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The Story of O

Not many authors can boast of having written a best-selling pornographic novel, much less one regarded as an erotica classic—but Pauline Réage could. Make that Dominique Aury. No: Anne Desclos.

All three were the same woman, but for years the real name behind the incendiary work was among the best-kept secrets in the literary world. Forty years after the publication of the French novel Histoire d’O, the full truth was finally made public. Even then, some still considered it the most shocking book ever written. When the book came out, its purported author was “Pauline Réage,” widely believed to be a pseudonym. Although shocking for its graphic depictions of sadomasochism, the novel was admired for its reticent, even austere literary style. It went on to achieve worldwide success, selling millions of copies, and has never been out of print. This was no cheap potboiler. There was nothing clumsy, sloppy, or crude about it. Histoire d’O was awarded the distinguished Prix des Deux Magots, was adapted for film, and was translated into more than twenty languages.

Desclos (or, rather, Aury, as she became known in her early thirties) was obsessed with her married lover, Jean Paulhan. She wrote the book to entice him, claim him, and keep him—and she wrote it exclusively for him. It was the ultimate love letter. Whips and chains and masks! Oh, my. When Histoire d’O appeared in France in the summer of 1954, it was so scandalous that obscenity charges (later dropped) were brought against its mysterious author. Even in the mid-twentieth century, in a European country decidedly less prudish than the United States, the book struck like a meteor. That the writer had evidently used a pen name provoked endless gossip in Parisian society. Speculation about the author’s identity became a favorite sport among the literati: was the author prominent, obscure, male, female, perverted, crazy? The authorial voice was too direct, too cool, to be that of a woman, some argued; others insisted that no man could have offered such a nuanced exploration of a woman’s psyche. One thing was certain: the person who wrote this novel had no shame. Story of O, the title of the English edition, is an account of a French fashion photographer, known only as O, who descends into debasement, torment, humiliation, violence, and bondage, all in the name of devotion to her lover, René. Over the course of the novel she is blindfolded, chained, flogged, pierced, branded, and more. As the story opens, O is a passive figure who does precisely what she’s told:

Her lover one day takes O for a walk in a section of the city where they never go—the Montsouris Park, the Monceau Park. After they have taken a stroll in the park and have sat together side by side on the edge of a lawn, they notice, at one corner of the park, at an intersection where there are never any taxis, a car which, because of its meter, resembles a taxi.

“Get in,” he says. She gets in.

The book is like an erotic version of those childhood tales in which a character steps accidentally into an alternate reality and is induced into a hallucinatory state. (Paulhan once insisted that “fairy tales are erotic novels for children.”) Think of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or the magic wardrobe leading to Narnia. That was Story of O, albeit with a much darker vision. By the novel’s eleventh page, O has been abandoned by her lover at a château outside Paris. Alone, she is subdued, quietly following instructions without resistance. She undresses and is fitted with a locked collar and bracelets and a long red cape. Blindfolded, she cries out as a stranger’s hand “penetrated her in both places at once.” Thus begins her odyssey as a sexual slave to the mostly anonymous men and women who have their way with her. “O thought she recognized one of the men from his voice,” Réage writes, “one of those who had forced her the previous evening, the one who had asked that her rear be made more easily accessible.” Willing to do anything with anyone, she reveals an existential longing for release. Aury once observed that “O is looking for deliverance, to thrust off this mortal coil, as Shakespeare says.”

As just about every self-help book advises, opening yourself to the unknown can feel very good. It can transform you. Then again, it can also make you insane.

Years after the book was published, Aury offered insight into her protagonist’s apparent façade of passive acceptance. “I think that submissiveness can [be] and is a formidable weapon, which women will use as long as it isn’t taken from them,” she said. “Is O used by René and Sir Stephen, or does she in fact use them, and…all those irons and chains and obligatory debauchery, to fulfill her own dream—that is, her own destruction and death? And, in some surreptitious way, isn’t she in charge of them? Doesn’t she bend them to her will?”

The novel also featured scenes of women seducing women. Those encounters seemed genuine rather than forced, contrary to accusations that the author had written such scenes to satisfy the “male gaze.” Aury considered herself bisexual and admitted her preference for the female body. Describing her first real-life exposure to male anatomy, she said, “I found that stiffly saluting member, of which he was so proud, rather frightening, and to tell the truth I found his pride slightly comical. I thought that that must be embarrassing for him, and thought how much more pleasant it was to be a girl. That, by the way, is an opinion I still hold today.” Throughout the story, O readily offers herself. She responds to pain and suffering with acceptance or gratitude. The narrative culminates in an all-night party in which she is led along on a dog leash, naked, wearing an owl mask. After she has had a depilatory, to please her master, a chain is attached to rings inserted into her labia. (Her journey seemed to confirm the French writer Georges Bataille’s dictum: “Man goes constantly in fear of himself. His erotic urges terrify him.”) O’s response to such terror is absolute surrender, allowing her experiences to lead her into a realm of no pathology, analysis, or consequence. As just about every self-help book advises, opening yourself to the unknown can feel very good. It can transform you. Then again, it can also make you insane.

Depending on your erotic wishes and habits, Story of O will disturb you, frighten you, make you angry, make you upset, confuse you, disgust you, or turn you on. Maybe everything at once. Decades after its publication, the novel has not lost its shock value. In 2009, a commentary in the Guardian following a Radio 4 program, “The Story of O—The Vice Française,” explained that the late-night timing of the program was apt, because the material was “strong stuff” and might have made people queasy. One listener had remarked, on the air, that hearing excerpts from the book provoked “a rush of blood to the non-thinking parts.”

As the author once revealed, the character O actually began as Odile, the name of a close friend who’d once been deeply in love with Albert Camus. “She knew all about the name and was enchanted,” Aury said. “But after a few pages I decided that I couldn’t do all those things to poor Odile, so I just kept the first letter.” Contrary to speculation over the years by feminists, academics, psychoanalysts, and general readers obsessed with the book, the name O, she said, “has nothing to do with erotic symbolism or the shape of the female sex.” However depraved her novel seemed, Aury had set out to create a profoundly personal work of art, not cheap porn. (“That Pauline Réage is a more dangerous writer than the Marquis de Sade follows from the fact that art is more persuasive than propaganda,” declared an essayist in the New York Times Book Review.) Aury was making something new, working with conventions as no one had attempted in quite the same way. “Debauchery conceived of as a kind of ascetic experience is not new, either for men or for women,” she explained, “but until Story of O no woman to my knowledge had said it.”

Aury seemed an unlikely candidate to produce a book showcasing violent penetration. From childhood she’d been a serious reader, immersing herself in Boccaccio, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and the Bible. She once boasted of a period in which she’d read and reread the whole of Proust each year for five years. It seemed inconceivable that a woman with such a drab exterior could explore a sexual compulsion that drove her protagonist toward oblivion. Also distinguishing the novel from what one critic called “volumes sold under the counter” were its intricate ideas about human behavior—that “we are all jailers, and all in prison, in that there is always someone within us whom we enchain, whom we imprison, whom we silence,” as she later explained. Story of O is about power, the pleasure of having it, and finally the pleasure of letting it go. For her part, the author admitted her comfort with the notion of obedience, at least in certain contexts. “I think I have a repressed bent for the military,” she said. “I like discipline without question, specific schedules and duties.”

Paulhan, the impetus for Aury’s cri de coeur, was one of France’s leading intellectuals and the publisher of the preeminent literary journal Nouvelle Revue Française. His affair with Aury lasted thirty years, until his death in 1968. Throughout their relationship, Paulhan remained married to his second wife, Germaine, who had Parkinson’s disease. She was well aware of her husband’s philandering, which he expected her to tolerate without protest. And Aury was not his only mistress. After his death, his daughter-in-law remembered him as “quite the ladies’ man.” (It’s interesting that Aury used precisely the same phrase in recalling her own father.) When she met Paulhan, Aury was in her early thirties and he was in his fifties. (She was born in 1907; he was born in 1884.) She’d been married briefly and had a son, Philippe. Her father, an acquaintance of Paulhan, had introduced them. At the time, she was hoping to publish a collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century French religious poetry, and Paulhan was an editor at the distinguished publishing house Gallimard. She did not describe their meeting as love at first sight. “It was slow, but it went very—efficiently,” she said, recalling her initial impression of him as handsome, charming, and funny. They bonded through shared intellectual passion; during the Nazi occupation of France, while doing work for the Resistance, they became lovers. “Dominique Aury was fascinated by intelligence,” a friend recalled. “The intelligence of Paulhan was obvious. And for her it became a kind of obsession.”

Until her fateful meeting with Paulhan, Aury hadn’t yet found the love of her life, and her sexual history was hardly remarkable. “By my makeup and temperament I wasn’t really prey to physical desires,” she once said. “Everything happened in my head.” That would explain the electricity between her and Paulhan, which would exert a hold on her for the rest of her life. Although she could talk extensively about sex, her personal life was fairly tame. She did once joke, however, that she’d considered prostitution as a potential vocation: “I told myself that had to be absolutely terrific: to be constantly wanted, and to get paid besides, how could you go wrong?” she said. “And what happens? At the first opportunity, what do I do but turn into a stupid prude!” Yet she had also wondered what it might be like to become a nun—drawn to it, no doubt, by the stern uniform.

“I wasn’t young, I wasn’t pretty, it was necessary to find other weapons,” she later revealed. Of course, Aury was destined not for prostitution but to live, work, and breathe intellectual society. She toyed with her identity well before Histoire d'O was published. At some point during the war, while working as a journalist and translator, she discarded her original name, Anne Desclos, erasing it entirely from her professional and personal life. Almost no one knew that Aury was not actually her own name; she kept that fact a secret. She had chosen “Dominique” for its gender neutrality, and “Aury” was derived from her mother’s maiden name, “Auricoste.” Although it’s true that Story of O was inspired by Paulhan’s offhand remark to Aury that no woman could ever write a “truly” erotic novel, a more compelling motive was her fear, however irrational, that their relationship might end. “I wasn’t young, I wasn’t pretty, it was necessary to find other weapons,” she later revealed. “The physical side wasn’t enough. The weapons, alas, were in the head.” She plunged into the task: writing through the night, in pencil, in school exercise books, while lying in bed, and she produced—three months later—her intimate masterpiece. The first sixty pages, she said, flowed “automatically” and appeared in the book exactly as they had come to her.

The novel was written as a challenge to Paulhan’s dare (or assignment, if you want to call it that). “I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him,” she told the documentary filmmaker Pola Rapaport shortly before her death. Aury never intended the novel to be made public, but Paulhan insisted on it. For her, the manuscript was simply a long letter that had to be written. She hoped this gift would ensure the permanence of their relationship. “You’re always looking for ways to make it go on,” she said. “The story of Scheherazade, more or less.”

The content of the novel was graphic, but the author’s prose was highly controlled, disciplined, and spare. Her “voice” was at odds with the erotic material, making it hard to dismiss as pornography. For Paulhan, the book was “the most ardent love letter that any man has ever received.” He did not abandon her.

The author said later that Story of O, written when she was forty-seven, was based on her own fantasies. She was influenced, too, by her lover’s admiration for the Marquis de Sade. Later she described her feverish writing process as “writing the way you speak in the dark to the person you love when you’ve held back the words of love for too long and they flow at last … without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting, discarding … the way one breathes, the way one dreams.” Paulhan was awestruck. When he excitedly asked if he could find a publisher for her work, she agreed on the condition that her authorship remain hidden, known only to a select few. She gave herself the pen name “Pauline Réage”: “Pauline” after Pauline (Bonaparte) Borghese, elder sister of Napoleon, who was famous for her sensual, decadent pursuits; as well as Pauline Roland, the late nineteenth-century French women’s rights activist. Despite the apparent blur between “Pauline” and “Paulhan,” Aury said later that her appellation had nothing to do with him. (Some insisted, wrongly, that she chose the name because it sounded like the French for “Reacting to Paulhan.”)

As for “Réage,” she’d supposedly stumbled upon it in a real estate registry. People assumed that aspects of Story of O were highly autobiographical, yet Aury wasn’t so sure. Some twenty years after the book came out, she admitted that her own joys and sorrows had informed it, but she had no idea just how much, and did not care to analyze anything. “Story of O is a fairy tale for another world,” she said, “a world where some part of me lived for a long time, a world that no longer exists except between the covers of a book.”

She characterized “Pauline Réage” in vague terms as well—someone who “is not me entirely and yet in some obscure way is: when I move from one me to the other the fragments scatter, then come back together again in a pattern that I’m sure is ever-changing. I find it harder and harder to tell them apart anymore, or at least not with sufficient clarity.” Like many pseudonymous authors, Aury saw identity as unstable and felt perfectly at ease inhabiting a self that refused to remain a fixed star.

She knew that finding a publisher for her novel (whether or not she took a pen name) would not be easy. It was Paulhan who demanded that the book reach the public, and he fought for it. In this instance, however, his prestige within the literary world carried no clout. Gallimard promptly refused the work, not wanting to deal with the inevitable (and expensive) hassle of a court case. “We can’t publish books like this,” Gaston Gallimard told her. This was especially disappointing because Aury had worked for him. A few years before her death, Aury said that she had never forgiven Gallimard’s rejection of her novel, since he’d already published Jean Genet, whose work was “much nastier.”

Indeed, as one reviewer noted, the more O is brutalized, the more “perfectly feminine” she becomes.

Paulhan persuaded Jean-Jacques Pauvert—an ambitious twenty-seven-year-old publisher who’d issued Sade’s complete works, and who was already a veteran of obscenity trials—to accept Story of O. “It’s marvelous, it’ll spark a revolution,” Pauvert said to Paulhan after reading it overnight. “So when do we sign the contract?”

In 1954, Pauvert published a gorgeously designed first edition of two thousand copies. It had a laudatory preface by Paulhan, “Happiness in Slavery,” in which he argued that women in their truest nature crave domination; that O is empowered by confessing her desire; and that, in truth, slaves love their masters, would suffer in their absence, and have no wish to achieve independence. Indeed, as one reviewer noted, the more O is brutalized, the more “perfectly feminine” she becomes. This is one of the elements that makes the novel more disturbing than arousing.

Paulhan conceded that there was “no dearth of abominations in Story of O. But it sometimes seems to me that it is an idea, or a complex of ideas, an opinion rather than a young woman we see being subjected to these tortures.”

The book was a sensation, but hardly a blockbuster. Although it was a topic of titillating gossip among the cognoscenti, a year after publication, the initial printing had not sold out. Aury was not hopeful about the book’s prospects; she believed it was doomed to be relegated to the “reserved” section of libraries, if it was ordered at all.

Its status as a best seller was achieved slowly as the mystique around it continued to build and as other international editions were issued. Initially, because many French booksellers assumed that the novel had been banned, they tended to conceal it under the counter—thus ensuring that sales would be poor. “Everyone talked about it in private,” the author recalled, “but the press acted as though the book had never been published.”

Whatever attention Histoire d'O did receive focused on the author’s identity, not on the text itself as something worthy of consideration and analysis. Susan Sontag was the first major writer to recognize the novel’s merit and to defend it as a significant literary work. In her 1969 essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” Sontag insisted that Story of O could be correctly defined as “authentic” literature. She compared the ratio of first-rate pornography to trashy books within the genre to “another somewhat shady subgenre with a few first-rate books to its credit, science fiction.” She also maintained that like science fiction, pornography was aimed at “disorientation, at psychic dislocation.”

If so, that aim is far more interesting than what most generic “mainstream” novels set out to do. No one could describe O as predictable or sentimental. Its vision was dark and unrelenting; everything about it was extreme. Sontag also compared sexual obsession (as expressed by Réage) with religious obsession: two sides of the same coin. “Religion is probably, after sex, the second oldest resource which human beings have available to them for blowing their minds,” she wrote. In her disciplined effort toward transcendence, O is not unlike a zealot giving herself to God. O’s devotion to the task at hand takes the form of what might be described as spiritual fervor. She loses herself entirely—and, after all, the loss of self is a goal of prayer. If O is willing to sustain her devotion all the way through to her own destruction, so be it. She wants to be “possessed, utterly possessed, to the point of death,” to the point that her body and mind are no longer her responsibility. “What does a Christian seek but to lose himself in God,” Aury, a devout atheist, once said. “To be killed by someone you love strikes me as the epitome of ecstasy.”

Sontag’s essay was notable for refusing to conflate all porn as bad or to dismiss it all as “dirty books.” It was a thoughtful, rational piece on the aesthetic virtues of pornography at its best. In arguing that some so-called pornographic books were legitimate works of art, she acknowledged that staking such a claim was a daunting task: “Pornography is a malady to be diagnosed and an occasion for judgment. It’s something to be for or against … quite a bit like being for or against legalized abortion or federal aid to parochial schools.”

Her case for the literary value of Story of O was compelling and highly specific: “Though the novel is clearly obscene by the usual standards,” she wrote, “and more effective than many in arousing a reader sexually, sexual arousal doesn’t appear to be the sole function of the situations portrayed. The narrative does have a definite beginning, middle, and end. The elegance of the writing hardly gives the impression that its author considered language a bothersome necessity. Further, the characters do possess emotions of a very intense kind, although obsessional and indeed wholly asocial ones; characters do have motives, though they are not psychiatrically or socially ‘normal’ motives.” All Réage did was bring into the open the kinds of impulses many people harbor in their bedrooms, alone, late at night. And, from Sontag’s perspective, Story of O was not really pornography but “meta-pornography, a brilliant parody.” Who would suspect that Dominique Aury was Pauline Réage? In midlife, Aury was a respected figure: an influential editor, a writer, and a jury member for various literary prizes. She’d earned the Légion d'Honneur; she had translated into French works by authors such as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Virginia Woolf; and she had been the only woman to serve on Gallimard’s esteemed reading committee. Her demure appearance gave no hint of owl masks or dog collars. She was polite, refined, elegant, shy. She could not be described as beautiful. A friend remembered Aury as “very self-effacing,” and as having worn “soft, muted colors which really matched her personality.” She dressed quite plainly and wore almost no makeup. At least on the surface, nothing about her was subversive. (She said that dressing in a kind of basic uniform made life simpler.) If anything, Aury seemed conservative, even severe—and to look at her, you might assume that her sexual fantasies would be as stimulating as staring at a dusty library shelf.

The glaring incongruity between her work and her personal life was not lost on Aury. That was why the pen name was so crucial. She insisted that “it would have been wrong to mix what was for so long a time secret with something that was always banal and devoid of interest.” Aury never felt a need to justify the distinction to anyone; it was what she wanted, and it was nobody’s business. She was not “living a lie,” because Dominique Aury was not “Pauline Réage,” who had produced the scandalous work. “For a long time I’ve lived two parallel lives,” Aury explained. “I have meticulously kept those two lives quite separate, so separate in fact that the invisible wall between them seems to me normal and natural.”

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