“Just before summer, in June, I published, very officially, Histoire d’O.”
– Jean-Jacques Pauvert –
TOO SHOCKING FOR WORDS?
le choc d’Histoire d’O proclaims L’EXPRESS in its issue of 1st September 1975.
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.
An Outrage To Common Decency…?
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.”
text © S Prince
Find out more about Story of O @ www.storyofo.info….. NEXT BLOG coming soon!