Impressionistic perceptions -- what they make of a world that constantly impinges on their apprehensions of their own moods and wishes -- are the key to their narratives, much more than characters or plot lines; one senses a memoirist's self-reflecting impulse rather than a novelist's colonizing approach to the material at hand.
And the only reliable verities in the limited but compelling universes that come under their scrutiny are that men will be untrustworthy, passion will be unrequited and life will always let you down. Edith Templeton, who is 85, comes late to this group. She has been writing for decades, having published stories in The New Yorker since the 's, as well as several novels and a travel book.
Yet she is sufficiently unknown to qualify as a discovery for all but a few readers. But Templeton's fiction resists pigeonholing, in large part because of an emotional undertow -- a subtle, almost subliminal engagement with a kind of sexual longing that hinges on a perceived discrepancy in power -- which pulls it in a different, more audacious direction. The version of erotic attraction that afflicts Templeton's protagonists all of whom seem to be closely modeled on the author has little to do with ordinary affection or socially accepted codes of behavior. It is about the desire that dare not speak its name, at least not in polite print -- the unladylike desire to be treated as anything but a lady by a man who is clearly not a gentleman.
The klutzy, clinical term for it, I suppose, would be sadomasochism. What this form of heterosexual bonding addresses head on that more genteel variations on the theme do not is, among other things, the inherently illogical nature of sexual desire. It acknowledges the core disconnection between love and lust that Freud kept stubbing his toe on. Although this is a quandary that women have to deal with every bit as much as men, its treatment in explicit but nonpornographic fiction has been almost exclusively the province of male writers like Henry Miller, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth.
Serious female writers have tended to slight the darker side of the paradox of desire as a suitable subject for exploration. This collective avoidance comes about, I think, because women writers feel under greater pressure to bring the vagaries of the heart into alignment with the dictates of the mind, as befits the kinder, gentler or, at any rate, more domesticated sex.
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Which leaves the field to a select few who, like Pauline Reage and Anne Rice, tend to overplay the gothic elements and underplay the psychological tensions. For this reason alone Templeton's writing would be worth looking at, but happily for the reader there are other reasons as well.
Set against the wartime backdrop of the fictional English town of Bathdale, in the American branch of the office of the chief surgeon Templeton herself worked in very similar circumstances , this tale of a severed romance is narrated in a brittle, no-nonsense fashion by Eve, a recently separated woman in her 20's who has already breezed through two affairs.
A snobby, even brutal class consciousness much like that of Ivy Compton-Burnett informs Templeton's sensibility, dividing the world into inexorable pairings of the empowered -- those who come from ''a ruling-class background'' and are ''genuinely well bred'' -- and the powerless ''underlings,'' who are ''common as dirt. View all New York Times newsletters.
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The two-night love affair between Eve and a man known only as the Major that is at the heart of the story is as far from ''good, clean English fun'' as one can get. The couple trade in a kind of repartee -- You are so exquisitely made,'' the Major tells her right after they have a tumble, ''I could break every bone in your body'' -- that seems to be a code for his menacingly amorous intentions and her show of indignant resistance '' 'Go to hell,' I said''.
Theirs is a romance of prey and predator -- the narrator compares her lover to ''a keeper in the zoo'' -- and Templeton is untimorous about the sexual dynamics behind this sort of interaction: ''He turned me on my flank and pulled my nightgown up under my armpits. He placed my head against his chest and slid his arms about me and entwined his legs in a bewildering, complicated grip with mine, till my body was entirely enwrapped and enclosed and imprisoned in his.
I gave a sigh of contentment and fell asleep. Several of the stories are set in the early 30's, in the upper-crust Prague of Templeton's youth. Here the flimsy veil of fiction is dispensed with entirely: the narrator is called Edith and the tone is clearly autobiographical.
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The atmosphere is Chekhovian with an edge, allowing for a cleareyed view of the decadent currents that run under the grand, well-mannered surfaces, where villas have both ''good'' and ''everyday'' dining rooms. Edith's disdainful and easily irritated mother, whose voice is ''bleached with boredom,'' has been ''twice divorced before the age of The heroine is employed in a medical office of the U. Army in London and has a one-night sexual encounter with a married major, without further consequence. Though the story's gossiping women respond with giggles to teasing at the hands of male superior officers, they slyly "reveled in the knowledge that it is embarrassing for a man to be the head of a female staff.
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