I wrote the story of O

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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 10 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.

We’ve had swinger-sex from Catherine Millett and pensioner sex from Jane Juska, who advertised in the New York Review of Books for men who would also throw in some conversation about Trollope. The burnings of Story of O by American campus feminists in the 1980s have, it seems, had a less enduring and subversive effect than the book itself.

But first things first. 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.) Subsequently, they worked together at the literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française and at Gallimard.

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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.’

Literature was a shared passion. Dominique Aury once boasted that she had read all of Proust every year for five consecutive years. Novelist and cultural critic Regine Desforges, who became Aury’s friend (and who interviewed ‘Pauline Reage’ in 1976, publishing the conversation as ‘O m’a Dit, Confessions of O’) remembers: ‘Dominique Aury was fascinated by intelligence. The intelligence of Paulhan was obvious. And for her it became a kind of obsession.’ Theirs was a relationship of minds as well as bodies, so it was fitting that, when she started to worry about losing him, she should try to win him back with sex in the head.

Jean Paulhan, a generation older than Dominique Aury, and in his early sixties when she wrote Story of O, was married twice. The first alliance produced a son; the second, to Germaine Dauptain, was overshadowed by her long illness with Parkinson’s disease (she was already an invalid when he met Dominique Aury, although she would outlive him by four years). Jacqueline Paulhan, who married his son, told me that in addition to his long relationship with Dominique, there were also other women: ‘My father-in-law was quite the ladies’ man.’

By the early 1950s, Aury was worried that his attention might be shifting. Well aware of his liking for erotic literature (he had written a preface to de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom), she said she thought she could do something similar. Paulhan was dismissive: erotica wasn’t a thing women were capable of. In the footage, licensed by Rapaport to show in her documentary, she explained: ‘I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him. I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty. I needed something which might interest a man like him.’ (Pressed as to why she wrote in pencil, she replied mischievously: ‘So as not to stain the sheets.’)

Aury gave the notebooks to Paulhan, who thought the writing was too good not to be published and urged her to turn it into something longer, a proper novel. Aury admitted that after the initial explosive burst of energy, the writing slowed, and you can tell. The erotic charge seems less intense. O has a job and answers the telephone and moves around Paris, which is all a bit awkward and pointless when you are supposed to be in thrall to an identity-crushing sexual cult. There are high points: the sex with women is obviously strongly felt (Aury was actively bisexual at times in her life) and she introduces the dark character of Sir Stephen, an Englishman to whom O is handed over. Sir Stephen, she told Regine Desforges, ‘links to a desire for one’s father. He is a father figure’.

This is clearly an interesting development, from a Freudian point of view, but the switch of allegiances suggests she might have run out of steam with her first thought. And, generally speaking, the energy seems to fade. Regine Desforges, an impressive redhead who remains a household name in France, confirmed to me that Aury had never initially intended what she was writing to be made public. Another friend, Elizabeth Porquerol, now 90, says, however, that, like all writers, Aury wanted to be published and was flattered by Paulhan’s conviction that what she was doing was good.

Aury wrote the further chapters and read them aloud to Paulhan as they were parked in the Bois de Boulogne or outside one of the cheap railway hotels where their assignations took place. (He did not drive, and she used to ferry him around Paris.) She apparently found this reading business quite difficult: ‘It was a written text,’ she explained, ‘not meant to be spoken.’ It is impossible not to wonder whether there is a faint echo, in Dominique Aury’s consenting to finish and publish the book, of O’s progressive self-annihilation. As O’s tortures worsen and her torturers multiply, O attains a kind of calm, a purity of being, what Susan Sontag has called ‘an ascent through degradation’. Clearly, submission to higher authority held an enormous attraction for Aury.

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Aury succeeds in giving her book a novelistic shape. But as Colette complained when asked to comment on Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness : ‘Obscenity is such a narrow domain. One immediately begins to suffocate there, to feel bored.’ If events become ever more extreme (which they must), at some point you are going to lose all but the most committedly sadomasochist readers. It’s tough to maintain the tempo of pornography, and Dominique Aury’s final, rather pedestrian chapter was left out of the published novel. In its place were two alternative, perfunctory endings. In one, the action dribbles out with no resolution; in the other, Aury merely says: ‘Seeing herself about to be left by Sir Stephen, she preferred to die. To which he gave his consent.’

Dominique Aury told John de St Jorre: ‘One day I found that I couldn’t go on and that was all. Paulhan said it was all right. “You can stop now,” he said.’ Despite taking this level of direction, Aury insists that Paulhan had nothing to do with the writing beyond recommending that she remove one word, ‘sacrificial’. (You have to wonder if this is some kind of in-joke, since the book is about nothing but sacrifice).

There seems no doubt that the style is all hers. Paulhan contributed a preface whose sentences have none of Pauline Reage’s limpid clarity, and which is, in fact, extremely difficult to understand. Aury herself told de St Jorre even she couldn’t make head or tail of it.

Paulhan took the book to their joint employer first. ‘Gaston Gallimard said, “We can’t publish books like this,”‘ Dominique Aury grumbled in the one television interview she gave after the news broke, when she was 87, ‘though he had published Jean Genet, which was much nastier.’ Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a young publisher who had already made a name for himself with 120 Days of Sodom and for whom resisting censorship was close to an ideology, remembers being given the book one December afternoon, reading it overnight and calling Paulhan excitedly the following morning. ‘I woke him and said, “It’s marvellous, it’ll spark a revolution. So when do we sign the contract?”‘

Pauvert, a round-faced man who looks scarcely any different now from the way he did in photographs when he was in his twenties, says he had known Dominique Aury 12 years before he was handed the book. ‘I recognised her style immediately when I saw the manuscript. She is a great writer and absolutely uncopyable.’ Paulhan, he adds, could not write like that; his style was drier and more academic.

While many people speculated that O had been written by a man, or was the work of two or more authors, Regine Desforges always saw it as a quintessentially female work (she also had good reason to know who the author was, because she had a serious relationship with Pauvert). ‘I always knew it was written by a woman. It is absolutely a feminist work, empowering to women. For the first time, a woman is revealing her sex life, and it is the woman who dominates the situation, her feelings, her responses, her trajectory.’

It was agreed that the book would be published simultaneously in English by the Paris-based Olympia Press, a strange outfit which published a good deal of pornography, mainly for sale to sailors, but which was also the original publisher of Lolita, The Ginger Man, Naked Lunch and some works of Samuel Beckett.

Story of O came out quietly in June 1954 and didn’t attract much attention until it won the Prix Deux Magots, nearly a year later, which also brought it to the notice of the Brigade Mondaine, the French vice squad. Pauvert, who had already faced 17 prosecutions in the preceding three years, noted: ‘They were really very nice. We knew each other well.’

Paulhan, with his rather different reputation, was also hauled up to testify and dealt with them magisterially. After discoursing on the book’s literary qual ity, he added that: ‘Madame Reage, who is from an academic family which she feared to scandalise, has refused until now to reveal her name. If she should change her mind, I will ask her to get in touch with you.’

Dominique Aury’s adored father had his own collection of erotic literature, which she had read as an adolescent (Les Liaisons Dangereuses was her favourite). Her mother was very different. ‘She didn’t like men,’ Aury said. ‘She didn’t like women, either. She hated flesh.’

It may well have been to protect her that Dominique kept secret her authorship for so long. (She also, of course, had her position at Gallimard, and the publishing house’s reputation, to think of.) Pola Rapaport thinks Aury’s parents must have known; despite the secrecy, the Brigade Mondaine came to the apartment Dominique shared with them. On another occasion, a friend from the provinces reported that in her district it was rumoured that Dominique was the author.

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Aury’s son, Philippe d’Argila, the child of her very brief marriage in her twenties to a Catalan journalist, was himself in his twenties when O appeared. ‘I didn’t know she was the author,’ he told me, speaking at the farmhouse outside Paris which he inherited from his mother. ‘She never told me, really. I only found out in 1974, when there was talk of making a film and people came round to discuss it.’ (A film, generally reckoned to be a rather pallid version of the book, was made, by Emmanuelle director Just Jaeckin). D’Argila says he was not shocked: ‘I already knew her as a writer, and it is a very good book.’

Jacqueline Paulhan didn’t find out Dominique was the author until the day of her father-in-law’s burial. ‘There was a very big bouquet of flowers with no name attached,’ she told me. ‘I was standing next to Dominique Aury, whom of course I knew well, and I remarked, “I suppose they must be from Pauline Reage.” Dominique turned to me and said, “Mais Jacqueline, Pauline Reage, c’est moi.”‘

By the 1960s, according to Regine Desforges, some 12 or 15 people knew the true identity of Pauline Reage. In the 1970s and 1980s the numbers crept up. Philippe d’Argila recalls accompanying his mother to an event at which she was greeted by President de Gaulle with the words: ‘Ah, the writer of Story of O !’ (He thinks de Gaulle said it to shock his wife.) But the secret remained confined to an elite group of insiders until de St Jorre asked for and was granted an interview.

Even then, d’Argila believes, she didn’t really intend to confess. ‘He’s a good journalist. I’m not sure she followed too precisely what he said. I don’t think she meant to tell at that time.’ It may well be that his personality had something to do with it. De St Jorre is an engaging, serious man, who was respectful of Aury’s literary achievement and clearly would have had no interest in writing about her in a sensationalist way. Desforges thinks she did intend to reveal it: ‘She didn’t like lying, and she was relieved.’ In the subsequent television interview, Aury herself said she had waited until her parents were dead, and then for a little more time to pass: ‘When you learn that it was written by a very old lady it loses some of its scandal.’

The news broke on 1 August, when the French were on holiday; it was not until people returned to Paris on the 15th that it became a scandal. Then there were articles in the tabloids, photographs and requests for interviews. This was a book that had never been out of print, had been bought by millions, and during the 1960s was the most widely read contemporary French novel outside France. (Not much has changed: the day I spoke to Philippe d’Argila, he’d just signed a new contract for Greek publication).

Dominique Aury’s life had, however, already changed in the only way she really cared about, in 1968 when Jean Paulhan died. ‘I lived with him for 11 or 14 years, I can’t remember,’ she told Pola Rapaport when they met to film the last footage of her, shortly before her death. ‘The last part of my being alive, of my life being alive. After that, I didn’t. I stopped. Everything.’

Waiting in his hospital room, night after night, fresh from work on the other side of Paris, she wrote A Girl in Love, the third-person account of the writing of Story of O, as he lay dying. It was published soon after, with the original last, rejected, chapter, as Return to the Chateau . Why she consented to publish this abandoned part after so long is a mystery, not least because she prefaced it with a disclaimer: ‘The pages that follow are a sequel to Story of O. They deliberately suggest the degradation of that work, and cannot under any circumstances be integrated into it.’

Perhaps it was that she wanted A Girl in Love published and felt she needed to bulk it out. Perhaps she needed money, as Pauvert may have done.

‘I think she published the sequel to please Pauvert, to thank him for all he had done,’ says d’Argila.

She may have been past caring. After Paulhan died, according to Jacqueline, Dominique put together a book of recollections of him. ‘After that, she kind of gave up her interest in the world. She pulled back from the world and lost her short-term memory.’

Dominique Aury was able to conceal her identity for so long because she looked so unlike an author of a raunchy book. ‘She was very self-effacing,’ remembers Jacqueline. ‘She used to wear very pretty costumes, but not at all showy: very soft, muted colours which really matched her personality.’

Elizabeth Porquerol, who, despite her age, remains very acute, recalls ‘a very well-bred and polite person, always smiling and affable. But everyone is double, or triple, or quadruple. Every character has its hidden sides. One doesn’t reveal one’s secrets to all and sundry.’

When she was a young woman, Regine Desforges says, Dominique Aury liked to walk in Les Halles dressed like a prostitute.

Fifty years on, Story of O remains a powerful text, no longer as shocking as it once was, and no longer causing incredulity that it was written by a woman, but still able to touch people viscerally. Pola Rapaport, who read it at 13 and then again as an adult, told me when we met in Paris: ‘It catches people’s imaginations. I’m not into S&M. I find the book fascinating and erotic and repellent all at the same time: it’s unfiltered and unique.’

Peter Fryer, who wrote a book on the British Museum’s collection of erotica, described it as a ‘daydream transfigured by literary skill, notably by obsessive detail, Henry James’s “solidity of specification”‘. (Aury researched 18th-century costume and the book is studded with descriptions of interiors, dress, the appearance of things.)

But beyond its merits as a literary work, its merits or limits as pornography, there lies the paradox that this incendiary book was written by a woman who wore little make-up and no jewellery, who dressed with quiet elegance, who lived out a polite, bluestocking existence in a small flat with her parents and son. Beneath this unlikely exterior raged terrible passions. In the end, the most instructive aspect of the book is that it demonstrates the demoniac nature of sexuality in any or all of us. This quiet, learned woman understood the power of sex. She knew that desire can ignite compulsions to commit sudden, arbitrary violence and induce a yearning for voluptuous, annihilating death.

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