Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Attempts to render the horrors of the Holocaust, artistically, have often ended in failure. Perhaps the subject hovers beyond the reach of human understanding, simultaneously so horrific and so subtle that balance is unattainable. William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979) –later made into a feature film with Meryl Streep–captures in a moment the moral–as opposed to just the physical–torment endured by victims and survivors; but in essence it is more about the ongoing struggle to emerge from the Holocaust’s aftermath than about the event.
In common with other novels about the Holocaust, Sophie’s Choice generalizes from the murder of six million Jews to engage with the degeneracy of the twentieth century and the wider collapse of western Civilization. Another novel taking that approach is The Painted Bird (1965) by Polish American author Jerzy Kosinski, following the travails of a Jewish boy wandering eastern Europe during World War II. Where Sophie’s Choice is tightly restrained in its darkness, however, The Painted Bird delves frontally into the war’s extreme violence—and specifically the Holocaust—in a frenzy verging on a form of literary insanity both psychological and physical, and especially sexual.
The White Hotel, published in 1981 by British poet and translator D.M. Thomas, follows The Painted Bird’s example with some additional elements. The book’s “protagonist” (which may not be the correct word to describe the main character in this oddly structured work), initially known as Anna G. and later as Lisa Erdman, is also a wanderer across the panoramic eastern European tapestry of the first half of the twentieth century. Born in the port city of Odessa, then part of Russia, she endures the psychological consequences of her parents’ broken marriage, and specifically her mother’s affair with her uncle by marriage. During World War I and the ensuing Russian Revolution, “Anna G.” moves from place to place, experiencing a series of more-or-less sordid romantic affairs while trying to become a singer. She then appears in Vienna in 1919 to become a patient of famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
A fictionalized Freud writes a case history of the young woman, naming her Anna G., and peruses her “pornographic” works of poetry and prose—presented to the reader in full—in which she imagines an affair with Freud’s son. The elder Freud, naturally in keeping with his understanding of human psychology, delves deeply into his patient’s sexual history as a means of understanding her “hysterical” mental and physical symptoms. Thomas, reflecting the conventions of the postwar Anglo-Saxon literary realm, sees Freudianism (as he informs the reader in an introductory note) as a prism through which to view the twentieth century’s “landscape of hysteria,” and extols its “scientific validity” as a means of rendering “hidden truth.”
Even as he clings to the Freudian frames of reference that probably reached their height of popularity in the 1940s but were by the time he wrote beginning to fade from favor, Thomas anticipates the poststructuralist craze of the 1990s by crumbling narrative and moral structure to dust before the reader’s eyes. Emerging somehow from Freud’s couch—the transition is unclear—Anna G., now referred to by her actual name of Lisa Erdman, resumes her wanderings through what has become the Soviet Union (and is now Ukraine), her life falling apart further in Kiev in the 1920s until she perishes at Babi Yar in 1941, after having been gruesomely brutalized by German troops. Over the course of this transition the narrative becomes not so much surreal as disjointed and dissonant. In a bizarre coda or epilogue, Lisa and other dead Jews wander again through another formless, eroticized wasteland, which Thomas calls “Palestine or Purgatory.”
The White Hotel captures a moment in literary time when poststructuralism seemed an attractive means of understanding the twentieth century’s physical and moral breakdown, most obvious in the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet it also symbolizes an inherent contradiction; for by embracing formlessness, Thomas reduces tragedy to meaningless squalor. Poststructuralists have always been preoccupied with the Holocaust as a case example to exhibit their ideas, and in the artistic and intellectual movement’s halcyon days of the 1990s some of its proponents took their thinking to the point of arguing that the Holocaust, as such, never really happened since reality, and moral meaning, didn’t actually exist. Thomas doesn’t quite reach this stage in The White Hotel, but he tiptoes right on the edge, robbing his topic of moral impact and leaving only the bitter aftertaste of squalid despair.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.