It’s an erotic classic yet it was written anonymously by a shy, intellectual French woman in honor of her secret lover.
Over fifty years ago, an extraordinary pornographic novel appeared in Paris. Published simultaneously in French and English, Story of O portrayed explicit scenes of bondage and violent penetration in spare, elegant prose, the purity of the writing making the novel seem reticent even as it dealt with demonic desire, 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 20 years ago, when, 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 acknowledged that the fantasies of castles, masks and debauchery were hers.
Aury was an eminent figure in literary France, and had been when she wrote the book at the age of 47. A translator, editor and judge of literary prizes, for a quarter of a decade, Aury was the only woman to sit on the reading committee of publishers Gallimard (a body that also included Albert Camus) and was a holder of the Légion d’Honneur. She could scarcely have been more highbrow, nor, according to de St Jorre, more quietly and soberly dressed, more ‘nun-like’.
The French state has not always had an easy relationship with Story of O, but, this year, the government has announced it is to be included on a list of national triumphs to be celebrated in 2004. Dominique Aury died, aged 90, in 1998, but many people who knew her well are still alive and a number feature in a fascinating and, as yet, unseen documentary about the book and the secrecy that for so long surrounded it, made by an American film-maker, Pola Rapaport.
It turns out that Story of O has had considerable influence. In the 1950s, such a book could arguably only have been written in France. It would certainly never have been published in England or the United States, both of which were in the grip of censorship laws.
Now, of course, women are expected to write about their fantasies and what they get up to, and they do it with enthusiasm: this month sees the publication of One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bedtime, by ‘Melissa P’, who, we are told, is a 15-year-old Sicilian girl with a taste for blindfold sex with several men at once.
Story of O is not a book to read on the bus – or not the first 60 pages, anyway, which are written with an almost hallucinatory, erotic intensity that you would have to be rather peculiar not to be left hot and bothered by.
A young woman, O, is ordered into a waiting car by her lover, René, commanded to remove her underwear, and driven to a chateau in the Paris suburb of Roissy. Here, she is initiated into a secret society with complicated rules: she is not to look any man in the eye nor speak to any of the other women. She must wear a corseted dress that exposes her breasts, a leather collar and cuffs. Any man may dispose of her as he wishes. O welcomes all this, understanding that the harsher the treat ments she endures, the more she proves her love.
These are the pages that, in a third-person account written nearly 20 years later, the author described herself writing at night, ‘lying on her side with her feet tucked up under her, a soft black pencil in her right hand… the girl was writing the way you speak in the dark when you’ve held back the words of love too long and they flow out at last. For the first time in her life, she was writing without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting or discarding; she was writing the way one breathes, or dreams… she was still writing when the street cleaners came by at the first touch of dawn.’
Dominique Aury, lying on her side in bed with her pencil and her school exercise books, did not intend the work to be published. She wrote it as a dare, 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.)