THE SHOCK OF THE NEW: STORY OF O

Just before summer, in June, I published, very officially, Histoire d’O.” 
– Jean-Jacques Pauvert –

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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NEW INTEREST

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.

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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.

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Just Jeackin’s Emmanuelle (1974)

French director Just Jaeckin (Just Jacki

‘Story of O’ director Just Jaeckin with actresses Sylvia Krystal & Corrine Cléry

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.

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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.

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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.

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Maria Marcus died earlier this year

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?”

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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”.

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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!”

Final Word:

2308034_m3t1w645h430q75s1v62683_201421_286245_3_024But 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.”

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text © S Prince

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Find out more about Story of O @ www.storyofo.info….. NEXT BLOG coming soon!

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UK Censorship & London bans The Story of O:

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“Films rated X are intended only for viewing by adults…”

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

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.

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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:

“London bans The Story of O”

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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

Una-Histoire-dO-CivettaWikipedia 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.

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“With Histoire d’O, I would change the era…!”

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Model wearing hat by Jean Barthet, photo by Regina Relang, Paris, 1954

“the Histoire d’O was the dream book for me.” – Jean Jacques Pauvert

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.”

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Players in the “great adventure”: Jean-Jacques Pauvert

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Jean Paulhan

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.”

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The face behind the mask: Dominique Aury

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.

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“Everyone was expecting a total ban,” recalls Pf3efd889fc00e876b6cefe8105c0ff6aauvert. 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!

 

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From the Bookkeeper’s archive: French, American and British editions of Histoire d’O