Controversial book publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert recalls in his La Traversée du livre, “Just before summer, I published, very officially, Histoire d’O.”
In the sixty four years that has since passed, Story of O has become one of the most widely read French novels. This is a book that had never been out of print. During the 1960s it was the most widely read contemporary French novel outside France. Today, this book has sold more than one million copies worldwide and has been translated into some 20 languages.
This extraordinary pornographic novel appeared in Paris in June 1954, published simultaneously in French and English. Story of O portrayed explicit scenes of bondage and violence in spare, elegant prose, the purity of the writing making the novel seem reticent even as it dealt with Sadean debauchery, with whips, masks and chains.
Pauline Reage, the author, was a pseudonym, and many people thought that the book could only have been written by a man. The writer’s true identity was not revealed until. in an interview with John de St Jorre, a British journalist and some-time foreign correspondent of The Observer, an impeccably dressed 86-year-old intellectual called Dominique Aury (born Anne Desclos) acknowledged that the fantasies of castles, masks and sadomasochism were hers.
Jean Paulhan, who was the author’s lover and the person to whom she wrote Story of O as a form of love letter, wrote the preface, “Happiness in Slavery”. Paulhan admired the Marquis de Sade’s writing and told Dominique Aury that a woman could not write in a similar fashion. Aury interpreted this as a challenge and wrote Histoire d’O. She filled half a dozen school exercise books with her written fantasies, never intening the work to be published.
“She wrote it as a dare,” writes Geraldine Badell, “a challenge and an enterprise de seduction for her lover, Jean Paulhan. They’d met during the German occupation, when she distributed a subversive magazine, Lettres Françaises, which he edited. Probably, they were first introduced by her father, in the hope that she might solicit Paulhan’s aid in publishing the volume of 17th-century devotional poetry she had collected. (She did, and it was.) Subsequently, they worked together at the literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française and at Gallimard. Paulhan was a towering literary figure, handsome in an imperious way, with features that most readily expressed amusement and disdain. In film footage from 1986, when she was 81, and which she stipulated was not to be shown until after her death, Aury remembers him as ‘tall, broad-shouldered, somewhat heavy-set, with a Roman-like face, and something both smiling and sarcastic in his expression’. Nearly two decades after his death, her eyes had a faraway look when she talked about him. ‘Existence filled him with wonder,’ she continued. ‘Both the admirable and the horrible aspects of experience, equally so. The atrocious fascinated him. The enchanting enchanted him.”
In the wake of the unexpected success of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy, translations of ‘O’ found themselves republished for new readers. “I predict that in a hundred years ‘Histoire d’O’ will still be read, while ‘Fifty shades of Gray’ will be forgotten,” writes Raymond van den Boogaard in his preface to a new Dutch edition of the translation by Adriaan Morriën. Blogger Dirk Leyman agrees, adding, “Story of O is still a pretty disruptive reading experience!”
Buy: ‘Story of O: 60 years’