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Desire and disgust: a woman's sexual saga

Gordon: A Novel, Edith Templeton, Pantheon: 226 pp., $22

March 16, 2003|Laurie Stone | Laurie Stone is the author of "Laughing in the Dark" and "Close to the Bone."

By 1968, when Edith Templeton published her short story "The Darts of Cupid" in the New Yorker, she had honed a narrative voice that couldn't be shocked. It was dry, direct, unsqueamish. That story became the title piece of a collection of Templeton's short fiction, which was published last year and relaunched the career of its author, a woman who, at 86, has been around the block a few times. Born in Prague, Czech Republic, in 1916, she summered in her grandmother's Bohemian castle, married an Englishman in the 1930s, divorced him and worked for the chief surgeon in the U.S. Army in Britain, became a captain in the British Army as an interpreter, married a British cardiologist who was physician to the King of Nepal, settled in the Italian coastal town of Bordighera and, through it all, savored sex with domineering men. The defining points of her personal life figure in her fiction, which she has stated is virtually autobiography.

To hear Templeton's voice is to realize how rare it is and how valuable. Compared to the assured, swaggering male sexual memoir, the female sexual story is just learning to walk, and for the most part it has ventured forth with decided leanings. Jean Rhys and Marguerite Duras list toward entrapment and melancholy. Anais Nin withholds candor. Pauline Reage writes from inside the trance state rather than about it. More recently, in "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," memoirist Catherine Millet prettifies her appetite for debasement as a form of sacrifice and spiritual longing. Performance artists Holly Hughes and Karen Finley celebrate female parts and practices to defy their being veiled. Templeton has no political, moral or clinical agenda, no grievances, no record to set straight. She stands so squarely in the light, she doesn't cast any sort of shadow, and this allows the reader freedom to enter her world, a realm where precise description is everything, where we understand the way her speakers feel from the way they see things.

Templeton is at her most seductive in "The Darts of Cupid," based upon the author's experiences during the war, in which narrator Eve, who is 24 and married -- though "not fearfully, not frightfully" -- becomes the exultant prey of an American doctor known as the Major. He works her like a yo-yo, whipping her toward him with witty, suggestive banter and dangling her heedlessly in his pursuit of other women. With a wife back home and a pregnant upper-class lover in England, he adds Eve to his collection, and the night he does, she spends much of the time puking from the alcohol he's plied her with.

The scene is a stunning example of Templeton's seamless mixing, in all her tales, of desire and disgust. Nastiness and neediness aren't sequestered away from the nice people but are right in the room where they're having tea. Imagine Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence sharing an engrossed conversation about social snobbery and the wolfish pursuit of obsessive sex and you have something of Templeton's atmosphere. The Major's brand of sweet nothings is to tell Eve that her bones are so delicate he could break them. In bed, he pins and envelopes her body, making her feel "shame," "indignation" and "gratitude." Psychological insight is included in Templeton's comedy of manners and also deepens it.

"The Darts of Cupid and Other Stories" earned a nomination for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and now Pantheon is reissuing Templeton's novel "Gordon," first published in Britain in 1966 under the pseudonym Louise Walbrook. The book was banned in England and Germany for indecency, but two years later Maurice Girodias, the original publisher of "Story of O" and "Lolita," put out an edition in his New York-based smut fancier's line, the Traveller's Companion Series. The novel chronicles a nine-month sadomasochistic affair the author had in London with a Scottish psychiatrist she calls Richard Gordon; it was, she told an interviewer, "the fundamental event" of her life.

The novel's narrator, called Louisa, is 28 and living in a bedsitter when Gordon picks her up in a pub, whisks her to a decrepit garden and, within an hour of their meeting, forces himself upon her without saying a word. She likes it and she doesn't like it, and it's that mixture of emotions and her curiosity, as well, about the lengths to which she is capable of going that keep her hooked. The book's power -- and it is considerable -- comes from the dispassion of Louisa's account. She doesn't ask the reader to fall in love with her demon, and it may be part of her rebellion against him that she lets us see his smallness. He's skinny. He rages against women and fears their rejection. He takes forever to reach orgasm and can have sex only when she's laid out on her back, unmoving. As he grows assured of her surrender, his tests pick up momentum. After one attack, he takes her to a party with her body bruised and her clothes shredded and commands her to sit by his feet.

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