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There is a fantasy England populated by “brutal aristocrats with enormous sexual equipment and violent tastes…”. The ‘vice anglais’ is spanking on the buttocks sometimes referred to as CP or ‘corporal punishment’. Apparently the English have spanking and flagellation all to themselves as both proclivities tend to be labelled as the ‘le vice anglais’ (flagellation stemming from the Latin flagellum, “whip, lash, switch”). The term can also be applied to buggery, though why this should be a purely English proclivity makes no sense.
The English ‘public’ school system used corporal punishment for many years. Commonly it is claimed that many an English schoolboy acquired a taste for such treatment that carried on into his adult life. The poet Swinburne recalls ‘birching’ at Eton, claiming that his own proclivity for that particular pastime had been cultivated by such school practices.
“It seems to be an assured fact,” writes Praz in his chapter entitled Swinburne and ‘Le Vice Anglais’ (The Romantic Agony), “that sexual flagellation has been practised in England with greater frequency than elsewhere -”. In the broadest sense of the term the English vice can be interpreted to suggest the Englishman’s penchant for cruelty, both received, given or observed.
This derives not surprisingly, from the huge reputation gained by one George Augustus Selwyn (1719-91), the sadistic English nobleman, politician and member of the notorious Hellfire Club. Selwyn’s obsession with executions and corpses was so well known he is referenced in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, de Goncourt’s Le Faustin, and Chrysal; or, the Adventures of a Guinea, by Charles Johnstone.
It was widely reported that he had travelled to Paris to witness the protracted torture and death of the failed assassin Robert-François Damiens (by drawing and quartering). His manner in the crowd was such that an aristocrat at the scene asked him if he were an executioner and he replied “No, Monsieur, I have not that honour; I am only an amateur”. He was accused of attending all executions, stated Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, “and sometimes, in order to elude notice, disguised in a female dress.”
It is little wonder that ‘Pauline Réage’ chose an Englishman, ‘Sir Stephen’, into whose hands her protagonist ‘O’ should be placed. Hands tempered with ‘le vice anglais’. Such a figure has become a literary and cinematic trope (see Portrait of an Englishman in his Chateau by André Pieyre de Mandirgues or Story of the Eye by George Bataille).
But there is more to it than that. Réage (Dominique Aury) had read Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis and Anne Radcliffe, and being familiar with the English Gothic writers she would have known the tradition of the mysterious or ‘fatal’ nobleman, or villain, stretching back to Milton and beyond. Indeed the perverse charm of the Byronic hero was quick to infiltrate the offerings of French writers and was seen to merge with that of France’s own Marquis de Sade in the writing of Baudelaire and the literature of the Decadence.
What Byron’s Manfred said of Astarte (‘I loved her, and destroy’d her’] Mario Praz points out, became “the motto of the ‘fatal’ heroes of Romantic Literature”. Such heroes were in the habit of destroying the unlucky women who came within their orbit.
The same could be said of Sir Stephen who, on the final page of Story of O, in one of two alternative endings to the novel, consents to O choosing death.
Akin to the fiercely solitary Manfred and his, “lone thoughts and wanderings, the quest for hidden knowledge” Sir Stephen claims he has “a fondness for habits and ritual.” He could easily be drawn as the fatal hero or villain with “certain qualities”. Praz lists; “mysterious (but conjectured to be exalted) origin, traces of burnt-out passions, suspicion of a ghastly guilt, melancholy habits, pale face, unforgettable eyes.”
Upon first meeting Sir Stephen is described as “a sort of grey haired athlete” (with “hard grey eyes”). His gaze has an “attention so precise and so sure of itself” that O feels held and weighed. He is expressionless and speaks not a word, his bow is imperceptible. Later Sir Stephen seems continually on the point of revealing something like love to O, but can only allude to it, or whisper it in fragments. On one such occasion:
“O suspected that this brutality [Sir Stephen’s] was directed at himself as much as at her…”
She soon divines in Sir Stephen, “a glacial unswerving will which desire was powerless to deflect from its purpose…”
Is not the screen Sir Stephen reminiscent of Byron’s heroes … “That brow in furrow’d lines had fix’d at last, And spoke of passions, but of passions past…”?
Thus have numerous new readers of Story of O been disappointed by the cardboard characters that furnish the novel. But as in Sade the fantasy of Histoire d’O is built upon exclusion. The characters are stripped of their flesh and blood, their everyday complexity. Male protagonists, though deific forces, never assume their full identity as human beings. They are little more than the human chess pieces occupying the tableaux vivants observed in Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad.
In Story of O the whole relation between the sexes is bathed in religious as well as sadomasochistic imagery and as O journeys through her ordeals towards some higher, transcendent reality, the men are seen to be shallow and promiscuous. True metaphysical and spiritual devotion is reserved for O.
“What does Sir Stephen do for a living?” asks Maurice Charney (Sexual Fiction pub 1981). It is only in the sequel to the novel, Return To The Cháteau, that we learn some tantalizing details: “he is Scottish, a member of the Campbell clan (although he is everywhere described as an English lord), he is involved in international finance, perhaps in diamond mines in the Congo…”
“These are all meaningless details of Gothic fiction and have no bearing on the novel,” continues Charney, a novel which is, “deliberately static, non referential and ahistorical. Everything occurs as if in a dream.” The chateau of Roissy “marshals the old forms of bondage…” writes Jessica Benjamin (The Bonds of Love).
Charney reminds us, “There is a great deal of deliberate archaizing in Story of O. The narrative is simplified, and the style is highly reminiscent of an eighteenth-century conte in the style of Voltaire. Everything is stripped down and displaced. The author cultivates an effect of distance and distancing. If we are still in the twentieth century, the narrative has been slowed down and abstracted, There is an air of elaborate manners and ritualistic formality from another era. The characters move in and out of their roles with an obsessive, dance like symmetry.”
Sade formed the starting point for Histoire d’O. The author’s lover Jean Paulhan was a great enthusiast of the ‘Divine Marquis’ and it was he who challenged Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) to write something akin to his taste. “But what stands behind Story of O is not only Sade,” points out Susan Sontag (The Pornographic Imagination),
“The book is also rooted in the conventions of libertine potboilers written in nineteenth-century France, typically situated in a fantasy England populated by brutal aristocrats with enormous sexual equipment and violent tastes…”
“The year was 1967, the place was Fort McClellan, Alabama; I was twenty years old, and the book was Story of O by Pauline Réage. I read it with intense interest… even the most casual reader must ultimately find himself implicated in the paradoxes and ambiguities of this unsettling novel. For here is a story with its well-springs in the deepest recesses of consciousness…”
Gregory Stephenson Name Upon Name: Encountering Pauline Réage (Rain Taxi USA)
“I found Story of O on my father’s night stand where he kept his copies of Penthouse and Playboy. I guess it was around 1974 and he was away on business for several months. I read it over and over during that time.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)
“I was working in an internal department part of the time and discovered a secret collection of pornography kept by the library. I read it in, er, snatches over the course of a week. It was thrilling to me. But I forgot all about it until sometime in my 30s when I remembered the book and went and bought a copy.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)
“I read the excerpt in “Evergreen Review” (Sept, 1963) and immediately began searching for the book, which I had to order via mail.” (quoted from a social media group, USA)
“I read the first part of the novel, “The Story of O” by Pauline Reage, in “The Evergreen Review” in late 1963. I was working overseas at the time. It hit me between the eyes and I knew I had to obtain the book. When I did, I almost wore it out, reading it over and over. Something about the book fit directly into my mind, making connections between memories and thoughts…” (quoted from a social media group, USA)
Like most readers who are quick to recall just when and where Story of O came into their lives and left such a profound impression, I can recall precisely where and when I first made for home with such a prize. When, however, I first heard of, or read of, this novel remains seemingly beyond the reach of mine recollection.
By the time I reached my teens I was definitely, so to speak, setting out my book-store. Things were falling into place in respect of what interested me most (both public and private). Already my bookshelves were weighted in favour of romance (H Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs), science fiction (H G Wells, John Wyndham, Fred Hoyle), horror (Poe, Lovecraft, Robert Bloch) and Art.
An Introductory Essay of numerous pages in the newly published (1968) Penguin paperback ‘Three Gothic Novels’, penned by Mario Praz, led the way forward (within eighteen months, whilst in the armed forces, I was reading de Sade).
What a wonderful compendium of the literature of beauty, romance, terror, pain and pleasure, is Praz’s The Romantic Agony. But sadly written too early (1933) to be able to mention Pauline Réage and the Story of O, in conjunction with de Sade or in respect of Burke’s famous Philosophical Enquiry (1757), where there occurs the startling statement: ‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the idea of pain, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible… is a source of the sublime’.
“Whilst yet a boy”, wrote Shelley in his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, “I sought ghosts, and sped through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin…” Such a journey taken through the dusty books of Praz must surely lead the modern reader inevitably to Story of O.
“Who am I, finally,” asked Dominique Aury (in the guise of Pauline Réage), “if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part… which communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself -?”
Where then did I first read of Story of O? No mention of Réage is to be found in the preface to Venus In Furs (Luxor Press, London, 1965), or in the exemplary introduction by Alan Hull Walton to Justine – or the Misfortunes of Virtue (Neville Spearman Ltd, 1964, and Corgi 1965). Nothing is mentioned in Peter Quennell’s introduction to John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1963).
Lo Duca’s A History of Eroticism (J J Pauvert, Paris, 1961) in its adaptation “from the French by Kenneth Anger” (Rodney Books, London, 1966) at least lists Histoire d’O in the index, though only Pauline Réage is mentioned in the text. I recall finding a used copy for sale outside a newsagent near Covent Garden, but that was later, in 1973.
Much later too, I discovered Wayland Young’s Eros Denied (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1965) and its two pages devoted to Histoire d’O. But by then Story of O had held a prominent place on my bookshelf for some while.
“But the frantic excitement of all Sade’s writing prevents him being able to give a cool map even of the sado-masochistic lock. This has been achieved in our day in a French novel called Histoire d’O, which made a succés de scandale when it was published because everyone thought they knew who was concealed behind the pseudonym of ‘Pauline Réage.’”
Wayland Young Studies in Exclusion 1: EROS DENIED
So, maybe the first definite indication, for me, that the novel with the mysterious title, was somewhere out there (Story of O was never officially banned in the UK) waiting to be discovered, was in Gillian Freeman’s The Undergrowth of Literature (Panther Books, London, 1969) first published by Thomas Nelson & Sons Limited in 1967), in which Freeman writes, “The absolute masochist occurs in Histoire d’O… This is a sad and horrifying book, ending with O’s death.” Mm, not quite the recommendation which might send you to London’s Soho in search of the novel. So maybe the temptation and the mystery was engendered elsewhere, and prior to Freeman’s “fascinating dip into the pornographic underworld”.
It is fascinating reading other readers’ recollections regarding Story of O. In my case this novel, with its strange title, remained a mystery for quite a few years, until the summer of 1975. I was working part-time in my college summer break, at a huge retail store on London’s Oxford Street. One day, out of the blue, a colleague produced an American paperback copy of Story of O and suggested I borrow it. Reading it was like a homecoming. Story of O was no longer a mystery. It was a defining moment. I’m forever grateful to that person and to that moment. I returned the paperback and ordered the newly published UK hardback edition from my local book store. Not long afterwards, the French film was released in Paris but banned from UK cinemas.
© Stefan Prince 2017
In the Jewish ‘Book of Esther’ (also known in Hebrew as “the Scroll”) a tale unfolds that begins, as Wikipedia informs us, “with Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holding a lavish banquet, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of the capital city, Shushan. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus orders the queen, Vashti, to come and display her beauty before the guests by wearing only her crown. She refuses. Furious, Ahasuerus has her removed from her position and makes arrangements to choose a new queen from a selection of beautiful young women from throughout the empire.”
This marvellous image of the queen in all her regal beauty displayed before all and sundry secures for the tale the status of an early literary example of candaulism. We find candaulism aplenty in Story of O and one wonders if Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) was familiar with the term first defined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his book: Psychopathia sexualis. Eine klinisch-forensische Studie (Stuttgart: Enke 1886).
‘O stared at them with eyes that, beneath her plumage, were darkened with bister, eyes opened wide like the eyes of the nocturnal bird she was impersonating, and the illusion was so extraordinary that no one thought of questioning her, which would have been the most natural thing to do, as though she were a real owl, deaf to human language, and dumb.
From midnight to dawn, which began to lighten the eastern sky at about five, as the moon waned and descended toward the west, people came up to her several times and some even touched her, they formed a circle around her several times and several times they parted her knees and lifted the chain, bringing with them on of those two-branched candlesticks of Provencal earthenware – and she could feel the flames from the candles warming the inside of her thighs – to see how she was attached…
But even though they thus made use of O, and even though they used her in this way as a model, or the subject of a demonstration, not once did anyone ever speak to her directly. Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn’t they dare?’
Candaulism, Wikipedia tell us, is a sexual practice or fantasy in which a man exposes his female partner, or images of her, to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. The term may also be applied to the practice of undressing or otherwise exposing a female partner to others, or urging or forcing her to engage in sexual relations with a third person, such as during a swinging activity. Similarly, the term may also be applied to the posting of personal images of a female partner on the internet or urging or forcing her to wear clothing which reveals her physical attractiveness to others.
The term is derived from ancient King Candaules who conceived a plot to show his unaware naked wife to his servant Gyges of Lydia. After discovering Gyges while he was watching her naked, Candaules’ wife ordered him to choose between killing himself or killing her husband in order to repair the vicious mischief.
AND SO TO BED
The famous painting by William Etty shows the moment at which Nyssia, at this point unaware that she is being watched by anyone other than her husband, removes the last of her clothes.
Etty hoped that his audience would take from the painting the moral lesson that women are not chattels and that men infringing on their rights will justly be punished, but made little effort to explain this to audiences. The painting was immediately controversial, and perceived as a cynical combination of a pornographic image and a violent and unpleasant narrative, and it was condemned as an immoral piece of the type one would expect from a foreign, not a British, artist. It was bought by Robert Vernon on its exhibition, and in 1847 was one of a number of paintings given by Vernon to the nation – although in the case of Candaules a painting so controversial becoming government property was a source of some embarrassment.
Interestingly the art collector and connoisseur CharlesSaatchi has considered the influence of candaulism upon the work of Salvador Dali, citing episodes recorded by the artist’s biographers in which his wife Gala was displayed to other men.
Krafft-Ebing’s principal work was Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study), which was first published in 1886 and expanded in subsequent editions. The last edition from the hand of the author (the twelfth) contained a total of 238 case histories of human sexual behaviour. The book popularized the terms sadism (derived from the brutal sexual practices depicted in the novels of Marquis de Sade) and masochism (derived from the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch).
‘At coffee, when liqueurs had been brought, Sir Stephen pushed the table towards the other wall, and after having raised her skirt to show his friends how O had been marked and ironed, left her to them.’
Pauline Réage Story of O
©Stefan Prince with thanks to Shali Peach
In the pantheon of erotic literature The Image (published in 1956 as L’Image by Jean de Berg) is perhaps the only novel which comes close to kinship with Story of O.
For some, it is found to be the superior novel.
Published in a small three-thousand-copy edition by Les Editions de Minuit, The Image sold out in a matter of days prior to a ban. Like Histoire d’O, the publication of The Image had its fair share of subterfuge and smoke screen – an aspect of the two novels which for many years added a sense of tantalising mystery to the very nature of both books.
The ‘story’ of ‘O’ – how mysterious, how seductive a title. What is it? What can it be about? What is ‘O’? – Likewise “the image” speaks of something tangible but also begs the same questions; What image? What image will be shown?
Taking a cue from the pseudonymous ‘Pauline Réage’, the author of The Image also chooses anonymity. She even invents a preface by ‘P.R.’ (assumed to be Pauline Réage) and a dedication “To Pauline Réage”, and like Réage (Dominique Aury), de Berg hides behind masks and gloves. As with Story of O rumours abounded about the true identity of the author. It was not known if the author was male or female. It was even suggested by many that L’Image was written by Mme Réage herself.
By the close of the 1990s Jean de Berg was found out to be none other than Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the writer, photographer, screen and theatre actress, and wife of French writer and film-maker Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Was The Image a collaboration between husband and wife, between master and submissive?
Alain was a self proclaimed kinkster and purveyor of Sadian imagery both in his novels and films. The focus upon image is all pervading. In many of his stories an image, say of a stain on a wall or an artefact on a table, can take on great importance and busy the reader for several pages. Is not too much a leap of the imagination then, to imagine Alain having a hand in the writing of The Image? So far there has been no admission the novel was a joint enterprise. However, Catherine and Alain were pretty inseparable and without doubt, assisted one another on any number of joint projects. Catherine appears in several of Alain’s feature films including Trans Europe Express where she plays his script-girl.
Of Armenian descent and born in Paris 24 September 1930, Catherine married Alain Robbe-Grillet in Paris on 23 October 1957 (he died in February 2008). Within a year, it has recently been revealed, Alain drew up a contract under which Catherine would be subject to his sadomasochistic whims and fancies. According to the contract, Catherine would have to present herself at a set time and at a set place, dressed however Alain demanded, and willing to do whatever he asked of her.
Their companionship was beyond doubt. For 50 years of marriage, – the press in 2014 revealed with relish, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, “submitted herself to the sexual slavery of her husband, Alain, who drew up a contract for her setting out rules for kinky torture sessions.” Though she never signed the so-called Contract of Conjugal Prostitution, Catherine “willingly participated in Alain’s every fantasy”, including being whipped, chained and blindfolded.
Alain was one of the figures most associated with the Nouveau Roman (new novel). His writing style has been described as “realist” or “phenomenological”. Methodical, and often repetitive descriptions of objects replace (though often reveal) the psychology and interiority of the character. His film career began when Alain Resnais chose to collaborate with him on his 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. In the credits it was presented as a film equally co-authored by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais.
“The whip is of braided leather like those that are used on dogs. From the thin, supple tip it becomes progressively thicker and harder up to the part that one holds in one’s hand, which is almost rigid, forming a sort of very short handle. The lash, motionless on the floor, delineates an S whose narrowest tip curves back on itself.”
At a time in the 1980s, when it could still be suggested Jean Paulhan was the voice behind ‘Pauline Réage’, Sarane Alexandrian in his Histoire de la littérature érotique seemed committed to denying female authorship to any of the hundred erotic classics he identifies (Emmanuelle, it is whispered, was written by the husband of Emmanuelle d’Arsan). I, in no way, wish to apply the same conclusion to Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s L’Image but a re-reading of the text reveals repeatedly, the Alain R G style. I’ll leave readers to their own conclusions.
Both Histoire d’O and L’Image figure in the concise list (just twelve books) drawn up by Pieyre de Mandiargues in 1975, identifying modern erotic literature. Susan Sontag also placed the two French novels among the very few (5) erotic novels she considered to have serious artistic worth. “Intoxicating as is their subject (if the reader doesn’t cut off and find it just funny or sinister)” writes Sontag in her essay The Pornographic Imagination, “both narratives are more concerned with the use of erotic material than with the expression of it. And this use is pre-eminently – there is no other word for it – literary.”
L’Image was made into a 1973 film, The Image, also known as The Punishment of Anne and The Mistress and the Slave, and was directed by Radley Metzger, sticking surprisingly close to the original text. Describing the film as an “intense little gem” Boris Lugosi wrote, “Metzger lavishes much care on the film in just about every aspect, pushing it towards the level of pure art.”
As in the book the film’s structure is divided in 10 chapters:
Everything Resolves Itself
Under the pseudonym “Henry Paris,” Metzger directed several explicit adult erotic features during the mid to late 1970s. His signature film style of “elegant erotica”, developed into “a Euro-centric combination of stylish decadence, wealth and the aristocratic”.
John Phillips writing on Alain Robbe-Grillet states, “It is rare for an important writer to become an equally important film-maker.” Alain Robbe-Grillet maintained, “What is absolutely gripping about the cinema is that it exercises a direct influence on the public… It has an erotic impact that is far superior to that of the written sentence.”
As for Catherine Robbe-Grillet, she has, in her late years, taken on the role of grande dominatrice de la femme. Vanity Fair reports, “The life of Catherine Robbe-Grillet makes Fifty Shades of Grey look like a Disney movie. In 1951, she became the mistress of the writer—and accomplished sadist—Alain Robbe-Grillet, whom she later married. Today, an 83-year-old widow, she is France’s most famous dominatrix.”
Is there a conflict of reporting? This nouveau rôle for our author of The Image just might beg the question; If Mrs R-G was so submissive then, how are we to account for la Maitresse Incroyable of her later years?
text © Stefan Prince
Playing his part in the smoke and mirrors which portrayed the writer of Story of O as beyond reach and behind a mask of anonymity, Jean Paulhan asks in this, the book’s preface, “But to whom is the letter addressed? And whom does the discourse aim to convince? Whom is one to ask? I don’t even know who you are.”
This was a wonderful subterfuge considering Histoire d’O was written for him, the oft described “ultimate love-letter”, and that Pauline Réage was in fact his devoted mistress Dominique Aury. Story of O was written in answer to his challenge. For Aury it was une entreprise de seduction.
“Literature was a shared passion,” wrote Geraldine Bedell, “Theirs was a relationship of minds as well as bodies, so it was fitting that, when she started to worry about losing him, she should try to win him back with sex in the head.”
The result was Histoire d’O. Jean Paulhan, a generation older than Dominique Aury, was in his early sixties when she fulfilled his challenge to write something akin to Sade. He was married to Germaine Dauptain.
In her book Nom De Plume, Carmela Ciuraru explains, “The novel was written as a challenge to Paulhan’s dare… Aury never intended the novel to be made public, but Paulhan insisted on it.”
Aury told the documentary filmmaker Pola Rapaport shortly before her death,“I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him”.
Film director Eric Rochat, under the guise of Ron Williams (pseudonyms are numerous and multifarious in the story of the book, its translations and its various incarnations!) not surprisingly – having been producer on the 1975 film production of the novel, and director of Story of O 2 – took this idea, of the story as “letter”, as the leitmotif for his ten part TV series shot in Brazil.
At the beginning of each episode of Story of O – The Series, we see the writer of the story corresponding with her lover, his voice being that of the film’s “Sir Stephen”. And if the opening lines seem familiar but cannot be found in the novel, it is because Eric paraphrases the preface to Story of O. They are the words, almost, of Jean Paulhan;
“Rid me of these dreams, deliver me, take me so that I have not even the time to dream I am unfaithful to you.” demands the on-screen writer at her desk.
Sir Stephen’s voice relates, “What I have read so far in your story of O is the most fiercely intense love-letter a man could ever hope to receive. It’s also a fairy tale, for adults – a dream.”
“It’s more than a dream,” she replies, “You’ve got to understand, love is no joke. There’s no freedom in it. Damn the freedom! – My love, listen and live my dream – if you dare.”
Jean Paulhan, imagining the writer’s demands, had written;
Weary me, exhaust me. Rid me of these dreams. Deliver me. Take the lead, make haste so that I shall not even have the time to dream that I am unfaithful to you.
“I make a strange kind of progress as I advance in the Story of O,” Paulhan continues in his introduction, “advancing as through a fairy-tale… advancing as through one of those fairy-tale castles which seem so deserted…”
Indeed, it was Paulhan who wrote, “The Story of O is surely the most fiercely intense love-letter a man could ever receive.”
In writing the preface to Story of O, Paulhan attracted intense scrutiny by those tempted to attribute the novel to him. After all, it called to mind the mask of Georges Bataille who, having written his Madame Edwarda under the pseudonym Pierre Angelique, also contributed its preface under his own name.
As a prime suspect in the making of this scandalous text,” writes Carmela Ciuraru, “Paulhan paid a price.” The story goes, that when he was nominated for membership in the elite Académie Francaise (which consisted of 40 members known as “immortals”) the opponents of his candidacy placed a copy of Histoire d’O on every Academy member’s chair in protest.
Paulhan was elected anyway.
On my ‘O’ website I have written that knowing now what we have learnt about the writer of ‘O’ (birth name Anne Desclos) it is surely easy to see that Dominique Aury is ‘O’ and that ‘O’ is the Aury ‘Pauline Réage‘ would like her to be.
Aury spent her teens and adult life in clandestine liaisons – covering her tracks less she embarrass her family, particularly her mother (“my freedom lay in my silence, as my mother’s lay in hers…”) – even denying authorship of her one novel.
At Jean Paulhan’s funeral in 1968 only a select few recognised ‘Pauline Réage‘, walking behind the coffin upon which could be seen a large wreath without a name.
Paulhan’s daughter-in-law, Jacqueline, later claimed that she had learned the truth identity of the writer of ‘O’ only at Paulhan’s funeral;
“There was a very big bouquet of flowers with no name attached… I was standing next to Dominique Aury, whom of course I knew well, and I remarked, ‘I suppose they must be from Pauline Réage.’ Dominique turned to me and said, ‘Mais, Jacqueline, Pauline Réage c’est moi.’”
Jean Paulhan (1884 – 1968)
Anne Cécile Desclos
(Dominique Aury/ Pauline Réage)
(1907 – 1998)
TEXT © S PRINCE
When it comes to Story of O I love a challenge, and when a fan of the 1975 film recently asked on a social media site, why does a toy car feature in the foreground of the love-making scene between O and Jacqueline? I couldn’t help wondering whether its placement was just a simple matter of composition, like Cézanne positioning a knife to direct your eye to the still-life of apples. Or was this about something else? I couldn’t help recalling that a similar car appears in an old photo I came across on Google Images.
The car is, I think, a 1929 De Soto, American made, and parked outside the offices of the publisher Éditions Gallimard. The photo was taken in 1929.
It was Gallimard to whom Jean Paulhan offered for publication Histoire d’O, written by the anonymous “Pauline Réage”. Gallimard turned down the opportunity unaware that Réage was in fact their employee Dominique Aury (Anne Desclos) and the clandestine lover of Paulhan.
Forty years on from writing Histoire d’O Dominique Aury grumbled in a television interview she gave when she was 87, “Gaston Gallimard said, ‘We can’t publish books like this,” though he had published Jean Genet, which was much nastier!”
Éditions Gallimard was founded on 31 May 1911 in Paris by Gaston Gallimard (1881–1975) as Les Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française. It remains one of the leading French publishers of books.
“Gide, Claudel, Aragon, Breton, Malraux, Joyce, Faulkner, Saint-Exupery, Michaux, Sartre, Queneau, Ionesco, Pinter, Camus, Yourcenar, Duras, Kerouac, Modiano, Le Clézio, Kundera, Tournier … one could easily write a history of literature and ideas in the 20th century by reading the catalog of Éditions Gallimard “
(Bibliothèque nationale de France)
Dominique Aury was an eminent figure in literary France, and had been when she wrote Histoire d’O at the age of 47. A translator, editor and judge of literary prizes, for a quarter of a decade, Aury was the only woman to sit on the reading committee at Gallimard.
The film set design of Just Jaeckin’s Histoire d’O (1975) is credited to the talented set decorator and production designer Olivier Paultre. The previously noted model car is one of numerous props that give the film a distinctive richness. There is also a ceramic car-teapot (or is it a butter-dish?) within the same set as the model car, and it is understandable that the property ‘buyer’ should have chosen such things considering the screenplay takes the book’s opening car scenes (two alternative beginnings) as its starting point:
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.
One can easily imagine the writer of Histoire d’O reading her newly written passages to her lover Jean Paulhan, quietly and secretively, within their parked car, during their clandestine meetings. Such are the scenes described by Réage in her mémoire, A Girl In Love. No doubt the streets of Paris were busy enough with cars, the city having been liberated from Nazi occupation just ten years earlier.
“The story was still not completely written when, having resumed their assignations back in Paris in the fall, the man asked her to read sections out loud to him, as she wrote them. And in the dark car, in the middle of an afternoon on some bleak but busy street, near the Buttes-aux-Cailles, where you have the feeling you’re transported back to the last years of the previous century, or on the banks of the St. Martin Canal, the girl who was reading had to stop, break off, once or more than once, because it is possible silently to imagine the worst, the most burning detail, but not read out loud what was dreamt in the course of interminable nights.”
(A Girl in Love – to be found as a preface to Retour á Roissy by Pauline Réage)
I count as possible precedents to the opening passage of Story of O photo features which the younger Aury/Desclos may have found in her father’s copies of Paris Magazine or indeed other such adult fare.
Maybe the “Get in” derived from Paulhan’s assertive manner during their long affair. Who knows? Italian comic-strip wizard Guido Crepax offers us a monster of a automobile whisking ‘O’ away to the Roissy château on the outskirts of Paris, in his own take, an illustrated Histoire d’O.
The rushing automobile is antique like many aspects of Histoire d’O with its ‘Gothic’ flavour and its trappings of Sade.
Is there not also a certain timelessness about Jaeckin’s film version of Story of O? Despite the datedness now, of the menswear and ladies’ coiffures!
………………………………………………………………………………………Time can be cruel in many ways.
“Just before summer, in June, I published, very officially, Histoire d’O.”
– Jean-Jacques Pauvert –
How shocked was Paris in 1975 at the release of the Just Jaeckin film Story of O, or at the publication of Histoire d’O twenty years earlier, is difficult to ascertain at this distance in time. By all accounts it seems the book was a slow-burn. Whilst gossip and scandal waited in the wings, “Commercially,” recollected publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert, “in the first year, the book was a disaster.” For the book, “there was a deafening silence, one without precedent… the press stayed mute with stupefaction.”
L’Express had started up in the previous year but even that publication deleted any mention of Story of O in their survey of then recent books which defined the era. In their interview Jean Paulhan had been quick to cite above all Histoire d’O but to no avail. The era was an austere one.
Too shocking for words? The press kept silent and attention was refocused upon the much talked about and somewhat scandalous Bonjour tristesse by Francoise Sagan, published at around the same time.
As for Histoire d’O, what was the literary crowd to make of it? “Everybody was expecting a total ban,” recalled Pauvert (in the following year the judicial authorities would hound Pauvert and Paulhan for the true identity of the book’s author), and everyone was participating in the argument that Histoire d’O surely could not have been penned by a woman – such an idea was inconceivable to many. “I think the idea that it was a woman was a big part of the rejection of the book.” recalled Jean-Jacques Pauvert, years later, “The novelty was surprising and shocking: that the most scandalous book that ever existed could have been written by a woman, played a primordial role.”
Speculation about the identity of the book’s author continued for years to come. “Candidates, principally male,” wrote John de St Jorre, “included André Malraux, Henri de Montherlant, Louise de Vilmorin, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Raymond Queneau…” As time went on the atmosphere changed. “It was quite extraordinary and funny,” recalled Jean-Jacques Pauvert, “… people took a delight in claiming they had written O.”
By the end of 1954 just a thousand copies of Histoire d’O had sold, printed in small runs (Bonjour tristesse had a million copy run). Not quite the imagined start for the book with which its publisher deliriously imagined he would “change the era”! Novelist and broadcaster John Baxter claims Maurice Girodias of the Paris based Olympia Press, fared no better with his ham-fisted rushed-out English edition of Story of O, made available from the same date of publication. “Not for the last time”, writes Baxter in his A Pound of Paper, “Girodias had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
By the time the film came out in France twenty years later, things had moved on. Histoire d’O was in general circulation, despite the ban on being sold to minors, the ban on its display and restrictions placed upon advertising the book.
The mysterious “Pauline Réage” had published a sequel, Retour a Roissy in 1969 with Pauvert, and she regained the spotlight in 1975 with the publication of O m’a dit, an interview between Réage (her true identity remaining intact) and the erotic publisher and writer, Régine Deforges.
By the mid-1970s France was riding a wave of big-budget sex film production due to the recent relaxation of government censorship. With the film Histoire d’O in production, the sales of the book increased rapidly from the modest figure of 4,000 copies (over the previous twenty years), to around 2,000 for the first year of the nouvel intérêt.
The film, a German- French co-production directed by Just Jaeckin (fully embracing the prestige awarded him by the phenomenal success of Emmanuelle), saw the novel jump from page to screen in the midst of a new debate about sex and violence. Not only did the news magazine L’Express (where Françoise Giroud, the Under-Secretary of State for Women’s Condition under Valery Giscard-Estaing, was editor) cover the release of the film, it also published, in three subsequent issues, excerpts from the book Histoire d’O. The public and the French Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF) were incensed.
The magazine was accused of trying to profit from the wave of ‘metro-boulot-porno’ sweeping across France. Both the film and the excerpts published in L’Express gained negative press, particularly among readers whose letters revealed both moral opposition to the book and their critique of the magazine’s obvious attempt at sensationalism; the film’s ‘O’ (Corrine Cléry) barring her breasts, whip marks and all.
Even in 1974 and later, the debate continued about whether ‘Pauline Réage’ was the pseudonym of a female or male writer. Numerous names were put forward. Angela Carter in The Sadian Woman (Virago Press, 1979) proclaimed, “Many pornographic novels are written in the first person as if by a woman, or use woman as the focus of the narrative; but this device only reinforces the male orientation of the fiction. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and the anonymous The Story of O, both classics of the genre, appear in this way to describe a woman’s mind through the fiction of her sexuality. This technique ensures that the gap left in the text is just the right size for the reader to insert his prick into, the exact dimensions, in fact, of Fanny’s vagina or of O’s anus.” How wrong was she proved to be.
Sadly some feminist critics just did not do their homework. Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth naively dismisses “pirated copies” of Histoire d’O as the words of “a woman with an apt business sense and a flat prose style counting her money.” Such assumptions were corrected by John de St Jorre in his book The Good Ship Venus (pub 1994); This highly skilled and respected woman of letters (Dominique Aury, journalist, editor and translator, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur) “had no thoughts – or intention – of publication. She had written nothing like it before, nor had she since.”
Feminist critics generally opted for the imagined male status. Followers of Kate Millett (“The Story of O tells it like it is about masculine phantasy better than does Romeo and Juliet.”) considered Histoire d’O an extreme legitimization of the domination of women by men, a result of the male opinion; “they enjoy it”. Alternative opinions interpreted Histoire d’O as a woman’s admission that she did indeed enjoy subordination, and refused to link the text to the ongoing debates about misogynistic violence.
French feminist author Françoise d’Eaubonne, who had raised questions about the motivations of L’Express, had initially defended the book, its “confession” being an important contribution to feminism”. Jennifer Sweatman in The Risky Business of French Feminism points out, “Male literary critics generally stressed the book’s “literary beauty”, defiance toward censorship of erotica and its provocative confessions. But, for feminist critics, the status of the author was in doubt; they couldn’t believe a woman had written the book.”
Sweatman maintains that ultimately “D’Eaubonne drew a feminist lesson from Histoire d’O, especially when reading it alongside Erin Pizzey’s book, Crie moins fort, les voisins vont t’entendre, which highlighted women’s complicated psychological reactions to abuse.”
Maria Marcus, who like many feminist critics (including Erica Yong) mistakenly assumed the true author of Histoire d’O a man, admits the novel filled her with a mixture of sexual excitement, horror, anxiety and envy. (Andrea Dworkin in Women Hating (1974) recommended a schema for self-protection “for those women who are convinced yet doubtful, attracted yet repelled”). Maria Marcus felt many readers would feel (whether they admitted it or not) that O’s passage through Roissy was good and right, and that O should return there.
In A Taste For Pain Marcus states, “- I know no other book expressing so well all the contradictions involved in our image of womanhood.” and continues, “O gives us a kind of answer, for she lives out what many of the rest of us have vague dreams about.” She concludes, “So we shall have to continue concerning ourselves with The Story of O, and I know no book that should be more central for the feminist movement to commit itself to, among other things, to be able to answer the young woman at the meeting with Germaine Greer.”
The young woman at a talk by Greer in Copenhagen in 1972 had “cried out” with desperation in her voice: “But how can we start a women’s movement when I bet three quarters of us sitting in this room are masochists?”
With the MLF in Paris there was little discussion about “contradictions”. It used its various press outlets to denounce Histoire d’O and published tracts that linked it with a recent rape of two Belgian women who had been holidaying in France in the summer of 1974. A tract entitled “Histoire d’O, ou le fascism sexuel,” was distributed during a demonstration against the book and the film held in September 1975, the year in which the film was banned in several countries including the UK. The tract accused the book and film of portraying a false image of abuse in which “women like it” and specifically targeted L’Express, which the authors insisted had “doubled its sales in Paris”.
As a result of the controversy French writer Paul Guimard resigned from L’Express, and following several enforced meetings with militant feminist groups Françoise Giroud, along with Interior Minister Michel Poniatowski, “promised to help create a refuge” for battered women or “women in distress”.
Truly, 1974 was “the year of Histoire d’O” (Pauvert). And was Histoire d’O still an outrage to common decency? Twenty years earlier the Paris Book Commission reported;
“Judging that the book, consciously and violently immoral, in which scenes of debauchery with three or more characters alternate with scenes of sexual cruelty, contains a detestable and reprehensible excitement, is in this way an outrage to common decency… there is enough here for prosecution.”
“thanks, to Aury for showing me, and others, the way into the chateau.” retorted Molly Weatherfield (Pam Rosenthal) – “Or the ways – in the first pages of the novel O enters the château twice, once blindfolded, once not – take our pick, it doesn’t matter. Just as it doesn’t matter how we stumble in, stupidly, haphazardly, purposefully, sex-positively — the door will open to disclose our own half-forgotten, naively imagined visions waiting there for us. Just as Aury’s imagination waited for her to write this most serendipitous of masterpieces, this most inevitable of visions.”
“O’s story is no simple housewife’s tale,” writes feminist theorist and psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love (pub 1988), “it is rather that of the “new woman” who emerged in this century… From such desires the bonds of love are forged.”
I have chosen the last word to go to Humo’s film journalist Erik Stockman who writes,
What Histoire d’O showed us eventually reminded us of something that Oscar (Peter Coyote) said in Roman Polanski‘s amazing Bitter Moon:
“In love nothing can be obscene! Everything that happens between two loved ones becomes a sacrament!”
But no, the last word should go to “Pauline Réage”: What did Dominique Aury think of the scandalous nature of Story of O forty years on from the time she put pencil to paper?
“Much ado about nothing” she said firmly to John de St Jorre in 1993, “that’s what I think. It was just saying in plain words what has been going on for centuries. Why make so much noise about it? It was just human nature, human conduct, the good and the bad together.”
Find out more about Story of O @ www.storyofo.info….. NEXT BLOG coming soon!
UK Film magazines promised British film-goers more than the British film censor would allow in 1976. The three British film magazines from my ‘O’ archive, which feature Story of O upon their covers promised the flesh and golden tones of Just Jaeckin’s Histoire d’O (one reviewer, it was said, “had seen so much flesh he was considering turning vegetarian”) but the film would not be made available to UK cinemas until late 1999, and to video issue until 2000.
The Story of O film was presented several times for certification, firstly in 1976 when it was rejected by the BBFC censors headed then by James Ferman.
Ferman was born in New York on April 11 1930, the son of a film director who had worked with D W Griffiths. He was brought in to the British Board of Film Censors, as it then was, in 1975 when the board was in danger of losing its remit after a number of its decisions had been overturned by local authorities and some films had been subject to prosecutions by anti-pornography groups such as The Festival of Light.
In many ways he had a successful run (of 24 years): no film he certificated was ever prosecuted and yet the proportion of censor-cut films was reduced from 40 to four per cent as he replaced scissor work with classification upwards. Ferman gained a reputation as an overzealous censor as result of his refusal to allow several films from the 1970s to be released following the introduction of video censorship and the media outcry over “video nasties”. However, during his 24 years as director, he frequently came under fire for allowing the screening of violent or sexually explicit films such as Crash, Lolita, and Natural Born Killers.
After being refused by Ferman and his team the distributors of The Story of O appealed to the Greater London Council’s film viewing board. They also refused a certificate. A number of cuts were made but these did not satisfy a full meeting of GLC members. September 26th 1978 found the London Evening Standard declaring on its front page:
The Story of O was shown for the first time finally in London in December 1999, having been awarded a Camden Council 18 certificate, for a short run at the ABC Leicester Square and then for a run at the Picadilly, – twenty five years after its British ban.
‘O’ had been shown previously in London on a small number of occasions to private audiences. One showing was to a capacity audience in London at the French Institute.
Membership undertaken previously was a requirement eagerly taken up by the London kink community. The London Institut Francais presented Histoire d’O (in its original French language) as part of a erotic film season entitled plaisir interditin (Eroticism in French cinema, 1930-1996) in the April of 1997.
The two part season saw Histoire d’O shown again in the May. Oddly, the accompanying still in the programme, attributed to the National Film Archive, was incorrect. It was an image from Kenneth Anger’s unfinished (and unseen) Story of O. Other films over the two months included Just Jaeckin’s Emmanuelle, Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales and Bernado Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris.
The Continental Film Review was a British film magazine celebrating all things sexy and continental. Undoubtedly a film magazine for incorrigible optimists. Continental featured movies from Italy, France, Sweden, and other continental countries that would rarely have been seen in the UK, except occasionally at gentleman’s adult cinema clubs, or at a flea-pit cinema for “one-day-only”, and stripped of all coherence by the British censor. I recall a European ‘The Sadist’ as a case in point, and a tiny cinema in Weston Super Mare, now long since demolished.
Continental Film Review did however, focus on the serious side of new cinema and championed the likes of Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Borowczyk, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. The magazine started up in 1952 and ran for almost four hundred issues terminating in 1984. As an art student in the early 1970s I found back-issues invaluable for collage and scrap-booking. Issue #288 sports ‘Story of O’ on its cover and is dated October 1976.
Sporting Jane Birkin on the cover (a still from Catherine & Co.) Films and Filming dated March 1976 does in fact feature “The Story of O – Pictures inside” – a four page picture spread (in black and white) of the film then denied UK audiences.
Britain’s longest established screen monthly Films and Filming ran from October 1954 through till March 1990. In its original form it ceased publication with the June 1980 issue.
With a colour spread rivalling the Playboy edition featuring Story of O in December 1975, Cinema X proudly displayed The Story of O on its cover in the previous month. Originally A Cinemonde publication in colour, Cinema X appears to have been envisioned by the company as the British arm of their publishing empire, which already included a similar publication in France (Cinemonde) and in Italy (King Cinemonde). Gerald Kingsland was the magazine’s first editor. Very much born of the permissive climate of the late sixties, the first issue’s editorial stated: “So far the more adult magazines have reserved a few pages for the X cinema… blood and sex are only lightly touched on, Cinema X devotes all its time to the world’s X cinema.”
Wikipedia states, “Cinema X was initially supportive of home-grown British sex films… By the mid-seventies, though, Cinema X’s love affair with the British sex film had begun to falter. The then extant policies of UK censorship meant that British films had to remain softcore while the United States and most of Europe headed into the hardcore porno chic era.” Cinema X ceased publication in the late 1970s but not before spawning its very own spin-off, Cinema Blue, in 1975, the year Jaeckin and his team completed Story of O.
As a publisher of de Sade, Jean-Jacques Pauvert (who had began his career working in the mailroom at the Gallimard publishing house) became used to seeing much of Jean Paulhan. It irritated him however, that Paulhan continuously spoke of a mysterious manuscript which seemed never to appear.
It did finally, and Story of O was delivered by Paulhan, into his hands, one cold and wet December night. A cleanly machine-typed manuscript with a little message:
“I would like you to read this. Either I am very mistaken, or else this book one day will have its place in the history of literature.”
Once home and having dined, Pauvert took a peek at the text and intrigued, read until he finished the manuscript at 1 am. He was stunned.
“It was the book I’d been seeking for years. Okay, I was the publisher of Sade, but with Histoire d’O, I would change the era… I felt delirious.”
Pauvert drew up a contract and after deliberating for some days upon the question of who the mysterious author must be of this manuscript (which had sent him light footed along the sidewalks of Paris as though at the start of a “great adventure”) he was introduced by Paulhan, in a bar at Pont-Royal, to Pauline Réage. “It was, of course, Dominique Aury. We knew each other well. And not only that, I had read her with delight.”
Pauvert recalls, “She stayed there, in her chair, as always modest, almost invisible. And seductive (she was 47 in 1954) Discreetly coiffed, discreetly dressed, discreetly seated like a well brought-up young woman, her voice soft and sweet.”
“I carried on wildly about her novel:” continues Pauvert, “a masterpiece, but above all a revolution. No one had written anything like it, and we were going to change the world…”
Aury (Declos) apparently spoke very little (“finding me, no doubt, excessive”). Perhaps she foresaw how difficult it would be for people to accept Story of O. After all, this was 1954. In the succeeding months the press would remain silent about Histoire d’O. The book sold badly.
“Everyone was expecting a total ban,” recalls Pauvert. Rumors were spread. “They talked about a clandestine publication when, in fact, my name and my ad
dress were clearly written on it.”
One bookseller on the rue du Four went as far as claiming to customers, in whispers, that the book was banned. If customers were prepared to pay a big enough security deposit, they could RENT the novel for forty-eight hours!
From the Bookkeeper’s archive: French, American and British editions of Histoire d’O