D(onald) M(ichael) Thomas Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Redruth, Cornwall, 1935. Education: Redruth Grammar School; University High School, Melbourne; New College, Oxford, B.A. (honours) in English 1958, M.A. 1961. Military Service: Served in the British Army (national service), 1953-54. Career: Teacher, Teignmouth Grammar School, Devon, 1959-63; senior lecturer in English, Hereford College of Education, 1964-78, visiting lecturer in English, Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1967; lecturer in Creative Writing, American University, Washington, D.C., 1982. Awards: Richard Hillary Memorial prize, 1960; Arts Council award, for translation, 1975, Cholmondeley award, for poetry, 1978; Guardian—Gollancz Fantasy Novel prize, 1979; Los Angeles Times prize, for novel, 1980; Cheltenham prize, 1981; Silver Pen award, 1982.
The Flute-Player. London, Gollancz, and New York, Dutton, 1979.
Birthstone. London, Gollancz, 1980.
The White Hotel. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking Press, 1981.
Series: Russian Nights
Ararat. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking Press, 1983.
Swallow. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking, 1984.
Sphinx. London, Gollancz, 1986; New York, Viking, 1987.
Summit. London, Gollancz, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.
Lying Together. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking, 1990.
Flying in to Love. London, Bloomsbury, 1991; New York, Carroll &Graf, 1995.
Pictures at an Exhibition. London, Bloomsbury, 1993; New York, Carroll & Graf, 1994.
Eating Pavlova. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Carroll &Graf, 1994.
Lady with a Laptop. New York, Carroll & Graf, 1996.
Charlotte: The Final Journey of Jane Eyre. London, Duckworth, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Seeking a Suitable Donor," in The New SF, edited by LangdonJones. London, Hutchinson, 1969.
"Labyrinth," in New Worlds (London), April 1969.
The White Hotel, adaptation of his own novel (produced Edinburgh, 1984).
Boris Godunov, adaptation of the play by Pushkin (broadcast 1984).Leamington, Warwickshire, Sixth Chamber Press, 1985.
You Will Hear Thunder, 1981; Boris Godunov, 1984.
Personal and Possessive. London, Outposts, 1964.
Penguin Modern Poets 11, with D.M. Black and Peter Redgrove. London, Penguin, 1968.
Two Voices. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1968.
The Lover's Horoscope: Kinetic Poem. Laramie, Wyoming, PurpleSage, 1970.
Logan Stone. London, Cape Goliard Press, and New York, Grossman, 1971.
The Shaft. Gillingham, Kent, Arc, 1973.
Lilith-Prints. Cardiff, Second Aeon, 1974.
Symphony in Moscow. Richmond, Surrey, Keepsake Press, 1974.
Love and Other Deaths. London, Elek, 1975.
The Rock. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1975.
Orpheus in Hell. Knotting, Bedfordshire, Sceptre Press, 1977.
The Honeymoon Voyage. London, Secker and Warburg, 1978.
Protest: A Poem after a Medieval Armenian Poem by Frik. Privately printed, 1980.
Dreaming in Bronze. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.
Selected Poems. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Viking Press, 1983.
News from the Front, with Sylvia Kantaris. Todmorden, Lancashire, Arc, 1983.
The Puberty Tree, New & Selected Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1992.
The Devil and the Floral Dance (for children). London, Robson, 1978.
Memories and Hallucinations: An Autobiographical Excursion. London, Gollancz, and New York, Viking, 1988.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.
Editor, The Granite Kingdom: Poems of Cornwall. Truro, Cornwall, Barton, 1970.
Editor, Poetry in Crosslight. London, Longman, 1975.
Editor, Songs from the Earth: Selected Poems of John Harris, Cornish Miner, 1820-84. Padstow, Cornwall, Lodenek Press, 1977.
Translator, Requiem, and Poem Without a Hero, by Anna Akhmatova. London, Elek, and Athens, Ohio University Press, 1979.
Translator, Way of All the Earth, by Anna Akhmatova. London, Secker and Warburg, and Athens, Ohio University Press, 1979.
Translator, Invisible Threads, by Evtushenko. New York, Macmillan, 1981.
Translator, The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems, by Pushkin. London, Secker and Warburg, and New York, Viking Press, 1982.
Translator, A Dove in Santiago, by Evtushenko. London, Secker andWarburg, 1982; New York, Viking Press, 1983.
Translator, You Will Hear Thunder: Poems, by Anna Akhmatova. London, Secker and Warburg, and Athens, Ohio University Press-Swallow Press, 1985; as Selected Poems, London, Penguin, 1988.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
* * *
D.M. Thomas began his writing career as a poet. His early work in this medium was ranged from the fantasy worlds of science fiction to what would become his trademark stocking-topped, suspender-belted, bawdy sensuality. Fiction turned out to be the more accommodating genre, though, for his unconventional combinations of forms: narrative, poetry, letters, historical documents that flirt with time and the nature of reality.
Thomas's first novel, The Flute-Player, is set in an unnamed city of chaos, probably in Russia; there are glimpses of Leningrad, and the book is dedicated to the dissident Russian poets Mandlestam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetayeva. Elena, a flute player, here is the embodiment of the persecuted creative spirit, endangered by the city's totalitarian regime. Her presence is often lost, though, in the novel's whirl of characters, fast-moving incidents, and mood changes.
Thomas's most critically acclaimed and popular novel, The White Hotel, maintains its thematic focus more forcefully. Lisa Erdman, an imagined patient of Sigmund Freud, expresses her hyperbolic and crudely masochistic sexual fantasies in the novel's famed opening poem. The perverted brutality of Erdman's desires is later paralleled by the perverted brutality of a world in which the horrors of Babi Yar can take place. Erdman's private desires, which cannot be fully deciphered or cured by psychoanalysis, are not so private after all. The right kind of manipulation can penetrate into the masses and harness the power of their own similarly violent impulses, with horrifying results.
Ararat and Swallow, the first two novels of Thomas's "Russian Nights" quartet, are free-wheeling and fantastical, involving a number of "improvisatores." Swallow features an actual Olympiad of these extempore storytellers, whose rhyming narratives take up a large proportion of the novel. Through this poetry, Thomas explores the ways in which fiction is inspired by—or can create—reality; the improvisatores' stories are paralleled in their own lives and those of the people they encounter. The reader is never quite sure, nor is meant to be sure, where the frontiers of reality and fantasy lie, if indeed there are any frontiers. This dynamic often feels abstract, though, in contrast to the humanity portrayed in The White Hotel. The exception is Swallow 's "autobiographical" episodes, in which scenes from Thomas's (or his persona's) childhood are ingeniously interlaced with adapted passages from King Solomon's Mines.
The third novel in the "Russian Nights" quartet, Sphinx, feeds off Ararat and Swallow, extending their characters, plots, and the theme of the "improvisatores." Summit, the last of the quartet, breaks from this in the ancient tradition of a serious trilogy being succeeded by a farcical or satirical coda. In the antics of a thinly disguised President O'Rielly and a Russian Grobichov, we have a couple of lampooning caricatures on the "Spitting Image" level. The novel is in fact an extended joke based mainly on O'Rielly's mental difficulties, including a delayed ratiocination that finds him answering a question, at least one before the question actually being asked. It is amusing, but wears a bit thin as it goes on.
After rounding off his trilogy/quartet in such a traditional manner, Thomas produced Lying Together, effectively extending the quartet into a quintet. The characters of the earlier books meet up at a writers' conference, once again taking up their roles as "improvisatories." Lying Together has been described as "pure satire/poetic fantasy/autobiography and dirty book" all in one. In any case, this work, as its title suggests, makes fantasy and reality more indistinguishable than ever. Thomas is again a character, suggesting an autobiographical edge. The "improvisions" of the other characters in the book often seem more "realistic" than the characters who invent them, such as the lustful, menstruating, blind film producer who spends a deal of time groping about on the carpet for the tampons she has removed to accommodate her lover.
In Flying in to Love, Thomas returns to his earlier tactic of examining significant historical events through the prism of his fiction. The result is an ironic postmodern hatchet job of the Kennedy assassination. Thomas mocks the dizzying array of conspiracy theories and the ways they reveal Americans' sentimental attachment to the youthful prince of Camelot far more than their yearning for the truth. We heedlessly "flew into Love" with Kennedy, the novel's title a convenient play on Dallas' only airport at the time. Thomas deconstructs the object of our affections as a smarmy playboy, who shares Marilyn Monroe with his brother Bobby.
Thomas revisited the Holocaust in Pictures at an Exhibition. Thomas presents the disturbing conundrum of Galewski, a Czech inmate at Auschwitz, who is called upon to cure an SS officer's headaches. Galewski uses his understanding of Freud to help Dr. Lorenz, a doctor who performs brutal experiments on the camp inmates. Out of fear for his own life, though, Galewski cannot state the obvious: that mass murder just might weight on one's mind. Galewski survives the war to become a psychoanalyst, his patients recalling the painful moral evasions of his wartime "apprenticeship" for his profession. Galewski and Dr. Lorenz meet again in London, fifty years after the war, and the two must contend with the awful emotional legacy of the Holocaust. The gravity of this subject matter clashes bizarrely and often distractingly with his confusing pastiche style. It is as if Thomas is trying to point out that evil can be obscured by the nonsensical and even the surreal. Yet evil it remains, so we must learn to contend with it despite the chaos.
Much of Thomas's work is heavily invested in Freudian theories of sex, dreams, and sublimation. Thus it is no surprise that Thomas should turn to Freud's life as a subject for fiction in Eating Pavlova. Thomas's trademark tangle of narrative threads isn't as jarring here. After all, the book is about Freud, a man who immersed himself in the interpretation of the seemingly dissociative world of dreams. What's more, Eating Pavlova 's Freud is in his morphine-clouded, semi-conscious last days. The strongest narrative thread here is that of Freud's daughter Anna, who is so devoted to her father and his work that she'll analyze his dying dreams for him.
Lady with a Laptop finds Thomas mocking his own profession. Simon, his protagonist, is teaching a New Age writing workshop on the subpar Greek island of Skagathos. Simon takes a cheap and cynical delight in his students' lack of talent, but the joke is on him. His career has hit the skids. He's not even much of a flirt anymore. Teacher and students have a chance to be redeemed when they come up with a bizarre, sordid murder mystery in a team writing exercise. The lead author, Lucinda, ends up a murder victim herself. She is the necessary victim, it seems, of the work of writing fiction, for every story ends in death—if not a literal one, then a figurative one, the dying of possibility that comes with the dot at the end of the final sentence.
Writing is also thematic material in Charlotte: The Final Journey of Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre has fallen prey to metafictional impulses before. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys's 1966 exploration of the subjectivity of Rochester's mad and exotic first wife, comments on the limits of the British literary imagination in the Victorian era. In Thomas's version, Miranda Stevenson, a literature professor, takes a somewhat different tact, aiming to "bring out some of the repressed issues" in Bronte's novel. Her Jane abandons Rochester after finding him sexually insufficient. She travels to the West Indies, where she finds a black lover who impregnates her. Authoress Miranda, meanwhile, is off on far kinkier journeys. If Jane's black lover was scandalous for her day, Miranda tests the sexual mores of her own time by having sex with a drag queen and parading in front of her father (who, like Rochester, is nearly blind) in her dead mother's lingerie and suspender belt.
updated by Lisa A. Phillips
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