Edith Templeton: "Every word of it is true."

Edith Templeton

Edith Templeton is a writer who defies categorization. Born in Prague in 1916 and still alive at the age of 90, she has had an adventurous life. Her work is every bit as adventurous. Here is a description by a Los Angeles Times reviewer: "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." Bernie Higgins has become fascinated by Edith Templeton's work and life and tells us more.

"She was born into a very upper-class family. Her grandmother owned a castle in Jirny, which is about 20 minutes from Prague, so she spent the summers of her youth in this castle, and a lot of her work is set in this period. In fact, of all her work she actually said in an interview, 'Every word of it is true, there is not one word of invention in it.' So you can infer a lot from reading her works about her early life."

This sounds like an idyllic and very privileged childhood, but she is most certainly not the kind of writer who is writing with sentimental nostalgia about her childhood, is she?

"I think there is a strangely nostalgic tone about a lot of her work, but she's certainly not sentimental. I think that what is most powerful about her writing is rather a steely, at times brittle, honesty and frankness and acute powers of description."

Here is an extract from a story that comes in a selection of seven stories called "The Darts of Cupid". This is from the beginning of the story called "Equality Cake"

In the kitchen of my grandmother's castle in Bohemia there were two implements for the removal of cherry stones. They were wire loops mounted on stems of white unpolished wood, and every time the cook got ready to prepare the cherries for equality cake, she took them both out of a nest of drawers and laid them on the table. Then, with the superb calmness of the habitual evildoer, she pulled a hairpin from the coil of hair that crowned her head like an outsize snail shell carved of ebony and used it for digging the stones out of the fruit. When this task was done, she wiped the pin across the front of her apron, restored it to its place, and returned the cherry stoners where they belonged, as their deceitful presence was no longer needed. I never remarked on this ritual, but because I was a constant visitor in the kitchen, it was inevitable that, for me, equality cake stood for deceit.

"This is a fascinating story because it plays with the name of the cake - equality cake - and then in the second half of the story she returns to the castle as an adult during the communist period, so all the notions of revolution and equality take on a very different meaning."

Another thing that we should say at this stage is that this is not a translation. Edith Templeton does write in English. How is it that she came to write in English?

"She left the country and married an Englishman. In the 30s she worked in London. She worked first in the office of the US Army chief surgeon and then she became a captain of the British Army, working as an interpreter. Later on she moved to India, because her second husband was a doctor. In fact he was physician to the King of Nepal. So she lived in many different countries - later on Portugal and now she's living on the Italian Riviera, so she's a very, very cosmopolitan writer.

"She started her writing in English in the 1950s. Her first novel was called 'Summer in the Country' and she started submitting short stories to the New Yorker in the 1950s and having them published there."

That must have given her a very high profile in the United States and in the English-speaking world in general at the time.

"Yes - certainly very prestigious. Perhaps the most controversial was the actual story 'The Darts of Cupid'. When it was published in 1966 in the New Yorker, it was the most scandalous they had ever published. Scandal is associated with Edith Templeton, because she wrote a book called 'Gordon', which was published pseudonymously in 1966 and was apparently banned in both England and Germany because of its obscenity. It's surprising that this very upper-crust Czech aristocrat ended up being a writer of sado-masochistic work. This novel was reissued under her own name only in 2003, so since then there has been more interest in her work. In fact 'Gordon' has been translated into Czech."

Here is the opening of the novel. You can understand the quality of the prose and how she engages you in her story.

At a quarter to six in the afternoon on a sunny day in June, I was sitting near the bar counter at Shepherds watching a man above the rim of my glass. I was certain he was going to try to pick me up. I was less certain what I was going to do about it. In looks he reminded me of Major Carter who, a few weeks ago, had embraced me while taking me home in a staff car from a regimental dance and who, upon being repulsed, had apologised: "I can't think what came over me. And you such a nice girl, too."

Perhaps it was his disappointment at my being "such a nice girl" which had driven him to get drunk later on that night; or perhaps he had been drunk already in the car. I had lost sight of him as soon as we had entered the vast lounge of the hotel which was our mess. But half an hour later, while sitting and talking with several of my friends, I was astonished by Major Carter's appearance on the gallery which circled the lounge. He was naked except for his underpants. Clutching the edge of the balustrade, he shouted: "I want a woman. I must have a woman."

"It's a fabulous opening, I think, to this book, and in fact she is picked up in this very pub by Gordon, who is a psychoanalyst. She begins a very terrible relationship with him, which eventually he, the sadist, cannot endure any longer, and he commits suicide. The quality of the prose is fantastic, even at the moments that are most shocking. Here is a paragraph that gives you an example. As their relationship progresses, he is driven to seek further means of humiliation of her, which she accepts quite willingly, and he takes her into a filthy courtyard in Soho to have sex with her.

It was a most unsavoury place, as far as one could see by the spare light which penetrated from the lamps on the street beyond; two or three windows in the upper floors showed their oblongs of dull gold, secretive and self-contained behind curtains.

The aged, obscene body of the building was bursting open with sores and splitting with wounds. Dustbins welling over with the pus of garbage, heaps of rubble and planks like smashed bones and broken teeth, crates oozing tumbled junk were ranged against the walls where the plaster, patchy and peeling like eczematous skin, revealed the crumbling brickwork. The ground was slippery and slimy, as though it had been excreting its own filth.

"It's very powerful, but ultimately I found the short story collection much more rewarding, because there is something rather monotonous about repeating acts in an abusive relationship."

You were saying when we were talking earlier about Edith Templeton's writing, that it's a strange mixture of great frankness and passion but lack of emotion.

"Absolutely. There is a strange sense of absolute lack of emotion and this almost seems to be what she is seeking, because the man, Gordon, who picks her up in the pub, within an hour he's having sex with her on a bench before they even known one another's names. She describes this as: 'I was nothing at all, I had not been given the choice to be either.' It's this emotional black hole which I sometimes feel in reading, particularly Gordon. And she seems to be giving you a very full, honest portrayal, but of the emotional lives of the people she gives nothing really."

Given that Edith Templeton has spent most of her life outside Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic and writes in English, would you see her today as a Czech writer?

"She's very hard to pigeonhole in many ways. She's very cosmopolitan. Many of her themes are set in the Czech Republic. I think that there's a sense of dislocation and existential honesty which for me has a very Czech resonance. She writes English beautifully, but there is something un-English about it. I think there's a sense of exile in her work, or loneliness."

Here is the end of the story 'Equality Cake', which describes her departure from the castle after she has been shown around it by the caretaker.

Halfway down the drive, I turned and looked back, but it was stupid of me. I should have known that from there one could not see the castle anymore.

I walked back to the village, to the inn, where the innkeeper told me that the bus would arrive in an hour's time. I asked for coffee and sat down on a bench close to the windows. There was a table of young men and a table of old men. They were all drinking beer, and the wireless was playing - a chorus singing Bohemian nursery songs that I knew by heart. The old men were discussing a tramway disaster in Prague, and they cursed the government for being too stingy to keep the tracks in good repair. The young men talked about motorcycles, and then they went outdoors and stood about looking at each other's motorcycles. Then the innkeeper brought me a tumbler full of water to put my lilies of the valley in. But he did not ask me where I got them, or who I was, or what I was doing there.

"For me this expresses the isolation and the sense of exile, and maybe even homelessness, that I feel in Edith Templeton. This reissue of 'Gordon' and the publication of 'The Darts of Cupid' have resurrected an interest in her, and I think it is high time that her work was taken more seriously."