André Pieyre de Mandiargues (1909–91) was a French writer of the fantastic whose prolific output included poems, plays, essays, novels, and short stories. Born in Paris he became an associate of the Surrealists and married the Italian painter Bona Tibertelli de Pisis.
He was a particularly close friend of the painter Leonor Fini whose feathered costumes, worn to post-war Surrealist balls, inspired the owl mask in Story of O. In a poem to Fini he writes,
“Because she covers herself with feathers sometimes like the king of the owls.”
The correspondence of Léonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues includes five hundred and sixty letters (three hundred and seventy of Leonor Fini, one hundred and ninety of Mandiargues) exchanged between 1932 and 1945. Fini’s letters to Mandiargues came to light many years after his death. They had been hidden in a secret compartment in his writing desk, away from the prying eyes of his potentially jealous wife Bona.
In his letters Mandiargues recounts his wanderings through the ghostly roads of Eastern Europe with his old Buick, intent on becoming a writer, and his visits to museums of ancient painting in Ghent, Brussels, Bruges or Antwerp when he marvels at a polyptych of Jan van Eyck, a temptation of Saint Anthony or a Calvary of Bosch. He never fails to finish his letters by way of adoration, to the “Chat Mammon”. In Monte Carlo Mandiargues studied the writings of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé. In Nice he found a rare nineteenth century book, Les Réves et les moyens de les diriger (Dreams and How to Control Them), by the marquis d’Hervey-Saint-Denys. From then on he diligently recorded his dreams, and this practice informed his writing.
Known for his flamboyant style and fascination with the erotic and macabre Mandiargues’ most popular book was The Motorcycle (1963), which was adapted for the 1968 film The Girl on a Motorcycle, starring a young Marianne Faithfull. His 1967 Goncourt-winning novel La marge was translated as The Margin (Calder & Boyars, 1969) by Richard Howard. The novel was adapted to film in 1976 directed by Walerian Borowczyk as La Marge, internationally as The Margin and in the UK as The Streetwalker. One of his short stories, The Tide, was also adapted in the erotic film Immoral Tales (1974) also directed by Borowczyk.
Another ‘Boro’ collaboration saw Mandiargues’ novel Tout disparaîtra adapted as Cérémonie d’amour (1988) also known as Queen of the Night or Love Rites. Manchester Metropolitan University Associate Lecturer Jonathan Owen claims “Both artists emphasise sexuality as a shocking and scandalous power”, and aligns this impulse with George Bataille’s understanding of eroticism, that eroticism is at once prohibited by but also realized by the codes of civilization. “Transgressive acts of eroticism gain potency from their own interdictions,” records Owen, “and ultimately reinforce the taboos without which transgression is impossible.”
A Refined Voice Expressing Horrible Things
Fini described Mandiargues as one of those “strange boys, extremely shy, cultured, childish and detached from everyday life“. Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the publisher of Story of O, recalled, “Mandiargues was also someone we liked a lot, tall, extremely polite, with a refined voice expressing horrible things.”
Prior to the publication in June 1954 of Story of O, Pauvert published Mandiargues’ L’Anglais décrit dans le chateau fermé under the pseudonym Pierre Morion. Impatient for the promised but long overdue engravings from Hans Bellmer, Pauvert had the novel printed without the engravings. The bookseller-publisher Visat published a separate edition of the novel some years later which included the engravings.
In his memoirs regarding Story of O, Pauvert bemoans the fact that after publication, “The press stayed mute with stupefaction.” One article appeared in 1954 (Claude Elsen in Dimanche-matin) and two notable articles in 1955; one in Critique by Mandiargues, the second by Georges Bataille in La Nouvelle Nouvelle Revue francaise.
Mandiargues enchanted by Story of O busily supported the book and its mystery author ‘Pauline Réage’, describing the novel as,
“certainly the most beautiful novel which has appeared in French since the war (and even before), the newest also. This careful, precise prose, which is so chaste even when describing the most horrible things is admirable, intelligent, perfidious…”
“Such a descent into hell…”
“… the Story of O is not, strictly, an erotic book. For at the two levels it is constructed, that of the spirit (or better: of the soul) dominates pitilessly that of the flesh. The image that four long chapters (a fifth one may have been suppressed) give of the modern world, the action, the characters, are extraordinarily vivid; above all they do not depend on the sensual fire, as they would in an erotic book. Here is a genuine novel (and this is so rare in French literature, since Proust, that one must applaud and rank Pauline Réage among the two or three novelists known today), and one would say this is a mystic work.”
André Pieyre de Mandiargues “Histoire d’O”, Critique, June 1955
Mandiargues’ impassioned note on Story of O is to be found in the Grove Press edition of the translated novel. He is seen to concur with Jean Paulhan that the novel “which relates the progressive, wilful debasement of a young Parisian photographer – a via dolrosa sexualis – could only have been written by a woman.” Both men had been amongst those named as possible candidates for the honour of fathering Story of O (along with André Malraux, Henri de Monterlant, Raymond Queneau and Dominique Aury). Both men knew exactly who hid behind the mask of ‘Pauline Réage’. Paulhan was her lover. Mandiargues, it has been pointed out, “must know who the author is since he gives her exact references, religious and classical poetry of the 17th century.”
“what we are shown in Story of O” Mandiargues points out, “is a complete spiritual transformation, what others would call an ascesis. Madame Réage, who has a good knowledge of English and does not mind showing it, could have entitled her book: A Woman’s Progress.”
“Yes, Story of O, as I have said, is indeed a mystic book!” continues Mandiargues, “Proud Réage… In the midst of her glowing tale, she has a way of involving herself, of slipping, at the worst possible moments, into the skin of her heroine, which is enough to make one shudder and at the same time make one feel a certain tenderness for her. The way one would feel towards a brave bull who has fought well. The château at Roissy, like the bull ring, is the sacrificial site. When women become exasperated, they sometimes assume postures wherein they seem to be offering themselves to the arrows of misfortune…”
Arrows of Misfortune
The “arrows of misfortune” of course references de Sade. Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out that although French literature is generally known, outside France, for its humanism & rationalism, it has always produced “works that are secret & black, ” which may well be “its most beautiful creations”(Sontag The Pornographic Imagination). And by way of the dark impulse shared by other French writers such as Mario Mercier (Le Journal de Jeanne) and Alain Robbe-Grillet (in his controversial Un Roman sentimental) André Pieyre de Mandiargues explores the Sadien and sacrificial setting of the château in his A Portrait of an Englishman in His Chateau.
Condemned on June 20, 1955, for contempt of good morals L’Anglais décrit dans le chateau fermé has few rivals in its sexual and sadistic echoing of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom. We follow a nameless narrator as he visits the isolated sea-bound château of a former English diplomat, the fetchingly titled Sir Horatio Mountarse who in order to fit in with his new French surroundings has translated his name, thus becoming M. de Montcul. He delights in torturing his fellow château dwellers in order to maintain his erection and the narrator joins in lustily. Along with the erotic clichés of bestiality, paedophilia and sexual torture, we are treated to intriguingly creative variations on the theme, including one extraordinary episode involving a young female victim and several flesh-hungry octopuses. The writing is purposely crude, the scenarios obscene. Mandiargues’ mock Gothic explores the “extremes of sadism and scandal, but with a certain irony”. Little wonder the author’s wife Bona recorded, “The only sublime thing that I recognize in man is his free imagination.”
André Pieyre de Mandiargues died in Paris on 13 December 1991. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.