By Ted Gioia

During the middle decades of the 20th century, the
theories of Sigmund Freud inevitably cast their shadow
on the field of literary criticism—not surprisingly,
given lit-crit's almost instinctive mimicking of what-
ever discipline is most in fashion at any given time.  
Over the years we have enjoyed the spectacle of
professors of literature taking on the jargon and
perspectives of anthropology, linguistics, semiotics,
critical theory, economics, and virtually every other
social or human science. But
the affinity for Freud shown
by leading arbiters of literary
taste—Lionel Trilling, Harold
Bloom (who even draws on the
Oedipus Complex to explain
literary influences), Edmund
Wilson and others—had more
plausible grounds than many
of these other cross-disciplinary
borrowings.  Freud himself
undertook literary analysis,
and his own published case
studies closely followed the conventions of narrative

In an influential essay published in
Partisan Review in
1974, Steve Marcus, a Trilling protégé, suggested that
Freud's famous study of
Dora ("Fragment of an
Analysis of a Case of Hysteria") could be examined
"from the point of view of literary criticism." Marcus
argued that "Freud is a great writer and that one of
his major case histories is a great work of
literature…an outstanding creative and imaginative
performance." In this clinical document, we encounter
all the necessary ingredients for successful fiction:
intriguing characters, complexities of plot and their
final resolution, interesting dialogue, symbols, a sense
for pacing and telling observational details.  Indeed,
readers will find these and the other Freud case
studies more akin to the Sherlock Holmes stories of
Arthur Conan Doyle (with Sigmund taking on the
role of sleuth) than to previous landmarks of
psychology by William James, Gabriel Tarde, Henri
Bergson and others who explored the human psyche
outside of the Freudian paradigm.

Given this affinity, why shouldn't the psychiatrist's
case study serve as the basis for a modern novel?  And,
taking it a step further, why not bring Freud into the
book, both as character and ostensible author of a
fictional case study?  D.M. Thomas does just that in his
1981 novel
The White Hotel—and, to up the ante
considerably, aims to explain more than just a case of
hysteria, but rather come to grips with horrifying
world-historical events.  To say that such an agenda is
ambitious is an understatement.  Upon the book's
release, critic Leslie Epstein, writing in the
New York
, declared that Thomas offered, in the form of
fiction, "the diagnosis of our epoch through the
experience of an individual."  "It comes close to
achieving that goal," she added.  "Indeed, the opening
sections of the novel are so authoritative and
imaginatively daring that I quickly came to feel I had
found the book, that mythical book, that would explain
us to ourselves."

But Thomas is hardly constrained by the clinical tone
required by the case study format.  In fact, each
section of this book takes on a radically different
style, with only its central portion—a psychoanalytical
assessment of patient "Anna G."—following in the
footsteps of Dora and other Freudian patients.  The
rest of the novel could hardly be more surprising or
diverse.  The prologue follows an epistolary format,
and presents fictional correspondence between Freud,
Sandor Ferenczi, Hanns Sachs and others—thus
creating an expectation that
The White Hotel will be a
historical novel of conventional scope and style.  But
within a few pages, Thomas has switched gears and
present a lengthy poem, by turns surreal and obscene,
recounting a young woman's strange escapades in a
mysterious white hotel. The poem is presented as the
creation of Lisa Erdman, an opera singer who is also
the patient "Anna G" in our case study.

Erdman had written the poem in the spaces between
the musical lines in a score of Mozart's
Don Giovanni
—then presented the work to Freud. "Had Frau
Anna's version of Mozart been sung in any of our
opera houses," the psychoanalyst later writes in his
case study, "the house manager would have been
prosecuted for the abuse of public morals."  In
response, Freud asks Lisa to "go away and write down
her own analysis" of this lurid poem.  When she
returns a few days later, she presents the doctor with
a lengthy manuscript, which is not an interpretation,
but rather a prose elaboration of the story of the white
hotel, even more cryptic and dreamlike than her
earlier document.  

This story-within-a-story tells of Erdman's journey to
the hotel in the company of Freud’s son (whom the
patient had never actually met).  They engage in a
torrid affair in the midst of a series of devastating
disasters—avalanche, fire, flood—and magical
happenings.  External events at the hotel have a
strange way of reflecting the inner lives of the
residents, most of whom are dead before the journal
comes to a close. The incidents related in the memoir,
taken at face value, are bizarre and hallucinatory, yet
they anticipate many later developments in Thomas's

Freud's rationalism defuses the magical and surreal
elements in Erdman's account, and the tidiness with
which he elucidates and explains the details and events
is impressive…even if not entirely convincing.  As is
common with psychoanalytic method, he probes into
the deep past of his patient in order to unlock hidden
meanings and lay bare repressed memories.  The
significance of our narratives, according to this section
of the novel, can only be found by probing the hidden
depths of our personal psychic history.

But what if a story's true meaning only can be
understood in a collective historical future?   What if
our subconscious grapples with events yet to come,
not those already completed?  Such a perspective has
no basis in modern analytical theory, but finds its
justification in a far more ancient school of
psychological interpretation, focused on omens and
harbingers. In
The White Hotel, grotesquely magical and
fantastic elements ultimately refuse to be placed within
a neat rational framework, and what starts out as the
quintessential Freudian novel turns into a repudiation
of the therapeutic worldview.  Even Freud himself (at
least as a character in this novel) seems dimly aware
of this possibility when he admits that his patient
seems to possess an uncanny telepathic or clairvoyant
ability. "My experience of psychoanalysis," he remarks
in these pages, "has convinced me that telepathy
exists.  If I had my life to go over again, I should
devote it to the study of this factor."

At this stage in
The White Hotel, Thomas moves away
from the narrative structures of the case study, and
enters into a more conventional account of the post-
therapeutic life of opera singer Lisa Erdman.  Now
our story advances by degrees into a grotesque and
horrifying account of the onset of the Holocaust.  
Erdman is caught in a web where her own mixed
Jewish and Christian heritage, as well as personal and
family loyalties, force her to make dauntingly hard
decisions about her own sense of identity and
responsibility.  This heroine, first introduced to us as
the poetess who has written a frivolous, racy fairy tale,
now takes center stage as an unwilling participant in
the massacres at Babi Yar.

Yet just when the hallucinatory tone in this novel
seems to have been banished for good, it returns in a
final postscript—a wholly unexpected coda that makes
a strange work even stranger.   I won't be a spoiler;  
you will need to read this for yourself and deliver your
own verdict.  For my part, I will simply say that,
finishing the last chapter of
The White Hotel, I was left
wondering what Freud would make of it.
The White Hotel
by D.M. Thomas
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Ted Gioia's web site
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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