In my last post, I wrote on a story by Turgenev called “First Love,” in which an adolescent has his heart broken for the first time when he realizes that his own first serious crush is his father’s dalliance, if not his father’s actual “light-o’-love.” And I commented that this story was one which was being told (read, rather, since its teller insisted on making it a literary artifact for his audience) to an story’s internal audience of men, likely over port and cigars after dinner.
Another popular topic which surfaces now and again is the “first seduction” tale, and though I would like to be able to report that I had read an equal number of wise and worldly women tell such tales along with the number of tales I’ve read over the years in which men tell each other about youth’s first moments of sexual awakening, it just ain’t so. Maybe women need to start writing them. In any case, I’ve just found another example of the genre with an interesting twist, written by V. S. Pritchett, and published in his volume Selected Stories. It’s perhaps a bit dated, but none of Pritchett’s humor is lost as he traces the young man’s initial unknowingness, then clumsiness with his first opportunity, then final triumph over his partner’s assumption of superior knowingness.
The story is called “The Diver,” and I should tell my own audience right now that the term “diver” is used as a double entendre for the young man’s male organ by the experienced woman who takes it upon herself to educate him sexually. But this does not happen before the whole setting is established by a series of minor incidents and misfortunes which cause her to take pity on him and take him as her lover. Here’s how it goes: first of all, the young virgin male is an Englishman in Paris, where his fresh-cheeked English innocence is made fun of by all the other young men he works with, who all have (or say they have) mistresses, while he not only has none, but brags that he has none. The adult narrator of this story says he was a “fool” to tell the others this, but the youth at the time doesn’t at first realize how much teasing it will lead to.
Even his superior at the leather warehouse where he works, a M. Claudel, has a woman who stops by to see him, a Mme. Chamson, who likes to tell dirty jokes to all the office boys in a group, but who takes exception to the young man at the center of the tale (an aspiring writer) if he tries to laugh along with the rest of the group. He doesn’t really “fancy” her, and thinks she looks like some “predatory bird,” with her badly dyed hair and extravagantly arched eyebrows, some Parisian harridan of the streets. Despite the fact that she is married to an attendant at the Louvre, she seems to have some understanding with Claudel. But the young man’s luck is due to change. One day, when a barge is unusually sent with the consignment of skins to the leather warehouse, it is accidentally rammed and sunk by a Dutch boat right in the harbor, and the young writer is asked to accompany Claudel to the harbor to watch and see how many of the skins can be salvaged by a diver, who is the hero of the day to the admiring youth. In a strange accident, the youth gets knocked into the water, and comes up with a chill which even several glasses of rum at the local bar cannot dispel.
At this point, Mme. Chamson comes along and convinces him to come along with her to her shop, where she first coaxes him, then intimidates him out of some of his clothes to get warm and dry, then finally (as he proves resistant to removing his pants) starts to undress him herself. This often-used device of literary seductions of having someone be too wet to stay in their own clothes and having to change them in the surroundings which include an attractive or at least available member of the opposite sex, however, does not follow its well-worn pattern in Pritchett’s tale, for Pritchett quotes frank chapter and verse for what elsewhere is left undeclared or neglected or unarticulated. In his tale, the young man becomes inconvenienced in the extreme by his reaction to the woman trying to undress him. “She stood back, blank-faced and peremptory in her stare. It was the blankness of her face, her indifference to me, her ordinary womanliness, the touch of her practical fingers that left me without defence. She was not the ribald, coquettish, dangerous woman who came wagging her hips to our office, not one of my Paris fantasies of sex and danger. She was simply a woman. The realization of this was disastrous to me. An unbelievable change was throbbing in my body. It was uncontrollable. My eyes angrily, helplessly, asked her to go away. She stood there implacably. I half-turned, bending to conceal my enormity as I lowered my trousers, but as I lowered them inch by inch so the throbbing manifestation increased. I got my foot out of one leg but my shoe caught in the other. On one leg I tried to dance my other trouser leg off. The towel slipped and I glanced at her in red-faced angry appeal. My trouble was only too clear. I was stiff with terror. I was almost in tears.”
Mme. Chamson becomes angry with him at first, and says she is “not one of your tarts,” and asks “What would your parents say? If my husband were here!” Then, when he starts to sneeze with the cold he is per her previous supposition catching, she takes a look at his “inconvenience” and is caustic: “‘In any case…’ as she nodded at my now concealing towel–‘that is nothing to boast about.'” She finds him partial clothes then leaves the room and doesn’t come back. After a bit, she calls to him in a harsh tone of voice to come and get his things, and when he goes into the back room, she is lying on a bed without “a stitch of clothing” on! “The sight of her transfixed me. It did not stir me. I simply stood there gaping. My heart seemed to have stopped. I wanted to rush from the room, but I could not. She was so very near. My horror must have been on my face but she seemed not to notice that, she simply stared at me. There was a small movement of her lips and I dreaded that she was going to laugh; but she did not; slowly she closed her lips and said at last between her teeth in a voice low and mocking, ‘Is this the first time you have seen a woman?'” The narrator has already told us in an earlier paragraph that it is the first time he has seen a naked woman, but at this point the young man obviously becomes a bit irritable with the woman having so much control of the scene, and he denies it and lets his writer’s imagination take over: he thinks idly of the earlier talk of the morgue in the bar and tells her that he previously saw a dead woman in London.
This properly frightens Mme. Chamson, and she pulls the coverlet up across herself and the writer continues to spin out details from his imaginary view of a dead woman in London, whom he says was (like Mme. Chamson herself) a shopkeeper. He even invents a “laundry man” killer who was “carrying on” with the woman, and when she says, “‘But how did you see her like this?'” he keeps on going and says that his mother had been very insistent about his paying the bill and that he had been up to the woman’s apartment before because they knew her. She asks him if the tale is true, and how old he was, and we are told “I hadn’t thought of that but I quickly decided. ‘Twelve,’ I said.” He continues the tale by explaining that they called the police and so on and so forth, but all this only causes Mme. Chamson to feel sympathy for him, and pulls him to her, and when the obvious happens, she says, “‘The diver’s come up again. Forget. Forget.'” In their passion, she even says “‘Kill me. Kill me,'” though now of course she’s thinking of “la morte douce” and not actual death.
As he leaves, she advises him about his suits and his job, and by implication approves of his plan to be a writer. She also introduces him to her husband, who has been fishing after his busy day but has just come home. And she asks him, finally, to return the suit she has lent him the next day, raising the suspicion in at least this reader’s mind that she means to continue the liaison. The narrator recounts “Everything was changed for me after this. At the office I was a hero.” Ostensibly, this is because Mme. Chamson has told the others that he saw a murder, but the last paragraph shows that at least one of the people he works with may have a clue as to the more complete state of affairs: “‘You know what she said just now,’ said Claudel to me, looking very shrewd: She said “I am afraid of that young Englishman. Have you seen his hands?”‘”
It is of course not the young Englishman’s hands, or even any other bodily manifestation, which is the real “hero” of the story, but his imagination, which in the vibrant air of Paris has had many a tale start to develop only to die out when he tried to write them in English. Now, it is clear, however, he has rhetorically triumphed over someone more experienced by telling a tale which, whether true or not, was just the kind of thing she was waiting to hear. This shows that he judged his audience correctly, a main concern for a writer whether of a speech or a tale or a novel. And if he only sees it, of course, it may equally be partly the imaginations of the other young men which have guided their “tales” of seduction in front of him, so that he is now freed from the barrier of silence which previously held him back. Not that he would tell them about Mme. Chamson; one feels he will not. Nevertheless, he is now a person whom people can talk about rather than just a cipher with no particular meaning, and he can embroider all he likes in his stories, which as we have seen by his on the spur of the moment improvisation are at least convincing.
It is likewise V. S. Pritchett’s sure touch with his own story, the humor of the embarrassing moments in the young man’s life which delights and charms us, as he proves without doubt that a writer can portray another writer in contact with what could be a seamier side of life and yet “dive” to “surface” with something well worth preserving, a fine comic masterpiece.