Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa

Last week’s Left of Cool piece focused on this strange, clever book by Edward Gorey (who can usually be counted on for strangeness and cleverness). At the paper’s website here, or in unedited form below:




Some people believe that the real purpose of a book or a film is simply to tell a story well, with things like style being secondary concerns. These people must find pornography very frustrating indeed. Regardless of any aesthetic merits that porn might have (and we could argue over what these are indefinitely) it must be admitted that it rarely provides a solid plot or fleshed out characters. Equally, however, you could argue that these are not flaws but features. Pornography doesn’t so much fail at traditional storytelling as it succeeds at being pornography.
“Ogdred Weary” has a name that is an anagram of that of Edward Gorey,the renowned artist and writer. It’s possible that this is a coincidence. Gorey is best known for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an illustrated alphabet book in which twenty-six children with names beginning with all the letters of the alphabet die in diverse and horrible ways. Ogdred Weary, by contrast, is barely known at all for his book The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work.
The Curious Sofa is the story of Alice, who is sitting on a park bench eating grapes when she meets Herbert, a well-endowed (the text tells us, though the illustrations only show him fully clothed) young man. Matters proceed in a manner easily recognisable to anyone familiar with the genre. Herbert escorts Alice to the home of his aunt Celia (the taxi ride providing Alice with new experiences) where a house party appears to be in progress. Alice seems unfazed by events. There follow a series of tableaux involving French maids, well-formed butlers, a game called “thumbfumble” and a couple who both “had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks”. Frolicking gardeners and a sheepdog ensure that the work covers a reasonably broad range of the better known subgenres of pornography. The fun continues the next day, with a change of location and the addition of a few more characters. Thus far things seem to be proceeding as one would expect.

And yet Gorey Weary is coy about the actual acts. The word sex, or any of its synonyms are never mentioned in the book, and nor are any particularly direct euphemisms. People “romp”, “frolic”, perform “rather surprising service[s]”. The illustrations never show genitalia, merely people (usually fully clothed) standing or sitting around, usually eating grapes (which for some reason always seem to show up in depictions of erotic situations).

The sex acts in question (if indeed they are sex acts; perhaps it’s all in the reader’s filthy mind?) grow increasingly bizarre as time passes. We can well imagine what Alice might have been doing with the sheepdog, but what of Scylla, the guest with “certain anatomical peculiarities”  who demonstrates “the ‘Lithuanian Typewriter’” with the help of two young men? What is the “astonishing little device” provided by Reginald, another guest?  And what on earth is the “terrible thing” that Gerald did to Elsie with a saucepan?

We are not fated to find out. Elsie’s sudden and unexplained death is the first indication that all is not well. Soon after, the partiers visit Sir Egbert, possessor of the “Curious Sofa” of the title. Alice feels “a shudder of nameless apprehension”.

We never see the curious sofa (the illustration has it shielded by the audience), but with its nine legs and seven arms its proportions seem decidedly non-Euclidean. Nor do we know what the “machinery inside the sofa” does. All we know is that Alice begins to “scream uncontrollably” before the book ends. The last picture in the book is a bunch of grapes abandoned on the floor. Whatever is going on in that room, the party would appear to be over.

The Curious Sofa may be the only book in the world to combine pornography with a nod to country house murder mysteries and an almost Lovecraftian horror element. Readable as a clever comment on plot in porn or simply a bit of dark hilarity, this is classic Gorey. Or Weary.



Suggestions for shocking saucepan-inclusive sex acts now solicited. I was not expecting that sentence to be quite so alliterative.



2 Comments to “Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa

  1. “it’s all in the reader’s filthy mind”
    All sex is. So is all meaning.
    Try warming the saucepan a little first. Not too much! You don’t want a brand.

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