The White Hotel – Andy is bemused, and confused, and not entirely satisfiedMarch 22, 2012
Vaginal fisting. The last two books I have read have featured vaginal fisting. I’m not very happy about this and I’m wondering if it’s Fate punishing me for inflicting my own small slices of sodomite filth on a minuscule readership. Anyhoo.
Two important points. Apart from the bit about vaginal fisting, obviously.
1) This post will feature spoilers. Major, major spoilers that may wreck whatever enjoyment you get from this book.
2) I don’t think I really got what the fuck was going on here.
The White Hotel is the story of Elisabeth (or Lisa) Erdman – or Anna, as Freud calls her in his case history. A young woman with a somewhat troubled childhood, Lisa comes to Freud for treatment of what are believed to be psychological issues that manifest physically. She shares with him her delusional version of what happened to her during a visit to a health spa – the “white hotel” – and from here Freud works towards helping her through her difficulties. Years later, as an opera singer, she befriends two fellow performers from behind the Iron Curtain, and later decides to contact Freud and admit some of her dishonesty during their psychotherapy sessions.
And then… and then…
Up until page 192 of my edition of The White Hotel I thought I was reading a beautifully written, impressively constructed examination of female sexuality. I’m no psychologist but I’ve read a little, and from what I know Freud got a hell of a lot wrong but he got quite a bit right, too. This novel illustrates both of those things, though not necessarily the way Thomas might’ve wanted. Even if you’re a sceptic the writing is so good you can ignore that nagging sense that the fictional Freud’s interpretations of Lisa’s problems is sometimes farcical. It’s done so convincingly that, even if you’re not convinced, it remains convincing (I don’t think that’s contradictory, but no doubt there are those who will not be convinced). Letters, poetry, case study; formal, minimally emotive narrative – Thomas does it all so well. He does it brilliantly.
And then… you’ve finished page 192.
And she’s living in a slum in eastern Europe during World War II and she and her adopted son are murdered by the Nazis and as she dies she fantasises about going to Palestine.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
Apparently Lisa’s sexual fantasies are a premonition of the Holocaust. Because she has some kind of paranormal gift to see glimpses of the future, and foresaw, apparently, a death in Freud’s family. So yes. Burning hotels and landslides and communal breastfeeding sessions and schools of whales and threesomes, yes, these kinds of fantasies correspond with the Holocaust. And because yeah look, you know, every time I think about six million Jews dying in ovens and gas chambers I want a fist up my vagina too. Or at least I would, if I had one. A vagina that is. Not a fist. I’ve got a fist. Two, actually.
I think it is very, very reasonable to say I did not get what the fuck was going on here.
I knew nothing about The White Hotel, other than it was pretty grubby, before I started reading it. (Grubby it is.) And I twigged, long before I got to the pages that follow page 192, that it probably had something to do with the Holocaust. After all, it’s set in continental Europe in the years after the First World War and the final section is titled The Camp, although ironically this is the section in which a dying Elisabeth fantasises about living in Palestine; the truly horrific section of the novel – and I won’t say it’s mercifully short because while it is short it sure as fuck is not remotely merciful – the truly horrific section of the novel is called The Sleeping Carriage. Spoiler: There’s no sleeping carriage. Although if memory serves the section called The Health Resort doesn’t have a health resort in it either, although it does include sections in which Lisa, in letters to Freud, is more honest about what happened at said health resort years earlier. The simple reality is that when you get to the bottom of page 192 and you keep reading this novel becomes something it wasn’t. The White Hotel has huge numbers of fans and Netty’s among them and they – and Netty – will disagree with me. But the narrative and emotional and thematic disconnect that occurs at the end of Part IV is too jarring for me. Thomas’s writing remains as impressive, in fact perhaps becomes even better. Lisa and her adopted son Konya’s walk to the train station and its aftermath may be some of the most powerful writing I have ever encountered. It’s just that it feels like it should be in another book. And after that trauma, a dying Lisa’s utopian Zionist delusions seem like they should be from another book. By another writer. Possibly from another planet.
The White Hotel, allegedly, is a novel you have to read twice to understand. That’s probably its primary failing, because if you have to read a novel twice to understand it it’s a failure. Works of art need to be comprehensible upon first encounter. Sure, revisiting later can and no doubt will reveal layers you had no idea existed first time round. But it has to hang together first time round. And despite the writing – and the writing, seriously, the writing is magnificent – despite that magnificent writing The White Hotel does not hang together first time round.
So no. No. I did not get what the fuck was going on here.
PS: The other book I’ve read recently that featured vaginal fisting was Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s most recent novel and the sequel to his first, Less Than Zero. I might have something to say about that in the next week or two because I suspect it will be a while before you hear from Netty and me about American Gods… So you’ll be wanting something to be getting on with. Yes? … No? … Oh fuck off then.