“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