It is often difficult to say for sure where the source of a literary work lies. As far back as I can trace, The White Hotel originated in a dream. I was in a taxi, and I was travelling to a hotel where both the living and the dead had reservations. I dreamed it sometime in the late seventies. It was probably influenced by my mother’s death in 1975.
I wrote almost at once a short poem based on my dream; and I included it in my novel Birthstone, set in my native Cornwall. One of its lines is ‘It is something about loving everyone’ - which is not so far from ‘No one was selfish in the white hotel.’ The dream image came into its own when I read, in Ernest Jones’ biography of Freud, that Freud once analysed a woman who claimed to be having an affair with one of his sons. Intrigued by that situation, I decided to explore the feelings of such a woman. Verse poured out in a tumult; the narrator became any highly sensitive woman, aware of death and suffering all around her while she was enjoying love and life.
Finding that the poem had been dominated by water, I decided to write three more, for fire, earth and air. The sexual energy in the poems was more elemental than personal, a desperate attempt to tear a little happiness from this bitch of a world.
I called the poems The Women to Sigmund Freud. I submitted the first of them to the fantasy magazine New Worlds, where it was first published. At the same time I decided against including these poems in a verse collection I was putting together, Dreaming in Bronze (1979). I did not feel the work was finished; yet I could not think how it might continue. To publish some of it in a magazine was fine, because such publication, to my thinking, doesn’t carry a definitive stamp; it can be regarded as work in progress. But something made me draw back from giving it the definiteness of book publication.
A few months later, in the spring of ’79, I knew why. I knew the poems were the beginning of a novel, which would be called The White Hotel. The poems appear in it under the new title of Don Giovanni. The unknown woman analyzed by Freud becomes Lisa Erdman, a half-Jewish opera singer. Her hysterical symptoms are as much - or more - intimations of what is to come, in Europe, as neurotic suppressions of her past.
I would have expected to find I needed to revise the poems, in the light of the later prose narrative. A - to me - remarkable fact is that I did not have to; Don Giovanni remains as I originally wrote it, with the exception of two additional lines, which were not strictly necessary. I take this as some indication that I was already, in a sense, ‘dreaming’ the future novel even as I wrote the poems.
Two years ago, when I was visiting Toronto, I met Claire Weissman Wilks, and asked to see her work. I was moved and shaken by its erotic power. I felt I had rarely seen such sexual intensity portrayed in the visual arts. The nude couples suggested both the ecstasy of love-making and the sadness and pain that also touch it, whenever it is deep. I suggested to her that her style was close to the spirit of The White Hotel, and that I would be honored if she felt moved to respond to the novel in her own way. I suggested too that she focus on the Don Giovanni poems, since they distilled the novel’s essence. This book is the consequence of that meeting in Toronto in 1988. The drawings do not, and were not intended to, illustrate Don Giovanni, but rather are Claire’s complementary vision.