Angie David: Dominique Aury, the Secrete Life of the Author of Story of O/ I – Pauline Réage/Story of O/Publication

© Éditions Léo Scheer, 2006

Authorisation for these posts is being requested from the Publisher and copyright owner. {Notes} are from the author, HTML markups and [clarifications] are my own.


Sainte Thérèse The publication of the Story of O is an event in the French literary world of the 50’s. It’s an event that unrolls in two stages. Its publication in June 1954 is initially confidential. A print run of hardly a thousand copies is hardly sold out in the first year. The word of mouth has of course operated, but in a confined lettered circle. It is only in January 1955, when it wins the Deux Magots prize, that the scandal breaks out.

Despite its elitist character, peculiar to erotic writing, luxury books sold at a high price tag, the press begins to talk about it, and the censorship has to act. The author hides behind a pseudonym, Pauline Réage. The two individuals officially acknowledged in the book are Jean Paulhan, author of the preface, and the publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert. Jean Paulhan is one of the greater representatives of French publishing of the period, member of the selection committee of Gallimard and historic director of the Nouvelle Revue Française, the NRF. Jean-Jacques Pauvert is a publisher considered subversive, notably for its re-publishing work, at the same time, of the works of the Marquis de Sade.

The Story of O is scandalous by its subject, the eroticism of sado-masochist practices, by its author – a woman defends the principle of love in slavery -, by its context, the virtuous policies of the French government. The Story of O has nonetheless a special place in erotic literature. Its heroine is no ingénue, but a woman accepting torture as proof of love. The tale is narrated by O, and not by her tormentors. She seeks that pain more than the pain be imposed on her.

O is taken by her lover, René, to a strange castle, where men are all powerful, and women are their sex slaves. She is told she has to accept rapes, tortures, humiliations, for the love of René. It is his wish. O does not resist at all, this condition of love is for her natural, evident. Any man who’s member of that brotherhood may dispose of O as he wishes, for sexual or torture acts.

After two weeks, O leaves the castle, and René explains that she is not free for it. The ring she now wears is an acknowledgement sign, that obliges her to give herself to any one who wears the same, and so desires. A range of rules on clothing and postures – offered – must be respected. O resumes her fashion photographer work, more silent and bruised, and seduces a young model, Jacqueline. O likes being submissive to men, and conquer women. As O and Jacqueline start their relationship, René takes O to another man’s house. Older, certainly English, Sir Stephen is a dominant man. René admires him so much that he gives O to him. Sir Stephen is her new master.

The sadness of being abandoned by her lover quickly fades in front of the cruelty and exclusivity that Sir Stephen imposes on O. She begins to love him and to despise René, who falls in love with Jacqueline, who dominates him entirely. Sir Stephen is by contrast a strong being. He loves O and won’t abandon her. O is increasingly subjected to his brutality, the daily whipping, the rapes by her mouth, her sex and her buttocks. Sir Stephen decides to take her to Anne-Marie, the lady of the rings, to have her buttocks branded to his initials with a hot iron, and to fit two heavy metallic rings to her labia’s lips. She now wears the visible marks of her uncontested slavery. O looks at her thin and painful body with pride. She belongs to Sir Stephen and is grateful to him. Later they travel to Sir Stephen’s holiday home in Southern France, with René, Jacqueline and Natalie, Jacqueline’s younger sister, who is very attached to O.

The rapes and tortures ritual continue identically, until one night Sir Stephen introduces O to a foreigner, german of flemish, named the Commander. He asks O to satisfy that man. The next day O is given the mask of an owl, and there, together (at a ball) in another castle, naked under the mask, Natalie holds her by a chain attached to her neck. She is looked at with surprise and fright. At the end of the night Sir Stephen and the Commander take her, on a table, one after the other. This last scene is the most dream-like of the novel, suspended in the dream. In two sentences two possible endings to the story are offered: abandonment or death. None is chosen.

Jean Paulhan himself brings the manuscript of Story of O to Jean-Jacques Pauvert. Since 1952 he has frequently mentioned “a mysterious manuscript that appears to occupy him much” {Jean-Jacques Pauvert, La Traversée du Livre, Mémoires I, Éditions Viviane Hamy, 2004, p. 195}, without ever showing it to him. During the winter of 1953-1954 they meet rue Jacob, and Paulhan has the manuscript with him. As he insists Jean-Jacques Pauvert accepts to read it. Back home he opens the parcel and starts reading. He finishes his reading in one go and exclaims: “It’s MY book. Paulhan was right; it’s the text I have been looking for for years.” {Ibid., p.196}

Early the next day, Pauvert calls Paulhan and offers an immediate contract with the author. Paulhan, negligently embarrassed, talks of a small concern. The author has already signed a contract with another publisher, André Defez, a nice and well cultured man, who directs his own publishing house, Les Deux-Rives [The Two Shores], which publishes an amusing series, “Of what do they live?”, about the means of subsistence of writers. He has also published a book by René Despuech, The piastres Traffic,  about the Indochina war, for which he has been convicted [fined] in court. The Story of O contract is already signed, but he cannot take the risk of another conviction, and of bankruptcy. He declines however to request from Pauline Réage, who has made the offer, the advance already payed out. It is then that Paulhan thought of Jean-Jacques Pauvert.

This manuscript is dear to him. Jean-Jacques Pauvert runs to André Defez and buys back the contract for Story of O without hesitation, for one hundred thousand francs of the time (about €1,500) equivalent to the advance. The rights split as twelve percent for the author and three percent for the author of the preface. Paulhan negotiates on his own, as Pauline Réage does not appear. It is the meaning of the choice of a pseudonym, and Paulhan has written the preface, “Le Bonheur dans l’esclavage” [Happiness in Slavery]. Only he represents this book.

Pauvert is his last chance. Paulhan had first offered the manuscript to Gallimard’s selection committee. In a letter dated 18 October 1951, Gaston Gallimard wrote to Paulhan that he could bring the manuscript of Story of O. This means that the book was completed well before its publication. Despite one “1” opinion {In the selection committee of Galiimard, opinions ranged from “excellent to be published – 1” to “to be returned – 4”}, Jean Dutourd tells Gaston Gallimard: “Gaston, you cannot publish this kind of books” {Dominique Aury, Vocation: clandestine, entretiens avec Nicole Grenier, ED. Gallimard, coll. “L’Infini”, 1999, p. 112}. Gallimard decided it was not acceptable to publish the book, he refused the scandal (although becoming at the time the publisher of Jean Genet). The scandalous subject is evident, but this may be also due that it is written by a woman. Albert Camus, who defends the book as he is opposed to all censorship, cannot believe a woman could have written it: “A woman? Never! It cannot have been written by a woman!” {Ibid., p. 113} At the beginning the secret is unbroken, since at Gallimard’s, where Pauline Réage works, no-one knows her real identity.

The publication of the Story of O is discrete, with only a few curious readers and enthusiasts buying the book in Paris bookshops. Some send their servant buy this unacceptable book. Its subject and mysterious author puzzle. Attributing, guessing who, man or woman, is behind Pauline Réage, becomes a game. The Story of O is available in bookshops but is sold as if it was a forbidden book. “Everybody talked about it in private, but the press is silent.” {Pauline Réage, in Régine Deforges, O m’a dit, entretien avec Pauline Réage, Ed. Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1975, p. 13} [translated in these pages]. The press ignores the book for which it has no interest. It ignore its literary style. No journalist, bar Claude Elsen in Dimanche-Matin of 29 August 1954, writes about it.

Only writers, in the literary reviews of the time, describe its originality. The two main critiques of Story of O are those of writers concerned with eroticism, André Pieyre de Mandiargues in Critique {André Pieyre de Mandiargues, “Histoire d’O”, Critique, June 1955: “Faced with those or other more recent, whose goal, explicit or not, is without a doubt, since from plot to language all contributes to voluptuous aims, 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 alive; above all they do not depend on the sensual fire, as they would in an erotic book. Here is a veritable novel (and this is so rare in French literature, since Proust, that one must applaude and rank Pauline Réage among the two or three novelists known today), and one would say this is a mystic novel.”}   and Georges Bataille in the NNRF [Nouvelle NRF] {Georges Bataille, “Le paradoxe de l’érotisme”, NNRF, no 29, 1st May 1955: “The eroticism of Story of O is also the impossibility of eroticism. Agreeing to eroticism is also agreeing to the impossible, I would even say, it is made of the desire for the impossible. The paradox of O is that of the visionary who died of not dying, of the martyr whose executioner is the accomplice. This book transcends its language, inasmuch as, on its own, it shreds itself, inasmuch as it resolves the spell of eroticism into the greater spell of the impossible.”} They write about it as a book of literature, a book of mystic literature, which is only a genre in appearance. Eroticism and mysticism are mixed in the novel. Georges Bataille writes: “This book, in this comparable to Klossowski’s Roberte [Roberte ce Soir] (more troubling, and in that way, perhaps more admirable), is the book of exception.” This sort of literature “does its work, which is to terminate the language that carries it.” André Pieyre de Mandiargues evokes “that literature, chaste as the language of The Princess of Clèves, hot as what I will not name, and of a simple density that leans on, or provokes, the motion of the heart”, “Pauline Réage is as exempt from morality as The Portuguese Nun or Sainte Thérèse d’Avila.” Mandiargues must know who the author is since he gives her exact references, religious and classical poetry of the 17th century.

Maurice Nadeau, in Les Lettres Nouvelles, writes a note about Story of O, but only has intuition of its writing {Maurice Nadeau, reading note on Histoire d’O, Les Lettres Nouvelles, October 1954}. He blames Pauline Réage for not letting go, up to a delirium, like Sade: “The most daring descriptions use a “salon” language.” It’s an article of literary critique, not of writer. He does not see what is extraordinary in the novel. Nonetheless he uncovers part of the mystery: “A woman of letters, it is said, hides under that pseudonym”, and guesses one aspect of the writing: “She would have us seriously believe that she confused eroticism with the small orgies of a certain world. One does not easily recover from that, given the first eighty pages of her work.” In the interview Pauline Réage gives [in 1975] to Régine Deforges, friend and confident, she acknowledges: “… I sought solely to tell the stories that after all I had told myself to fall asleep (… ). So it came out easily for the first sixty pages. Then I tried to construct a story, but the first sixty pages came out without trying.” {Pauline Réage, in Régine Deforges, op. cit., p.161} The other critiques and journalists dare not take position, by ignorance or caution. Some gossip columnists enjoy suggesting names – who is Pauline Réage? “Jean Paulhan, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, André Malraux, Montherlant or Raymond Queneau…” {“A well-kept secret”, Dimanche-Matin, 1955, dossier de presse Histoire d’O, IMEC.}, or “several promising young writers, notably Dominique Aury”. {France-Soir, 1955, dossier de presse Histoire d’O, IMEC.}

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