D.M. Thomas

The White Hotel

The White Hotel is a very unusual book, written in a style that I haven’t properly come across before. Consisting of a mix of verse, prose, dreams, erotic journals and letters, the narrative traverses across various parts of the protagonist’s life, Lisa Erdman. A name that is only revealed halfway through the book.

Initially, we are introduced to a patient of Sigmund Freud, referred to as Frau Anna G, who seems to be under some kind of ‘sexual hysteria’ which has caused chronic pains in her breasts and ovaries. She narrates, through letters, a fantasised love affair she has dreamt with someone it alludes to as Freud’s son, Martin. This fantasy takes place at the mysterious white hotel.

It is an intense place, both dramatic and strange but also poetic and passionate. Anna G however seems to experience it somewhat passively. There is a distance to the dramatic events she experiences as if she cannot fully grasp them. This seems to be a theme throughout the book regardless of dream or reality.

‘The white hotel is known to them, it is the body of their mother. It is a place without sin, without our load of remorse.’

Following the fantasy we are introduced to Freud’s analysis of this experience which, as you can imagine, delves into her childhood and adolescence. From her parents' troubled marriage, a hotel fire, a dancing career, an abortion and her own failed marriage, we are swept through the events of her past. She travels to St. Petersburg and Vienna to pursue a musical career, however constant shortcomings and an underlying emotional violence seem to accompany her wherever she goes.

From her life story Freud makes many inferences to the origins of her pains. However, many of these become confusing as Anna G is not fully honest about her past, omitting and construing various details of her life. Therefore, despite some emblematic steps towards a cure, the treatment remains inconclusive.

‘Perhaps the closer you came to God, the harder it was to believe in Him. You could not look up at such stars without believing there was something.’

It is only then that the book shifts into a later period of time in which it is revealed that patient Frau Anna G’s real name is Lisa Erdman. We are then taken through the rest of her life in a more conventional narrative. She reflects on the period of treatment as Freud sends her the case study many years later.

‘It has been like reading the life story of a young sister who is dead - in whom I can see a family resemblance yet also great differences: characteristics and actions that could never be applied to me.’

The events start to feel more real than previous parts of the book, perhaps because they seem more mundane and not as a depiction of memories. An older Lisa eventually ends up in Russia with a new husband and his son as she finally sees some hope in building a life. However, she is never far from tragedy and gets caught with thousands of other Jews as the Germans invade Kyiv. This is one of the hardest parts of the books to read where Lisa experiences atrocities right till the end.

‘Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences.’

There is something that resonates deeply throughout the whole book, as it sort of characterises the harrowing nature of the twentieth century. Despite being hard to follow at times it is a really impressive piece of work weaving together a historic fiction that contains so many different elements.

There is something both poetic and disturbing about Lisa’s life. There is a passive nature to the way Lisa experiences dramatic events and atrocities. They are perceived in a sort of detached manner, as if her mind escapes itself in those moments. This seems to contrast with her body’s reaction, as if her pains reflect her crushing reality and that she feels the weight of everything much more than she can comprehend.

It’s also odd experiencing violence through words. I don’t know how to describe it. Violence transcending the physical. The book feels inherently violent and it presents itself subtly throughout most of Lisa’s life until the end when it eventually becomes all consuming.

There is an ending where Lisa seems to be in some sort of dream or after life which sort of adds to the poetic nature of the book. It seems peaceful as Lisa reunites with her mother as truths are revealed gently. Regardless of whether it is real or not, it feels like a resolve, as if eventually the circle will complete itself.

‘I think wherever there is love, of any kind, there is hope of salvation.’