A Way with All Maidens by Mel Johnson (Barry Malzberg), Oracle Books, 1969
Fellow Malzberg fan Jim Mix sent me a copy of this lost Malzberg/Johnson classic, A Way with All Maidens, issued by the short-lived imprint, Oracle Books (looks like they only put out eight titles, two of them Malzbergs, the other being The Box).
Maidens is, like many Malzberg novels, a darkly humorous romp through insanity and sexuality, and a bit different than your usual Malzberg yarn. It concerns an acting troupe in England preparing to put on a production of The Tempest, directed by someone name “S—-” who also seems to be the writer. The play is in manuscript form, inked on good paper. We don’t realize until 20-30 pages in that the action is supposed to be taking place in the 17th Century, and that “S—-” may very well be the Bard himself, ol’ Shakespeare, 47 years old. Or is he? And is this really the past? The language is 20th century colloquial, wth the exception of a few “trollops” and “slatterns” tossed into dialogue. But were words like “asshole” and “fuck” used back then? Like the Malzbergian Gerrold Watkins’ Southern Comfort, set during the Civil War, neither the narrator nor the characters speak in historical idiom. So we have to wonder about the validity, and keeping in mind that this is Malzberg, it’s possible the narrator is simply insane:
Pauda? Sorrento? Milan? Or Rome — I think it was Rome. Of course I am not sure of any of these; they may all be mental rather than physical places. (p. 13).
Characteristic of Malzberg’s sex books, this one opens with a sex scene, with an obsessive interest in nipples:
Her breast was enormous in my mouth, the nipples huge and pointed, my teeth chewed down on it, and it was as if, from this angle, I am totally surrounded by her flesh. (p.5)
Of course, it has to open with a sex scene, for a book like this, for reader appeal, since the cover is plain orange without any art or photo models. They did this to make production cheaper, not having to pay for art or photography — with a nod towards Olympia’s plain green, pink, and gray covers. Midwood was doing the same at the time, the late 60s-70s.
Here is a scan of a British pirate edition. Haven’t seen it but heard it was basically a photo copy of the original slapped together in a taped spine.
S— is frustrated because he doesn’t feel the lead actor playing Prospero “gets” the character or play, nor does the cast.
“The truth of the matter […] is that Prospero, while on the island, functions irrationally. On the other hand, his irrationality is so wrapped up in his imagination that one can never be quite so sure that it isn’t the one voice or the other. That is what the play is about. It is a simple morality lesson of the length to which men will go in order to rationalize purposes that are basically unreal. Why is that so difficult to understand?” (p. 23)
Herein lies the genius of this lost novel — Malzberg suggests that Prospero, imprisoned on the island, is quite simply nuts, and characters like Ariel and Calaban are figments of his imagination, a way to color the horror of being shipwrecked and alone. If the narrator is equally as mad, and all this is taking place in his mind, the book functions as a mirror to The Tempest.
In that respect, Maidens operates as earlier critifiction; within the novel lies a critical examination of the play, packaged as a sex book. Malzberg went to Cornell on a playwrighting scholarship, so he had a theater background, giving the backdrop some authenticity.
S—- has the characteristics of many of Malzberg’s bombastic leaders, like The Captain in Beyond Apollo: verbally abusive, egomaniacal, perhaps a little cuckoo himself, for he fires the experienced lead actor and casts David as Prospero — David who is 23 and, if you know the character, too young to play the role. S—-, however, wants to make a point: that one only need know the lines, say the lines, do the blocking, and the meaning of the play will come across, without any need for actor interpretation.
The reader needs to know the play, too, to “get” the conflict going on. Without knowing The Tempest, the literary nuances are lost.
The cast is flabbergasted by this move, and the lead actor outraged and promising revenge. But no one dares to question the great S—- at this point.
The role of Prospero was, invariably, far more difficult than I had taken it to be; it is distinctly ill-written, ill-conceived, and quite dull in many of its meanderings. The villainies he perpetuates upon the sailors are most indefensible, but on the other hand, the weaknesses of S—-‘s dramaturgy have been noted before and cannot be repeated. (p. 73)
We must keep in mind that in the 17th-18th Centuries, Shakespeare’s plays were considered low culture entertainment — postboilers, soap operas, stuff for the masses, not the high culture literary art it is today; this actors and critics alike found much fault in the work (which has evolved over time, giving rise to the actual authorship of the Bard’s body of work).
Meanwhile, as David learns his lines, he has some sexual adventures with a barmaid in the tavern below the lodgings where the acting troupe is staying.
We must have explored that night every conceivable variety of human sexual connections […] We fucked and fucked in my room past all hours […] she felt s proud of what I was doing that she wanted every way to give me a night I would never forget. (pp. 80-81)
We started off with a bit of simple buggery, the question of lubricating her was left for later adventures, my prick sliding up the glazed interior of her ass like a whippet, her little ass revolving and pouting back at me, the only juices being those which my only gland was excreting during the period of excitement. (p. 88)
He also meets up with a high society women who likes to be whipped. David explores a wide array of sexual encounters, from anal sex to masochism.
She rattled the chains she had me fasten across the bed keeping her locked to the mattress as she kicked her feet with frustration. “Now!” she insisted. “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know how to torture a girl?”
So I lifted the whip again, and wincing, brought it down across her body with some sort of simulation of energy, brought it down once or wince hearing the modified crack against her stomach, and she began to sob and mumble incoherently, asking me to get away from her belly, to whip her around her breasts and higher. (p. 57)
This is one of the better Malzberg novels I’ve read in years, either under his name or a pen name, and I find it a shame that it’s (1) rare and hard to find and (2) was unjustly ignored as a work of literary value. Had it been published by a company that wasn’t so short-lived and obscure, maybe it would have found a better audience — even if it had been an Olympia Press title.
A Way with All Maidens is ripe to reprinting, if anyone was smart enough to give it new life.