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On the plus side, there's the fact that Edith Templeton, born in Prague in 1916 and raised both in that city and at her grandmother's Bohemian castle, has published her short stories in only one magazine: The New Yorker. The prestige and cachet of this achievement are considerable. They are also warranted by the high grade of Mrs Templeton's writing, which will strike any reader almost immediately.
On the minus side, Mrs Templeton's invariable narrative voice, which, she has assured us, is utterly autobiographical, displays three rather unlovely characteristics. Of all the writers I know, only Vladimir Nabokov commanded anything like Mrs Templeton's aristocratic hauteur, and there is nothing in his work to compare with the steely class arrogance that gleams beneath her prose. Hers is also the arrogance of the femme fatale. Although not particularly striking in still photographs, Mrs Templeton was evidently, during her prime, a very seductive woman. Her narrator's little feet, her slim figure, her abundant 'plaits,' and a certain girlish prettiness, masking an adult woman's sexual sagacity, are forever putting men in mind of Topic A. But most will get nowhere, because - her third fault - she responds only to masterly men. All in all, Edith Templeton seems to have sprung intact from a past century, ready to enjoy our freedom from the formal parade that used to used to take up so much time, but determined to be taken at not a notch below her own valuation.
The net is that Mrs Templeton's writing trumps her fictional personality, and does so by taking you through the arrogance and the vamping, as though sailing behind a waterfall, to the private grotto of intimate experience. From this privileged vantage it is easy to forgive her snobbery, which isn't, after all, aimed at you. You are in on her little wickednesses, not a victim of them; and she knows to perfection how to make naughtiness entertaining. Impossible as she might be to everyone else, she makes herself appealing to her reader. Reading one of her stories is like visiting a formidable aunt who, heaven knows why, has appointed you her favorite niece or nephew and decided to further your education in worldliness. In this, Mrs Templeton emulates the bounty of her mother, an established siren: "she was always frightfully decent to me, and when I wanted to borrow her sables for the opera, she always let me have them." And as for mink: "I took off the fur and draped it negligently over my arm, recalling a saying of my mother's: 'If you can't wear a mink coat like a piece of sacking, you are not fit to have one'." You see what I mean about the writing. These are both quotes from Gordon, the novel that Mrs Templeton published first, pseudonymously, in 1966 - only to have it banned in Britain and Germany - and then again, under her own name, this year (Pantheon). Here's how Gordon begins:
At a quarter to six in the afternoon on a sunny day in June, I was sitting near the bar counter at Shepherds watching a man above the rim of my glass. I was certain he was going to try to pick me up. I was less certain what I was going to do about it. In looks he reminded me of Major Carter who, a few weeks ago, had embraced me while taking me home in a staff car from a regimental dance and who, upon being repulsed, had apologised: "I can't think what came over me. And you such a nice girl, too."
Perhaps it was his disappointment at my being "such a nice girl" which had driven him to get drunk later on that night; or perhaps he had been drunk already in the car. I had lost sight of him as soon as we had entered the vast lounge of the hotel which was our mess. But half an hour later, while sitting and talking with several of my friends, I was astonished by Major Carter's appearance on the gallery which circled the lounge. He was naked except for his underpants. Clutching the edge of the balustrade, he shouted: "I want a woman. I must have a woman."
As it turns out, the prospective picker-upper who resembles Major Carter is not the man with whom the narrator, a twenty-eight year-old woman named Louisa, will leave Shepherds. Nor will she have much of a chance to decide what to do about it. From the first instant of their contact, Richard Gordon, a Scots psychiatrist setting up a practice in London, and not, by the way, a particularly prepossessing specimen of masculinity, exercises absolute dominion over Louisa, and, from the same instant, Louisa submits. She doesn't like Gordon (she can't bring herself to address him by his Christian name), and she will almost hate him for his coldness - he will never kiss or embrace her - but she immediately finds that yielding to his mastery fills her with a serenity that she has never known before. Gordon slaps her, beats her with a hammer, and submits her to a long string of sexual humiliations. He also psychoanalyses her on the fly. The supreme irony of this amour fou is that Louisa feels protected by the one man from whom an outsider would suppose she needed protection.
The most arresting passage in the book occurs at what turns out to be the beginning of the book's dilated climax, and brings together two threads of the novel with startling results. Gordon's need to transgress has impelled him to take possession of Louisa ('having sex' just doesn't seem to be what this couple is into) in out-of-the-way but potentially public places, like deserted, garbage-strewn Soho courtyards. On the way to a party given by a colleague of Gordon's, a Berlin woman with whom he had a failed liaison, Gordon steers Louisa down a dark alley toward one of these episodes.
We entered the archway opening into the courtyard, and this time he pressed me against a pile of planks and broken crates and held me there half sitting, half leaning.
I decided I would not fight him and get it done and over with, but I could not control myself. I was seized with a rage worse than on the previous occasion, and I struggled, if anything, more desperately than the other night. But this time more painfully, because as I tried to wrench myself from his grasp, my bones were knocked about and my flesh was bruised against the jagged, angular pieces of wood on which he forced me to lean.
'The other night,' Louisa had emerged unscathed, with just a small stain on the edge of her new coat. It is different this time, but she does not know that until her arrival at the party shocks the hostess.
She put my coat on a hanger and fell to wringing her hands. "But look at yourself," she cried, still wringing her hands.
There was a mirror nearby. I raised my hand to the nape of my neck, where, I knew from experience, the rot of dishevelment always sets in. I felt a few loose strands of hair and tucked them hastily under my firmly pinned-up plaits.
"But look at yourself," she repeated urgently, impatiently, and as though horror-stricken against all belief."
I looked down at my figure.
My stockings were in holes such as I had never seen before, round holes as large as dessert plates, from which one my knees protruded, indecently naked, and parts of my calves. My other knee, though covered, was streaked with dried blood. There was a tear ripped through one side of my skirt, revealing a triangle of petticoat; a piece of torn hem was flapping beneath it, and, twisting my head over my shoulder, I could perceive the hem undone as far as my eye could follow. Down in front, off center, my petticoat was dipping below my skirt; the shoulder strap on that side must have broken.
I bent over and rubbed some wood shavings off my knees and plucked a few splinters off my skirt. Peering over my other shoulder, I saw patches of greenish slime on the lower part of the skirt; they might have been traces of putrid vegetables.
Once the hostess has stammered through the introductions, Gordon takes a seat and instructs Louisa to sit on the floor at his feet.
Sitting thus close to him, separate from the others, in a position of bondage, dependence. and servitude, I was serene and appeased in my heart, just as my body had become serene and appeased as soon as Gordon had caught up with me at the corner of Frith Street and I had felt his fingers closing over my pulse.
What are we to make of Louisa? Well, that is a question that can't be asked while we're actually reading her story, while she's telling us about herself. There is something unquestionable about her contentment with Gordon that stops moralizing judgments. It's only when we turn to our friends and try to describe the book that we've just put down. Then there are difficulties. We find that we cannot tell Louisa's story at all the way she tells it. Consider, finally, one more passage, relating Louisa's feelings during Gordon's holiday visit to his sisters in Scotland.
During his absence I had not been unhappy. Being invited to other people's houses had given me a feeling of superiority, as I compared their insipidly pleasant state to my own. There was a barrier between them and me, invisible but impassable, like the invisible bars in modern zoos, where the tropical animals are confined within their ground by a space of heated air.
At the same time, I knew that they in turn would have been uncomprehending if they had known that my contentment came from a man who was able to say, "I shall hold you for ever, because I shall always find new ways of torturing you," and that my own particular paradise of the green fitted carpet, the blond machine-carved furniture, and the pressed-glass vases was paradise only because I did not dwell there of my own free will but was held in bondage there.
This is writing that's impossible to paraphrase. Louisa's perverse contentment will remind many, even those who haven't read it, of Pauline Réage's L'Histoire d'O. But as Laurie Stone wrote, reviewing Gordon in the Los Angeles Times (March 16, 2003), "Pauline Reage writes from inside the trance state rather than about it." The sequence of observations at the door to the party shows us what Louisa's passion has reduced her to, so that nothing that she tells us about her feelings can minimize the humiliation to which we've seen her subjected. This is what makes Gordon difficult, if not to read, then to enjoy. But beyond the sexuality, which is almost incomprehensible, I find an aristocratic adamance that is not. Reading the two paragraphs immediately above for indicators of class superiority, I find them bursting, beginning with the explicit one in the first sentence. This is followed by a statement of precisely the kind of contempt with which aristocrats and their romantic successors have always regarded comfort-seeking bourgeois: the latter lead insipidly pleasant lives. The invisible, impassable barrier that separates Louisa from her hosts could as easily be the one of class, and while the image of the zoo rings of unbridled passion, we mustn't forget that it's to tropical animals that aristocrats like to compare themselves - to lions and birds of plumage. The following paragraph will appear more startling here than it does in context, because Gordon's remark about finding ever-new ways of torturing Louisa has been made once before, and in any case it should not obscure what follows, which is Louisa's catalogue of disdain for the mediocrity of Gordon's flat, which she would find totally unbearable if it were not also a prison of sorts. It reminds her of how far she would have fallen were she not a captive; to share possession of these lackluster furnishings as Gordon's wife would be, quite literally, a shame. Louisa sounds like Connie Chatterley's wicked sister.
Gordon is something of an historical novel. Set just after the end of World War II, it makes frequent reference to the rationing that would persist for years in Britain, but also to the jolly release of demobilization. (Like the author, Louisa has served both the Americans and the English forces.) With respect to psychoanalysis, it might strike the careless reader as dated. Louisa knows almost nothing about Gordon's specialty, and indeed there was no reason, in 1946, why anyone of her background necessarily would. The novel follows the course of her 'treatment,' and once Gordon has, to speak plainly, shown her her various hang-ups (which will perhaps be too readily intelligible to today's readers), the relationship seems to lose its raison d'etre for Gordon. Louisa cannot, unfortunately, return the favor - she cannot explain Gordon to himself, and would almost seem to have no interest in doing so, for to help him in any way would be to disparage his mastery. Although the relationship means everything to her, and her life is a blank without it, Louisa makes no attempt to challenge Gordon's dismissal. He's the boss. But he is also, like so many strong men, weaker in the end, and can't, as Louisa does, find a way to survive the end of their relationship. Between the eighteenth and the nineteenth chapters, eight years pass, during which Louisa remarries and Gordon, who also marries, takes his own life.
Perhaps the novel ought to have ended with the affair, but Edith Templeton affixes a little romance. Louisa seeks out Dr Crombie, Gordon's mentor, and undertakes a brief treatment - classically correct, this time - that concludes in a moment of deep romance. It is the happy ending that Louisa and Gordon could never have had. If Ms Templeton's later stories are any indication (and, again, she has insisted that they're barely disguised fact), the ending of Gordon was not, for its author, a lasting one, but it is sweet nonetheless, and, perhaps for the first time, we sense that the narrator knows how to stand up for herself. If she still seeks the father who abandoned her, she can at least find more loving substitutes.
If you are not sure that you're ready for Gordon, read "A Coffeehouse Acquaintance," in Ms Templeton's recent collection of stories, The Darts of Cupid, a lovely book that I shall try to get to anon. (May 2003)
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