A poet's psyche creates an erotic novel about the plight of passage

Three years ago, when British novelist-poet D.M. Thomas began, he thought only of writing a novella in the form of a haunting psychoanalytic case study. But once embarked on his daring concept, The White Hotel'(Viking, $12.95), Thomas traveled past his heroine's successful battle with hysteria on Sigmund Freud's famous couch and into the madness of 20th-century reality: the Nazi annihilation of the Jews (including his heroine) at Russia's Babi Yar. "Suddenly, I saw a connection between the mass hysteria of the Holocaust and personal hysterias," he says, "and realized I had a novel."

The blend of the patient's erotic blank verse ("I could not stop myself, I was in flames/From the first spreading of my thighs, no shame") and the narrator's sometimes dislocated prose have made The White Hotel the literary event of the season. Ironically, its dazzling virtuosity put off some critics in Britain, where it met with mixed reviews and modest sales of 5,000.

But in the more Freudianly hip U.S.A., everyone seems to want to book into The White Hotel. It has made the New York Times' best-seller list for nine weeks and is in its fourth printing (70,000 copies). Film rights have been sold for $500,000 to Hollywood, and Barbra Streisand is said to be interested in playing the patient who imagines she is ravished by Sigmund Freud's son. Thomas—who has written four volumes of poetry, two other novels and translated the works of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova—vows never to "write potboilers for the public." But he recognizes that "my career is probably at some sort of turning point."

He was christened Donald Michael in the Cornish village of Carnkie. Both his parents left school at 13, his father eventually to become a plasterer. "They were intelligent but unlettered," says their son.

When Don was 14, the family emigrated to Australia to help his older sister, Lois, adjust to married life there. Back in England after two years, he went on to win a scholarship to Oxford. Graduating with honors in 1958, Thomas put in a stint teaching high school English in Devon before becoming a lecturer and then head of the English department at Hereford College of Education. When it closed in 1978, he returned to Oxford on a state-funded sabbatical, and while there wrote most of The White Hotel.

Burdened with a blurred "double view" (wife/mistress) of women, Thomas, 46, has a complicated personal life. He lives in a brick house in Hereford with his first ex-wife, Maureen, 43, and their children, Caitlin and Sean. But his lover is his second ex-wife, Denise, 35, a former student, who lives two miles away with their son, Ross, 4. Explains first wife Maureen: "I don't think he should have married. He is warm but remote. I give in to the situation because he is a special person." Thomas characterizes both liaisons as "precarious. Neither is a particularly equable relationship, or easy to maintain." Never having undergone therapy, Thomas admits, "I constantly psychoanalyze myself—with horror and fascination." But this does not keep him from working up to six hours a day. With his fifth volume of poetry due out this fall, he is struggling with his next novel, "a mythical voyage" of discovery to America. "I am quite prepared for it to be no good," he says philosophically, "but I look on each new work as a fresh challenge."