Walpurgisnacht

I wasn’t going to write about Spanking the Maid after I read it, but then I thought, “this isn’t a family blog!” and plus I really liked it. I don’t think it’s just some kind of grotesque curiosity. Well, perhaps I do, but I’m not sure that’s anything at all bad.

The first comparison that might come to mind is to Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style: the same scene replays over and over, of the maid entering the master’s room, attempting to clean it properly, failing, and being punished. The master wakes up, gets out of bed, gets into the shower, punishes her. But the execution is different; subtle variations in action are constantly interrupted by metanarrative, and a progression of sorts is made. Like so:

She enters, deliberately, gravely, without affectation, circumspect in her motions (as she’s been taught), not stamping too loud, nor dragging her legs after her, but advancing sedately, discreetly, glancing briefly at the empty rumpled bed, the cast-off nightclothes. She hesitates. No. Again. She enters. Deliberately and gravely, without affectation, not stamping too loud, nor dragging her legs after her, not marching as if leading a dance, nor keeping time with her head and hands, nor staring or turning her head either one way or the other, but advancing sedately and discreetly through the door, across the polished floor, past the empty rumpled bed and cast-off nightclothes (not glancing, that’s better), to the tall curtains along the far wall.

Actions are repeated with variations; words are repeated with variations; punishments are repeated with variations; the master’s and maid’s roles are repeated with variations. Until they start to wonder—is she testing me? Why does it have to be this hard? Locked into this constant repetition…and what’s really impressive is the execution.

Roy C. Caldwell has written an excellent paper on the book, “For an American nouveau roman: Reading Coover’s Spanking the Maid.” He puts my instinctive feelings about the text into words:

Nowhere is this more evident than in the last section of the novel. Instead of closure, Spanking the Maid concludes with a grand ouverture, an explosion of language, a spectacular feu/jeu d’artifice of new combinations of signs previously introduced in the text.

Barthes claims that repetition itself engenders pleasure (jouissance), that we can experience a kind of erotic pleasure from the word itself—from the word repeated excessively, or from the unexpected or novel word. Both conditions of pleasure are present here. …[W]ord-play—an operation which had been restricted to the series used by the master to describe his dream—is now unleashed and runs rampant through the entire field of the text. …The conclusion of the novel represents a kind of Walpurgisnacht, where words dance wildly and couple freely. The novel closes with an orgy, but its orgy is entirely textual.

Walpurgisnacht should give release, shouldn’t it? And I suppose it does here, but there’s still a tension at the end. The master is falling into “a bottomless hole,” but “perhaps today then…at last” he can stop, and he does, because the book stops. But for the reader who also sees himself locked into an endless repetition, there is no similar way out. Get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast…

Notwithstanding that somewhat disturbing thought, I also want to emphasize that what I really like here is this is a pretty successfully experimental work. The text is definitely nontraditional, but completely accessible, and I think really draws a reaction from the reader. And yeah, it’s not a grotesque curiosity, even though Coover incorporates the grotesque into everything. Nope, there was a lot more there there than I expected there to be.

6 comments to Walpurgisnacht

  • jesse wiedinmyer

    Have you read “The Babysitter”?

  • I think this sounds very interesting – I liked Exercises du style and can see that a similar methodology might play out intriguingly in an erotic scenario.

  • nicole

    Jesse—No, not yet, but it came up in that article I read and I need to get my hands on it. Vacation kind of interrupted things.

    litlove—Yeah, it’s sort of weird and interesting like that. I mean, because of the nature of sex and stuff too. Especially in an “alternative” style like this. Well, you can imagine.

  • jesse wiedinmyer

    I’ve not read Spanking the Maid, but in structure in sounds very similar to “The Babysitter”. It’s a story that functions as a sort of literary cubism. Through repetition and variation, Coover explores multiple possible narrative arcs. Rather than being presented with a single, linear plot, one is given the same situation from multiple possible perspectives and outcomes. I’m not sure that I’d call it an enjoyable story, but it’s a fascinating piece, especially as it conflates the sexual fantasy with our ability to construct narrative. Our fantasy, is in some sense, a form of storytelling, which in turn, structures our reality.

  • Reading this made me think of The Babysitter right away, so I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts when you get a chance to read it and compare the two. I’ll have a look for Spanking the Maid and then look for The Babysitter for a reread…do you know if the two works are contemperaneous (is that a word or I am a bit too tired?)

  • nicole

    Oh boy guys, my laziness is really awful. I have “The Babysitter,” in Pricksongs and Descants (which I’ve obviously not read in its entirety). Bad, bad. So, I’m not positive on when it was first published, as some of those stories appeared before the book, but the book was published in 1969, and Spanking the Maid in 1982. So, not really contemporaneous—I’ll have to see how that factors in.

    Also, one of the things mentioned in the Caldwell essay is that the babysitter fantasy might be largely inaccessible to women, whereas the maid one is accessible to both genders but certainly not to all people.

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