Schoolmaster and writer D. M. Thomas rose from obscurity to international fame with his sensational apocalyptic novel The White Hotel. That book mixed accounts of mass genocide with a famous case about a neurotic, sexually repressed patient of Freud’s to catch the tragic temper of the 20th century. Two years later Thomas produced Ararat, a complex novel that examined artistic creativity and sexuality. Thomas’s latest book, Swallow, picks up where Ararat left off. Once again he confronts his readers with the indefatigable Russian poet Rozanov, a womanizer with an extraordinary talent for literary improvisation. And once again Thomas’s ability to weave a number of disparate stories into an uncannily unified whole has yielded a highly entertaining piece of fiction.
In Swallow Rozanov has not quite extracted himself from the dilemma into which he blundered in Ararat, a commitment to spending a night with Olga, a blind, unattractive scholar. Instead of sleeping with her, he held her spellbound with stories filled with enthralling characters who told even more stories. That technique, repeated in Swallow, has produced a literary hall of mirrors in which fact and fantasy become indistinguishable.
One of the most pervasive themes of the various tales is the mystery of literary creation. Rozanov tells Olga the story of an imaginary international Olympiad in which the competitors are literary improvisers. The Italian entry bitterly divides her listeners with a dark, passionate harangue. Surprisingly, some of the most intriguing passages in Swallow consist of the judges’ private debates on that entry. It is a treat to hear an intelligent discussion of literature without cant or pointless complexity. But those passages also illustrate that literary taste is dominated by far deeper powers than rational discourse. Most of the judges initially dislike her offering, but they eventually approve of it—for no apparent reason.
Apart from its intellectual fascination, Swallow is also a novel rich in unusual characters. One of the most charming is the Russian poet Surkov. He invents an imaginary and extremely amusing interview between himself and the U.S. president, “Tiger” O’Reilly, ob-
viously inspired by Ronald Reagan. In the course of the interview, O’Reilly enters such a fog of confusion that he misunderstands a news bulletin and starts the Third World War.
Swallow is often affecting, especially in the sections in which Thomas recreates the unhappy period he spent as an adolescent in Australia. He presents that story as the original prose version of the poem improvised by Southerland, the English contestant. Southerland commits suicide when he realizes that the judges have discovered he has stolen his material. Thomas seems to be offering up Southerland as a somewhat ironic sacrifice to critics who charged him with plagiarizing the descriptions of the Babi Yar massacre in The White Hotel.
The author seems to have remained essentially convinced of his right to borrow and change the work of other writers. He makes his defiance clear by including sections of H. Rider Haggard’s 1886 novel, King Solomon’s Mines. As Thomas writes in his preface, he has “scandalously amended” those excerpts by peppering them with hilariously obscene epithets. Most readers will not mind the transformation of the rather prim Haggard. Indeed, readers can forgive Thomas almost anything in return for his unflaggingly witty and charming book.
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