9 July 2011

Robert Coover: Spanking the Maid (1982)

Robert Coover's Spanking the Maid seems quite a provocative title and the cover image suggests porn, and it's just a novella with large font size and broad margins, as if designed for people who don't read a great deal. But.

There's a lot of repetition in this, although it's not for nothing. There are just two (unnamed) characters here – the maid and the master – and it's not certain (in spite of the rear cover blurb) if the events in this novella take place in one day or over a large number of days. There are what appear to be many re-takes, as in the making of a movie, when the maid enters the room, but can never get it perfect, so she has to re-try, re-try, and so on: the influence of French literature and cinema, particularly the nouveau roman, is blindingly obvious.

The master is a perfectionist and is never satisfied with the maid's performance, so she's punished for making a mistake, and the master beats her on her (usually naked) 'sit-me-down' with various instruments, such as a birch rod,  a bull's pizzle, his belt, his hands, etc. If this takes place 'each morning', as the rear cover suggests, then how is it that the maid's welts heal up so quickly, how is it that – even if this apparent madman may be paying her well – she still comes back for more extreme violence to her 'sit-me-down', thus risking her health and perhaps even her life? Or is she just a part of the master's dream? What is this relationship in this one-room apartment (or hotel room) that so much resembles Hamm and Clov's interdependent hell in Beckett's Endgame?

There's no obvious mind and body duality in Spanking the Maid as could be said to exist in Endgame, but there is a series of other dualities: master and servant, night and day, light and dark, teacher and student, punishment and reward, life and death, order and chaos, pain and pleasure, etc.

Religion is important, and the maid memorizes hymns such as George Herbert's 'The Elixir' to help her toward her perception of perfection, which her master has 'taught' her, and she not only comes to hope (against hope) for this unrealizable ideal, but seems to see a direct link between God and the master, as the master must clearly do, and he seems to take all his beliefs from an unnamed (and very mysterious) manual, in spite of his apparently half-hearted moral self-questioning.

And what of the odd things the maid finds in the master's bed? Maybe a simple crushed flower, or a bull's pizzle, or a bloody pessary, or a frog, or a fetus?

A tiny book with a mass of unanswered questions. A gem.

My other post on spanking:

Jean-Pierre Enard (Text), Milo Manara (Drawings): L'Art de la fessée | The Art of Spanking

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