BOOKS / Doubting Thomas: More admired abroad than at home, the author of 'The White Hotel' is calm about his reputation as the dirty old man of literature. As his new book appears, D M Thomas discusses Freud, jokes, ventriloquism and sexual fantasy

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MESDAMES et messieurs, faites vos jeux. D M Thomas always plays games with his readers, and he likes to start the ball rolling well ahead of the title page.

The jacket of his latest novel, Eating Pavlova, is divided into two tinted zones, one blue and one pink. The blue, which is the bigger of the two, covers the top of the page, while the smaller pink part lies below. If the symbolism is obvious, what of the man who stands by the window? He is looking down on a woman who has swooned backwards into his arms. With his pointed beard and long nose, he is, of course, Sigmund Freud. But who is she? And what has he done to her?

Thomas is a master of this kind of deconstruction, and although he would not have drawn the jacket himself, his influence is palpable. (He says he abandoned his previous publishers, Gollancz, partly because he didn't like their covers.) For those who believe that symbolism extends into every corner of life, the compulsion to burrow ever deeper for meanings is irresistible. Look, Thomas might say, at how my name is superimposed upon this domestic drama. Is it not significant that the break between D M and Thomas - that pivotal empty space, that hole, between the initials of D M (the child) and the (adult) patronym that Freud would say represents the male domination of the family - falls just on the spot where the woman's heart is? Come to think of it, it isn't just her heart that inhabits that space. Is there not a breast there as well, and a nipple?

Thomas is intelligent enough to realise that mind games like these are not to everyone's taste. In order not to go mad, he says, he writes the way a potter makes pots. 'If readers like my work, all well and good. If not, tough.' To his fans, and there are more of them in Italy, Israel and America than here, Thomas's games are part of the fascinating cleverness of the man, a kind of delicious tweaking of the imagination. Yet to his critics, any of Thomas's games - indeed anything of Thomas - is already way too much.

He rarely comes to London these days, preferring to generate controversy from his study overlooking a housing estate in Truro, where he has lived for the past seven years. He and his partner, Denise, have a simple, grey stone house. The garden is well tended and the swimming pool covered in plastic. There is a neatness there, a feel of Dralon and suburbia about his daily life that is sharply at odds with the compulsion to dig around in the ordure of human fantasy.

The man on the station platform has bright white hair, and the skin of his lined face is as pale as a mushroom. He appears distracted, as if he has left something behind, and admits this is the first interview he has done since he gave up smoking 50 cigarettes a day. We drive about the countryside, stop at a hotel for a sandwich and a bottle of wine. He feels safe enough to ask me back to his study to talk about his writing and those who hate it.

When it comes to this curly-haired Cornishman, no one stands in the middle ground. There exist rich tributes to his writing, words such as 'incandescent', 'searing', 'totally unforgettable and absolutely magnificent'. But these are rare, and becoming rarer. The themes to which he returns most often - sex, death, the power of dreams, the Holocaust, and the liberating effects of Freudian psychoanalysis - have guaranteed him top billing as 'the dirtiest old man in British letters'.

Word for word, there is less graphic sex in a Thomas novel than in your average airport potboiler. Yet no other British writer is reviled in quite the same way. Since he made his name with The White Hotel nearly 15 years ago, Thomas has been the recipient of virtually every insult under the sun. He is, according to a reviewer in the Observer, 'like some raddled seducer, tweaking his passive conquest with absent-minded fingers'. Even the Financial Times turned from pink to purple over his 'obsession with sexual perversity and death'. Feminist critics accused him of actually wanting to be the soldier who, at the end of The White Hotel, thrusts the bayonet into the vagina of the operatic heroine Lisa Erdman. His last book, Pictures at an Exhibition, was called 'a cold, calculated piece of writing, extremely self-conscious about its intentions, and designed to make the author a great deal of money'. Thomas was intellectually pretentious while indulging, as one paper said, in 'seducing big-thighed students and looking up women's skirts'. And now, they might add, the old bugger is back.

At the beginning of Eating Pavlova, Freud is on his deathbed in his Hampstead home, tended by his daughter Anna. It is the eve of the Second World War. In the novel, Freud traces the conscious and unconscious development of the relationship with Anna, who moulded her life and identity on that of her father, and whose erotic attachments were, like his, exclusively with women. Freud recounts his dreams, dips into his diaries and, taking Anna by the hand, rewrites his own history. Is this what Freud termed 'liberating fiction' or another of his 'Jewish jokes'? Thomas zaps the reader backward and forward through the 20th century, never inconvenienced by anything as mundane as Freud's physical death. The analyst lives on in voice and spirit until Anna Freud's own death at the end of the book in 1982.

'I have been haunted by Freud since he appeared in The White Hotel. I so much enjoyed imitating his voice, almost ventriloquising him, trying to hit his style. He has obsessed me.'

Thomas fans will find this an intriguing book. Often infuriating and occasionally hard to grasp, it is also full of entertainment, trickery and cleverness - as well as a few episodes of the kind of irrelevant, gratuitously grubby sex that remind you why some readers can't stand him. He turns his characters inside out, hiding the received wisdoms and exposing their vulnerabilities. And if the obsessiveness of the last part makes you feel you have been sleeping on and off through an all-night showing of Pasolini films, there is also the joy that

Thomas, unlike many British novelists, truly makes you think.

That will not be enough to quell the ire of his old enemies; indeed, the book may well inspire them to recruit fresh troops. New to the attack will be the purist Freudians, who will hate the way Thomas has taken the father of psychoanalysis from his pedestal and transformed him into a jealous cry-baby whining about his wife, his mother, his lovers, his patients and his friends. Behind them, in greater number, will be the 'anti-Freudians', who will condemn the book while happily using it as a weapon to blast all psychoanalysis as nothing more than self-indulgent mumbo-jumbo.

Thomas was born not far from Truro in 1935. His working-class parents had lived for a while in California before he was born, where his father worked as a fitter on the Warner Brothers' lot. 'It was the golden age of their life, and the golden age of their love,' he says. When eventually they returned to Cornwall, they built an American 'breakfast nook' and longed to go back West. Instead, when Thomas was 14, they sailed for Australia and he learned to masturbate as they crossed the equator. With a sister 10 years older, Thomas grew up virtually an only child and got up people's noses from an early age. He was clever, and he'd travelled. After two years the Thomas family returned to Cornwall where he found his classmates unchanged. 'There they were, just the same, and all smelly from the gym.'

It was while doing National Service that Thomas was drafted into learning Russian. Unlike other writers of his generation who did the same, including Dennis Potter and Alan Bennett, the exposure to Russian gave Thomas's writing a European quality that sets him apart from the realist, more parochial British tradition. Today he is one of the few British writers who translates Russian poetry, notably Anna Akhmatova, and his novels of the 1980s together form a Russian quintet.

Thomas read English at New College, Oxford, married young, taught at Hereford College of Education while writing poetry at home. He became a full-time writer after winning the Cholmondeley award for poetry. Then in 1981 The White Hotel, his third novel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the same year Salman Rushdie won with Midnight's Children. It tells the story of Lisa Erdman, an opera singer who becomes a patient of Freud's before witnessing the Babi Yar massacre in 1941.

Seven novels and a memoir later, he is still a mythologist, an obsessive fetishist who shuffles and reshuffles a series of personal motifs that recur throughout his work. Freudian case histories, febrile sexuality, the figure of the improvisatore, even the imputations of plagiarism that have regularly dogged him.

If Thomas's domestic life today seems mundane, it has not always been so; by the mid- 1980s it was on the point of exploding. He and his first wife divorced, yet continued to live together while Thomas married his long-term girlfriend, Denise. She had given birth to Thomas's son in 1977. After three years Denise and Thomas, who had never lived together, got divorced - and then set up home. Having moved to Truro, they still live together today. 'I shall have to leave you to sort it out,' he says by way of explanation.

The situation may be confusing to an outsider, but it was apparently no less so to Thomas. In 1985, he was 50. The college in Hereford where he taught closed, and he was made redundant. He suffered a nervous breakdown, followed by kidney problems, that meant he was unable to write or even read for more than a year. It was then that he began psychoanalysis and wrote his autobiography, aptly entitled Memories and Hallucinations.

It was perhaps inevitable then that Thomas would one day write a novel with Freud as the hero. 'I came to Freud as a story-teller first, rather than as theoretician,' he explains, adding that he first discovered Freud at Oxford when he read Lionel Trilling's essays about him. 'I found Freud's stories so erotic because they were so intense. And so symbolic, so reticent in so many ways. You wouldn't get the naked thing, but you would get the suggestion of it.

'And, of course, the actual form of Freudian analysis is like a love story. You get the gradual uncovering, the skimming away. It's like a seduction. And then the moment of ejaculation when the woman - usually a woman - struggles and tries to avoid the obvious truth when (Freud will say) 'she struck out against this notion, but I put it to her drily that she really did love her brother-in-law', or whatever, so it actually does imitate a seduction story. And then gradually the woman, in the abreaction, will start to accept what has happened, and then Freud will become a little less interested because he has done what he set out to do. He has conquered, and she will not be so happy about it and then they will part.'

Candid though it may be, this is not a fashionable view of psychoanalysis, and Thomas is resigned to the criticism that seems bound to follow his every publication. The women he knows, he believes, like him. So do the men. 'But I know there is a certain kind of man, a southern counties, probably public school man, who finds me very threatening. I don't know why, and I don't know what to say to them, especially on this charge that my writing shows I hate women. It's so ridiculous.

'What no one seems to understand is that we novelists don't know if we've written well or badly, only that we could not have written differently. A writer doesn't choose his subject matter, he submits to it.'

That defence will not stop his critics believing that Thomas is playing games with them. And those who are not aroused by the contents, or even the symbolism, of the blue and pink cover, may vent their irritation, as one did, on the title. Eating Pavlova? 'I'd rather throw one,' he said.

'Eating Pavlova' is published on Thursday by Bloomsbury at pounds 15.99

(Photograph omitted)