible literary journey of my life, but it's not one I think I can bear to go on again.
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