Luminous white hair, dandruff on black polo neck, florid complexion, thick lips cracked and bruised, fingers stained yellow from smoking… The 64-year-old Cornishman drinking Rioja and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights at the table by the window is either a broken-veined pervert or a literary genius. As it happens, DM Thomas has been described as both – female critics tend to favour the former theme, male critics the latter. Actually, what he looks most like is the survivor of a bomb blast, emerging blinking and disorientated from the rubble, white with plaster dust.
It’s a rainy afternoon in Truro. The clouds outside the pub are black. We’re on our second bottle and Thomas is hunched forward, avoiding eye contact, telling me about the topic that preoccupies him at the moment – his wife Denise, who died at the age of 53 last October. ‘She had kidney cancer that went to her vertebrae,’ he says in a subdued, mildly Cornish burr. ‘Most people try to avoid thinking about death because there is nothing you can do about it. But when it happens to someone close to you, you can’t escape it. You know that half of you is dying and will die. You feel sorry for her but also for yourself because everything she knows about you dies with her.’
Donald Michael Thomas, DM Thomas to his readers, Don to his friends, has a first in English from Oxford. He began using his initials as a pen name when a contemporary at the university, another Donald Thomas, beat him into print with a collection of poetry. DM Thomas went on to publish six collections of verse, 12 novels, an autobiography, translations of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova, and, last year, a 550-page life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn which AN Wilson described as the most impressive literary biography he had ever read. But it is for his third novel, The White Hotel, that DM Thomas is best known. When it was published in 1981 it became a surprise bestseller, first in America, then in this country, where it was short-listed for the Booker Prize. When the author heard that Salman Rushdie had won that year, his response was commendably honest:’Fuck!’
The commercial success of The White Hotel was – and, as it has never been out of print, still is – something of a mystery to the publishing world. Though it is considered a ‘difficult’ novel, it has sold more than two million copies. And like most of Thomas’s fiction, it is about his obsessions with Sigmund Freud, the Holocaust, dreams, myths and the sex-death parallel – grand, over-arching themes which have earned the author a reputation as the dirty old man of literature. Does DM Thomas like himself? He sighs. ‘Yes and no. What does Hamlet say? Neither terribly good nor terribly bad. I sometimes have monstrous ideas, but I don’t think I’m a monster.’
Feminist critics of The White Hotel disagree with this analysis. They consider one chapter in particular to be the work of a monster. Lisa Erdman, the clairvoyant opera-singing heroine of the novel, becomes a patient of Freud in the Vienna of the Twenties. Together they explore her sexual fantasies and her sense of impending catastrophe. Twenty years later, Lisa is among the multitude at the massacre of Babi Yar, the ravine near Kiev where 200,000 Jews, gypsies and Slavs were machine-gunned by the Nazis. The careful attention Freud pays to Lisa as an individual in the first half of the book is contrasted shockingly with the way the Nazis dehumanise her in the second. She ends her life on a pile of naked corpses as a soldier uses a bayonet to simulate sex with her.
Feminist critics have accused Thomas of fantasising about being that soldier. ‘People are afraid of what Freud had to say about the inner-self and sexuality,’ Thomas says when I put this to him. ‘They would rather explore things on sociological and political terms than confront their own demons. That scene was an exploration of the good and evil in every human consciousness. I have no desire to put a bayonet in a woman’s vagina. But I do want to try and understand the destructive and sadistic impulse that makes some other men want to.’
The White Hotel is a metaphorical place where all that is good and beautiful in the world coexists with all that is evil and brutal. In her recurring dream about it, Lisa longs to go there yet dreads it as well. ‘I’m willing to accept that I am a White Hotel,’ Thomas says. ‘We all are, if we are honest. Even Freud admitted he had good and evil impulses. But most of us can leave those impulses under the surface. I have never beaten or ill-treated a woman in my life, but I accept the world of fantasy where these things can happen. And perhaps it’s the people who don’t explore these impulses as an abstraction who are the most likely to act upon them in real life.’
DM Thomas says he has always tried to be faithful to the truth in his writing, but in his private life, and that of his family, he admits he has engaged in ‘every colour of lie from white to grey to black’. As we shall see, his amatory career has been extraordinarily complex and he has been, at best, evasive about it. But the death of his wife has taught him that such deception is pointless. ‘Oh, what does it matter any more?’ he sighs. ‘Let’s get drunk. Ask me anything. I’ll try and be honest.’
And honest he is: about sex, drugs and infidelity. But such is his suicidal frankness and his clear vulnerability that you feel protective towards him. When he stubs a cigarette out, he taps it against the ashtray about 15 times in rapid succession. Rat-tat-tat-tat. It is a compulsive gesture, agitated, wounded. He does this now and immediately lights another cigarette. He managed to stop smoking five years ago, he says, but the stress of watching his wife die made him start again. She was a smoker, too, and towards the end he would have to guide her hand to the ashtray.
Lately he says he has found it very easy to cry. Although he has written a few poems, and has recently been commissioned to write a novella, he has had neither the energy nor the inclination to write fiction. ‘It’s been a struggle just surviving. I wrote a few poems about Denise tending the garden when she knew she wouldn’t complete it. They were a feeble attempt to pay tribute to someone who wasn’t known to the world at large.’
In the mid-Eighties Thomas suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to read or write for a year. He still suffers periodic bouts of depression. ‘It feels like a terminal illness, too,’ he explains. ‘It is almost as powerful as travelling with your wife on her road to death. I feel terrible for saying that – but in depression your life is totally without meaning. Chaotic. Every moment is enormously painful. There are no parameters and you are convinced that every day until your death you are going to be miserable. I didn’t actively seek death. I lacked the energy to commit suicide. But I certainly felt it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t wake up.’
Living a life of deception may have contributed to his breakdown. At one stage he would divide his time between his first wife Maureen, with whom he had two children (Caitlin and Sean), and his second wife Denise, with whom he had one (Ross). Maureen and he grew up in the same tin-mining community near Redruth in Cornwall. They met while he was home on leave during his National Service and married in 1958, when he was 23 years old and still a student at Oxford. ‘At the time in Methodist Cornwall if you slept with someone, you married them,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t mature enough for marriage and I’m sorry I put her through so much. Then again, I don’t really regret it because children came out of it – and I wouldn’t want to wish them away. Maureen and I both went through a long period of uneasy, unsatisfactory compromise, in which she knew about my mistress. To her infinite credit she said in her late forties: “I’ve had enough of this, I’m leaving.” We are still on friendly terms. When she remarried I felt relief. Then panic.’
After graduating in 1958, Thomas become a schoolteacher and then, in 1964, a lecturer at Hereford College of Education. He remained there until 1978, when it closed and he was made redundant. Instead of looking for another teaching post he decided to try and earn a living writing fiction. He met Denise, an engineer’s daughter, when she joined Hereford College as a student teacher in 1966.
‘Denise and I had a very unconventional marriage. It was all to do with a piece of paper. She wanted a child. She taught at a church school and in those days, the Seventies, it would have been a scandal to be a single mother. We decided to marry so that she could have a child and keep her job. It would be treated as a formal arrangement and, then, as soon as we could – three years is the minimum – we’d get a divorce.’
Ten years and one divorce from Denise later, he was back with her. The couple moved to Cornwall and began living together. When they discovered that Denise had cancer they went to see their solicitor to check what provisions the original divorce settlement had made for their son. ‘We were told that the divorce had never gone through. We had the decree nisi but someone at Hereford Crown Court had neglected to issue the decree absolute. We were unexpectedly still married after 24 years. We were flabbergasted. And glad. It was like fate had stepped in. Even Thomas Hardy wouldn’t have got away with such an improbable twist.’
Thomas says he has been haunted all his life by Freud, whose writing style he consciously imitated. He also seems to have taken inspiration from Freud’s promiscuity. In his autobiography, Memories and Hallucinations (1988), Thomas alludes to affairs he had during both marriages, as well as to his penchant for seducing big-thighed students. Did he suspect he would be an unfaithful husband right from the day he married? ‘No. I drifted into it. It was like I was in a dream state. I wanted to be loyal but I did feel, selfishly, that if I wanted to be a writer I would need more experience of life. But my being unfaithful was a contradiction because though I wanted self-fulfilment I also felt a root loyalty to look after my family.’
When in turn his mistress found out he was being unfaithful, she seems to have taken it in her stride. ‘I think Denise knew no one else would be a real threat to her. She led her own life and we understood each other.’ Thomas doesn’t think that his literary fame gives him a feeling of empowerment, a sense that normal moral codes don’t apply to him because he is an artist. ‘No. I sinned and accepted that I was a sinner.’
So much for his private life, in his professional life he has been labelled a devilish misogynist (by the Guardian). And one Observer reviewer has compared him to ‘some raddled seducer, tweaking his passive conquest with absent-minded fingers’. He plays up to the image to an extent. For a few years he ran an erotic writing course from his home – until the Modern Review sent a female journalist on it, under cover, to see if he would try and seduce her. She claims he did. He says he didn’t.
DM Thomas denies the misogyny charge. On the contrary, he says, he feels at home in a feminine psyche. When I ask if he is Lisa in The White Hotel in the same way that Flaubert is Madame Bovary he answers: ‘Yes, although I didn’t realise it at the time. It’s great fun writing as a woman because it is the unknown. It didn’t occur to me until years after I had written The White Hotel that the Don Giovanni poem at the beginning is a representation of my own turbulent sexuality. The extreme puzzlement, wonder and frustrated longing I felt as an adolescent. I think it is easier for men to write about women than for women to write about men because we’ve all been inside a woman – our mothers.’
Thomas recognises that he probably went through an androgynous phase. ‘Around puberty I became something of a hermaphrodite. I have a sister who is ten years older than me and I would wear her clothes sometimes. It felt liberating because I couldn’t get close to real girls at that age and yet I had a strong sexual instinct to turn myself into one. I’m sure my sister played a vital role in fostering my weird imagination.’
Don Thomas and his sister had a peripatetic childhood. Their grandfather was a carpenter who worked in the copper and tin mines around Redruth. Their father, Harold, would have done the same had the mines not been closed after the First World War. Instead, he travelled to California to construct film sets at 20th Century Fox, only to return to Cornwall during the Depression. When Thomas’s sister married an Australian serviceman and moved to Melbourne in 1949, he and the rest of the family followed. Thomas, his father and mother, lived there for two years before returning again to Cornwall.
‘I never got on with my brother-in-law,’ Thomas reflects. ‘I was in my early teens when we moved to Australia, and maybe there was some Oedipal jealousy there. I never went through a homosexual phase – although I did sleep with my father a lot from the age of seven to 14, because I was afraid of ghosts. My mother would be turfed out of bed. I definitely had Oedipal fantasies about her.’ When his father died in 1960 Donald took comfort by sleeping the night in the same bed as Maureen his wife and Amy his mother. When his mother died 15 years later it triggered an obsession with death, which was to become a recurring theme of his writing.
Thomas has always wanted to revisit the place where his family lived in California. But because a clairvoyant told him 20 years ago that he would die there, he has never dared go. Now that Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau, the producers of ‘The Thin Red Line’, are making The White Hotel into a film, he might have to. There have been several unsuccessful attempts in the past to bring the novel to the big screen. First DM Thomas wrote a screenplay, then two more screenwriters tried and failed before Dennis Potter had a go, which is the version being used.
At one stage David Lynch wanted to direct it. ‘Lynch thought the opera singer was too highbrow and so should be a trapeze artist instead. He also thought that his then girlfriend Isabella Rossellini should play the role. When she left him he went off the idea. I suppose because of my parents’ connection with Hollywood I shall enjoy going there,’ Thomas reflects. ‘But I feel superstitious about dying there. The stress might bring on a heart attack at the premire. Actually, that might not be such a bad way to go. It would be terrifying – but what publicity for a film about clairvoyance!’
We leave the pub and head across Truro, up a hill to the converted coach house where Thomas has lived for the past 12 years. Currently in residence is Sean, Thomas’s 35-year-old son from his first marriage, a former heroin addict whose taste for S&M led to a rape charge (of which he was acquitted), in 1988. He is also a published novelist. We greet him briefly and then head upstairs to the study. The walls are lined with shelves carrying various editions of DM Thomas’s many books, including more than 20 translations of The White Hotel. The computer is switched on. There is a sculpture of a unicorn with a broken horn, a photograph of Denise and, above his desk, a painting of Akhmatova, the Russian poetess whom he says is his muse. Thomas lights up another cigarette and, shrouded in smoke, his eyebrow arched, he looks demonic. I ask him whether he has ever been tempted to experiment with drugs. He has had the odd joint, he says, but nothing stronger. ‘I know I have an addictive personality so I don’t want to risk heroin. But part of me would like to try it just once. If I knew I was going to die, I would try it.’
Perhaps when he goes to California? We are back on the subject of death. He is beginning to feel old. His body aches from sciatica. He has another drag from the cigarette he holds between blotchy fingers and, as he starts the process of stubbing it out 15 times, he tells me he has a religious consciousness but finds it difficult to accept the notion of an afterlife. ‘I hope there is one. I fear there isn’t. Denise and I talked about it when she was in the hospice and I tried to be more optimistic than I felt. When someone is desperate you put the best gloss on things.’
How should an artist die? Thomas tells me he once experienced the death of a novelist. William Golding used to live near Truro and the night before he died he had a party. ‘I stayed after the other guests left and his daughter brought out his two best bottles of wine. This upset William a bit and there was a certain tension. But then he suddenly told her he loved her. He looked out of the window and remarked upon how much he enjoyed living in this house. He squeezed his wife’s hand affectionately. I said goodnight, drove back seeing double, and he died of a heart attack half an hour later. That was a good way to go.’
Like William Golding, DM Thomas will probably be remembered for just one novel. He is philosophical about it. ‘Some writers can do it again and again and it’s wonderful. Others have to resign themselves to never producing anything as good again. At least I did it once. I didn’t get angst-ridden when later novels weren’t as commercially successful. The White Hotel is the novel with which I am most satisfied. I was almost in a dream state when I wrote it. It flowed automatically and needed little revision. It was the book where all my themes and obsessions found their absolute objective correlative.’
The phone rings and the answering machine clicks on. A young woman’s voice, well-spoken. ‘Hi, my darling. I’m at home. Call me when you get in. Bye, darling.’
The author and I exchange a glance.
‘Oh my God,’ DM Thomas says from behind a blue veil of smoke. ‘An unexpected intrusion of reality.’
Who was she?
‘A friend of mine. Yes. A friend.’ Silence. ‘Life has to go on.’ Silence. ‘Do you want to ask more about her?’
No. That’s all right.