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Still reading it after 30 years,
This review is from: The White Hotel (Paperback)
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....!