It encourages an author to whip himself and his characters women, usually into an erotic lather while punishing the reader with ingenious inquiries into the soul of man. Some women, among other sensitive readers, distrust this literary practice. Other readers, women and men, hear in the literature of sadism not so much the shrieks of horror as a celebration of nihilism, which can intermittently transform itself into a ritual of transcendence.
Assaults or celebrations, however one re them, ''Spanking the Maid'' by Robert Coover and ''Virginie'' by John Hawkes are extensions of the canon of sadism.
The famous Marquis's perversion was to publish his perversion. More civilized, Coover and Hawkes have nevertheless established themselves over the years as major threats to our peace of mind. In more than half a dozen novels, from ''The Cannibal'' to ''The Passion Artist,'' John Hawkes has acquired a reputation as a connoisseur of nightmare.
Robert Coover, a connoisseur of chaos, is perhaps best known for ''The Public Burning,'' a novel about the surreal execution of the ''atom spies,'' Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the rape of Vice President Richard M. Nixon by a monster spanking Uncle Sam. The title says that it is, but that has to be a printer's error. A novel, as has been observed, is a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it, and this narrative by Coover is not only exceedingly brief but very nearly flawless. The text consists of the permutations of a single event, a spanking: variations by Coover on a theme set by an anonymous pornographer.
This strategy of literature is one Coover has used before - in his justly celebrated ''The Babysitter,'' for example, a story about as long as the present ''novel. A bedroom and a bathroom. That's the setting. That's all there is.
Enter the maid. She has no name. The master is still in bed. He has no name. She has made a mistake.
She has forgotten to bring her mop. She must be punished. What, again? Yes, indeed, every few s. To err is human, to spank divine.
This is an issue much vexed in his thoughts. Whether he's abed, on his feet, dreaming or awake, at the window, in the shower, he knows that his maid will fail to be perfect in the performance of her duties. His duty whether he enjoys it or not will be to administer correction to the ''seat chosen by Mother Nature for such interventions. Can this be any good? It can, it is. From the start, Coover engages the important questions. To begin with, whose obsession is this?
Composing and recomposing the entrance of the maid, imagining and reimagining the master's rage, writing and rewriting this dismal spanking, he gives us more than two obsessed figures.
He gives us the voice of an imagined author, an author obsessed. Obsessed by what? His enslavement to art? The injustice of it all? The exhaustion of love? The malevolence of nature, the imperfectibility of man? The biblical contract between God and man?
The traditional relation of man to wife? The expense of spirit in a waste of caning? All of the above, and more, much more.
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Consider the unpredictable bed, for example, the one the maid must make and remake. She keeps on finding ''things that oughtn't to be there, like old razor blades, broken bottles, banana skins, bloody pessaries, crumbs and ants, leather thongs, mirrors, empty books, old toys, dark stains.
Once, even, a frog jumped out at her. THIS is a very funny book, a tragicomedy. Still, it will not escape the observation of the dullest critic that a little book about a man who spanks his maid odd s in very large type, with huge margins - in its format not unlike those little books for sale in ''adult'' bookstores may be construed as belletristic masturbation.
Because spanking is always more interesting when it's a part of real life
So much for dullness. If technique is discovery, Coover is on a treasure hunt. To explore in depth the implications of the sadistic experience, do we really need, he seems to be asking, more than a single episode in the repertory of sadism? And a faintly comical one, to boot. He tackles this preposterous pornography with the seriousness of art. He courts danger by including passages of witless prose lifted from subliterary sources. Please, sir! Whereupon the maid, afraid that she is about to lose the very meaning of her existence, vainly endeavors to arouse him to rage.
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In the circumstances, a reviewer should think twice before claiming even minor imperfections in ''Spanking the Maid. Unlike Coover's short, perfect work, John Hawkes's ''Virginie'' is a novel. Not only is the narrative developed at greater length, in conception and execution it has a certain grandeur and an impressive flaw. Two hundred fifteen s may suggest a modest, middle-sized book.
But the text has been printed in a tiny typeface. The resulting flaw is forgivable. So many ''sources and influences'' have been assembled here like pearls on a narrative string that even as the author strains to close the clasp, his necklace comes apart. But it would be swinish to complain.
Growing up in a culture of spanking
The author tells us in a prefatory note that the book was ''conceived in a reverie about de Sade. No great ingenuity is required to understand that the book that follows is itself a kind of love letter addressed to admirers of Hawkes's own, often sinister work.
Subtitled ''Her Two Lives,'' the book has two plots. In the first chapter the time isthe place France and the heroine an year-old girl named Virginie. The personification of erotic innocence, she's the reincarnation of another year-old named Virginie whom we meet in chapter two, also in France, but in The modern Virginie, as the novel begins, is about to be burned to a crisp.
Nevertheless, before she is quite burned up, she manages to tell us how her older brother in assembled a troupe of libidinous women and men. These free spirits, 10 in all, engage in a variety of sexual shenanigans.
In keeping with the spirit of the age, the erotic episodes in 20th-century France are sensual, tawdry and egalitarian. Also, often plain silly. Some of his material has been adapted, Hawkes notes, from that marvelously silly writer, Georges Bataille. More central to the book, and far more fascinating, is the 18thcentury plot.
The earlier Virginie tells the story of a nobleman named only Seigneur, whose vocation it is to create ''Noblesse'' specifically, erotic nobility in female volunteers of a lower class. A creative artist, he shapes and refines women, esthetically, spiritually and sexually, for the requirements of aristocratic patrons. Five at a time, these upwardly mobile women are sequestered in Seigneur's castle until they have completed his course in post-Renaissance love.
An arduous course: Each one, by the time she graduates to Noblesse, will have ''known the fire, taken up the bees in her bare hands, watched the agony of animals for her sense of pride, aroused even the sacred father in his confessional,'' and so on. Now this is the stuff of fable and spanking, whereas in the modern period the amorous details concerning corsets and toilets, G-strings and tattoos are apt to come from such lowly mimetic forms as the ribald tale and the long filthy joke.
Through all of this, Hawkes remains an elegant parodist of porn. In both plots, the eroticism is choreographed. Passion is rhetorical. Sexuality is emblematic of spiritual virtue. Lust is satisfied in a Gallic never-never land. John Hawkes may yet become a French novelist. This metamorphosis has been going on apace, partly a matter of style, partly a matter of the products of his imagination.
One thinks - too automatically - no good can come of this. But in what way can it do him harm? A taste for Hawkes, among his American readers anyhow, is probably an acquired taste, like the taste for certain dubious molds in French cheeses that burst and seethe against an educated palate with a pleasure spanking and inimitable. All sorts of rich effects emerge in passages such as this one about a woman, a man and a rooster: ''She tossed in unintended circles, lunging now up, now down, while on the stones at her feet the poor black handsome cock marked time to the radio and the united pair by flapping as best he could, I saw, his clipped wings.
Of course not. What will matter, however, is the entrenched view, opposed to my own, that works such as these, which perpetuate the literature of sadism, are at best misguided, at literature contemptible.