Gordon, by Edith Templeton. Pantheon. 240 pages. $22.
It is both a jolt and a reprieve to read the 1960s erotic novel Gordon and leave behind the wisecracking lonely women of so-called chick lit, with their oh-so-normal weirdnesses and cute neuroses, for the sterner depravities of Edith Templeton's characters.
The girls of the guides and diaries put up a fair show of worldly ways, but in the end their cynical shells tend to crack and reveal a marshmallow core. They're lambs in wolves' clothing compared to Templeton's hungry souls.
Gordon was first published under a pseudonym in England and Germany in 1966 but was banned in both countries for indecency. For some years, it circulated in underground editions as The Demon's Feast. Only now, with its Prague-born author approaching 90, is it appearing under her real name from a major publisher.
Gordon offers the same crisp but nuanced prose, urbane atmosphere and incisive social anatomizing as the short stories collected in Templeton's The Darts of Cupid (2002). Amid this rare air, it sets loose the passions of two Londoners adrift in the wake of World War II.
Richard Gordon is a Scottish psychoanalyst, Louisa the young divorcee he takes by the wrist one afternoon in a bar: "I could feel the pressure of his hard thumb against my pulse," she says; "dazed and bewildered over my inexplicable obedience," she offers little resistance. From this moment, her enslavement to Gordon's exacting will becomes an unlikely form of liberation. This is particularly true of their sex, which is brutal, impersonal and untinged by affection:
"It was like the commonplace experience of taking off in a plane in bad weather, flying first into a sheet of thick clouds and then rising still higher into the clear sky and brilliant sunshine. When he possessed me so fiercely that he drove me to the brink of darkness, he gave me the ecstasy of knowing that I had reached the one thing, the only thing, I had ever wanted."
Louisa's self-discovery in subjugation owes its much of its considerable poignancy to exquisite writing like this, able to pinpoint overwhelming, alien feelings. Templeton's pen is a scalpel that she wields surgically and at times like a weapon.
Through it all, Gordon submits Louisa to a version of Freud's talking cure. The family and sexual histories that this uncovers lend some illumination to the implicit question raised by the book: Why does Louisa experience Gordon's severe domination as true love? And why does Gordon? It has something to do with Electra and Oedipus, but the book is too shrewd to offer pat answers.
Near the end of the relationship, as the violence builds to a crescendo, Louisa concludes, "I was the only woman for him, made to measure." So is this love? The troubling question is not asked nor answered. But Templeton's determined, artful dissection of the entanglement, and the string of surprises that end the novel, suggest that she finds it not only possible, but possibly transcendent. Her persuasiveness is what makes the book finally a fascinating but grim affair.
Laura Demanski is completing a dissertation at the University of Chicago about representations of the London poor in the writing of Henry James, Arthur Morrison and other late 19th-century novelists. She previously worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.