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Book Review : Novelist's Life Stranger Than Fiction

October 13, 1988|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Memories and Hallucinations. A Memoir by D. M. Thomas (Viking; $18.95; 195 pages)

As a work of invention, D. M. Thomas' notes about his life are more contrived and altogether less lifelike than his haunting works of fiction.

With "The White Hotel" and in the "Ararat"/"Swallow"/"Sphinx" trilogy, Thomas found a way to suggest a link between the tragic history of our times and our individual subconsciousness, and another, related link between Eros and Thanatos--erotic love and death.

In "Hotel," the hysteria for which Freud treats a woman patient in turn-of-the-century Vienna prefigures the woman's immolation, along with thousands of other Jews, at Babi Yar 40 years later. In the trilogy, the Armenian massacres permeate the dreams, the fictions and the complex real and imaginary life-patterns of a number of contemporary Soviets.

Dreams and Images

Uncanny linkages, prefiguring dreams and graphic images of sex and death are, likewise, the themes of Thomas' memoir of growing up in Cornwall and Australia, of teaching in the west of England, and of writing his poetry and, later, his fiction.

But too often, the themes seem to be forced upon the material.

"I have become terrified of art," is his first sentence, followed by instances of art operating upon fate. He visits Boris Pasternak's aged sister, and fancies that a youthful portrait hanging on her wall has literally drained her of her beauty. He notes that Pasternak's son suffered a heart attack on the same street--years later--where the writer set Dr. Zhivago's own heart attack. In class, Thomas recites a poem about a wounded bird; a few minutes later, a student enters, carrying a wounded bird.

It is a stagy, vehement sort of connection, and the staginess thickens. After a visit to his mother, the old woman suggests that Thomas and his wife break their trip at Bristol. Sure enough, their car breaks down and they spend the night there. Thomas, a Cornishman with a Welsh name, oozes presage; the ghosts that illuminate his novels snore in his everyday ham and eggs.

As befits a haunted man, Thomas is irascible, captious and jumpy. He scoots back and forth, in time and in topic. It is not until close to the end, for instance, that we make out the three-way relationship between the author; his childhood sweetheart and ex-wife, Maureen; and his other ex-wife, Denise.

He divorced Maureen after taking up with Denise. He married Denise and divorced her. He then went back to live with Maureen--platonically, it seems--while visiting Denise every evening.

Erotic Displacement

It is a permutation of a kind that creates a marvelous sense of erotic displacement in Thomas' books. In real life, it's messy. The author is upset and shocked when Maureen disrupts the arrangement to marry someone else.

What was her complaint, he wondered. He had given her a house, a decent standard of living, his permission to wander. "Surely she knows how I relished her good cooking, her home-making, our comradeship, her unswerving loyalty?"

As for Denise's dissatisfactions, he continues his injured musing:

"She had a fulfilling career and a child. I knew she resented the way I could pick up my book and leave at the end of an evening; yet she saw as much of me as many a wife, say, of a long-distance lorry driver; had good holidays; and she didn't have to feed me or wash my socks."

This is so absurd that it sounds like self-parody. I don't think it is; nor do I think that Thomas is really oblivious to how awful he sounds. I think he is stripping himself with a vengeance, stressing his awfulness and perhaps, as if one of his fictional characters, touching it up.

He tells of seducing one of his students when Maureen is away at his aunt's funeral. He tells of being admonished twice by a Minnesota dean for sleeping with co-eds.

And he tells of standing behind a young woman who is doing his wife's hair, and surreptitiously fondling her, while all three watch televised accounts of President Kennedy's death. That's Eros and Thanatos enough for anyone.

It is extravagant and often grisly; this self-display or self-invention. Yet the wildness can become touching, because Thomas has a poet's mind, even if his finest poetry is found in the satiric wit, the prophecy, and the hallucinations of his novels.

Even so, there are some splendid passages. His account of his father's slow death after an apparently routine prostate operation is a vivid picture of the sadness of disintegration. His account of his own hideous kidney stone operation--another linkage--is chilling.

And there are interesting accounts of working on his novels. "Hotel" came almost in a rush; "Ararat" and "Swallow" were harder; "Sphinx" was much harder. There was a fourth novel; technically, the series was a quartet, not a trio. But "Summit" is so inferior that perhaps it will disappear. Here is Thomas' own brutal account of writing it:

" 'Writing,' though, doesn't seem the right word: I'm typing it with a kind of dementia. It's crude, over-the-top stuff, akin to my feelings; I can't stop for thought, for revision; the subtleties of a novel are now beyond me." And he adds, in a kind of incandescent dismay: "I'm like a frenzied Improvisatore on a stage, gabbling into the darkness."

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