The Corridors of Roissy....
the Garden of Samois...
Lux et umbra vicissim, sed semper amor
"Light and shadow by turns, but always love"
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life
Thus, though we cannot make our Sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
"The mysterious bond between pleasure
and suffering has certainly always existed;
it is one of the vulnera naturae which is as old
as man himself..."
The Romantic Agony
The Corridors of Roissy
'For a period it was the bestselling and most widely read French novel outside France...opening the door to a new generation of women writers and expanding public acceptance of what could be read.'
John de St Jorre 'The Good Ship Venus'
'Another version of the same beginning was simpler and more direct...'
The Story of O has been around for over five decades. It was at one time sold under the counter. In France it has never been out of print. It has been translated into numerous languages. Filmmakers have filmed it. Artists have drawn it. Writers have sought to emulate it, and now it finds itself on the topmost shelves of numerous bookshops, squeezed alongside a plethora of erotic writing, much of which claim to be "in the tradition of Story of O" but which appear only to distract the buyer from purchasing the novel itself. This is a great shame as in my opinion this fascinating book occupies a unique position high in the pantheon of erotic literature.
For the reader with a taste for the erotic Story of O promises a veritable homecoming and if your dreams and fantasies roam the corridors of the novel's chateau thereafter, you will appreciate how intrigued I was whilst driving through France a few years ago, by the prospect of a 'Chateau d'O'. Following road signs I left the main road to travel a short distance along a leafy country road to where I found the Chateau d'O enclosed beyond heavy iron and padlocked gates, a fairy tale castle set jewel-like amongst tall trees, gardens straight out of Last Year at Marienbad, and total quiet and privacy. The inspiration surely, for any Story of O but apparently named simply after a neighboring river!
The inspiration for Story of O, if its author Pauline Reage was to be believed, was no less mundane. Pauline Reage, revealed before her death in 1998 as journalist and translator Dominique Aury, claims the book was nothing more than a love letter to her lover Jean Paulhan, une entreprise de seduction, a way of keeping his interest after an affair of almost two decades. Paulhan, one of France's most respected literary figures, loved it and suggested immediate publication.
Histoire d'O by Pauline Reage with a foreword by Jean Paulhan, was published in an edition of 600 copies by Jean-Jacques Pauvert and appeared in June 1954. Some copies - nobody seems to know how many - carried a small lithograph by Austrian artist Hans Bellmer on the title page. The book relates the tale of a young Parisian fashion photographer, called O, and her willful debasement at the hands of her lover Rene and the members of a clandestine society dedicated to the pleasures of sadomasochism. O is taken by Rene to a chateau 'Roissy' on the edge of Paris where she is systematically turned into a slave through sexual assaults, regular whippings, and long hours in solitude. O is told:
'Your hands are not your own, neither your breasts, nor, above all, is any orifice of your body, which we are at liberty to explore and into which we may, whenever we so please, introduce ourselves... The whip will only be applied between the hours of sundown and dawn.'
'The heels of her shoes made less noise on the hallway floor than her clogs had, the doors were shut, the antichamber empty. O held her lover's hand...'
The publication of Histoire d'O caused immediate controversy. The daring nature of the novel became the talk of the French salons and cafes and there was much speculation as to the true identity of its author. In the following year Story of O won the Prix des Deux Magots, a literary prize generally awarded to new and unconventional books, with a number of famous writers amongst its earlier recipients. The literary quality of Story of O was confirmed and the novel's notoriety was firmly established. Despite subsequent public outrage and a police investigation involving the interrogation of the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the book continued to be published, and the identity of Pauline Reage, who, it is said, quelled further police intervention after meeting the Minister of Justice over lunch, remained a well kept secret.
'A gardener appeared on the path, pushing a wheelbarrow... the window was so tall and the room so small and bright that he would have seen O chained and naked, and the marks of the riding crop on her thighs.'
In England British censorship laws forbade the publication of Story of O for some time to come. During the the late 1950's and early 1960's two less than perfect translations printed in Paris by the Olympia Press could be purchased under the English counter despite the seizure of a number of copies by the Vice Squad. Story of O, for a brief period retitled Wisdom of the Lash, was however, never officially banned in Britain and in 1970 the American translation by Sabine D'Estree was published finally in England five years after its American publication.
When in 1974 a French film was made of Histoire d'O directed by Emmanuelle director Just Jaekin and starring Bond-girl Corrine Clery, public interest in Story of O flourished once again and the novel went into paperback for the first time. Pauline Reage thought the film script by Sebastien Japrisot well done but the acting awful. English film critic Derek Elley described the film "a tiny gem", but British filmgoers were eventually denied access when the film was banned outright in 1976.
Certainly no masterpiece the film is however, a pleasingly painted portrait of the novel, particularly in its opening chapter where Jaekin films O's debasement at the hands of her masters and the valets of Roissy in sumptuous golds and soft browns. Within the confines of 'soft-porn' movie making Jaekin does not stint from the inherent violence of the novel and Corrine Clery looks pretty as a picture accepting punishment from her gaolers or from her female companions at 'Samois'. Jaekin even manages to add a few original touches of his own including an ending in which O asks whether her ultimate lover and master Sir Stephen, would undergo what she has for him. As he answers a trifle uncertainly, she stabs out a lighted cigarette on his hand.
Due to continuing censorship the film's 'sequel' Story of O 2 starring Sandra Wey and directed by Eric Rochat (1984) met in Britain a similar fate as its predecessor. Another screen version denied viewers in Britain was a ten hour made-for-television production claimed to be the definitive film of the book, in which the author actually had a hand. This eventually surfaced in America as both an 82 minute adaption entitled Passion Slave, and a set of ten individual one-hour videos in which O is seen at the beginning of each episode sitting at her desk writing her 'story'.
Until in recent years the O reader on other shores was better served. Not only could he or she read the book, see the film, collect the film tie-in and listen to the film soundtrack, but could also pore over the luxury Jean-Jacques Pauvert edition of Histoire d'O illustrated by Leonor Fini, the graphically illustrated comic book by Italian comic-strip wizard Guido Crepax, or the explicit hyperrealistic drawings by Loic Dubigeon published in Paris in 1981.
Writers too have attempted to emulate the seductiveness of Histoire d'O. A seductiveness born of an unequivocal prose style at once relentlessly plain and matter-of-fact but originally stylish. Great attention is paid to O's inner feelings, to her clothes and to her surroundings creating a strange counterpoint to the detailed description of O's continual degradation.
'What surprised them most was how changed she was...'
After her stay at the chateau O is returned to Paris to resume her work as a photographer. She is still subject to the whims of her lover Rene and the rules learnt at Roissy. Rene hands her over to an English friend, the steely-eyed Sir Stephen who treats O with a mixture of chivalry and contempt, lending her to others, whipping her or having her whipped, branding her with his initials and having rings fitted through her labia. Robbed of independent action O's submission is complete. It is, however, totally voluntary. She signs no contract as Severin did in Sacher Masoch's Venus in Furs, and can leave at any time. But like Severin, she cannot say no. Feminist writer Maria Marcus in 1989 claimed the women's movement would have to come to terms with O's willing subjugation in order to answer the young woman at a Germaine Greer lecture who pleaded, "But how can we start a woman's movement when I bet three quarters of us sitting in this room are masochists?".
Maria Marcus, who like many feminist critics (including Erica Yong) mistakenly assumed the true author of Histoire d'O a man, admits the novel filled her with a mixture of sexual excitement, horror, anxiety and envy. (Andrea Dworkin in Women Hating (1974) recommended a schema for self-protection "for those women who are convinced yet doubtful, attracted yet repelled"). Maria Marcus felt many readers would feel (whether they admitted it or not) that O's passage through Roissy was good and right, and that O should return there. O does indeed return in the 'sequel' Retour a' Roissy, a final chapter to the original novel, written by Pauline Reage and published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert in 1969, the story upon which the 1981 film The Fruits of Passion was purported to be based, - a rather grey and spiritless affair directed by Shuji Terayama and starring Klaus Kinski and Isabella Illiers.
'Thus, everything seemed settled: September was just around the corner. In the middle of September O was to return to Roissy...'
The O reader may well wish to return to Roissy too, re-reading the novel and its sequel over and again, attracted like the Romantic artists and writers were attracted to old ruins - intricate cloisters and subterranean labyrinths which implied the possibility of sinister developments. Indeed, the corridors of De Sade. Pauline Reage has written:
"Who am I, finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part... which communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself - ?"
And she has O led barefoot and blindfold along cold tiled corridors and across rough flagstones beyond numerous locked doors to be chained by her gaolers:
'then the ground, cold as before, became rough, she was walking upon flagstones, sandstone, perhaps granite. Twice the valet brought her to a halt, twice she heard a key scrape in a lock and a lock click as a door closed.'
Although the true identity of Pauline Reage had been an open secret amongst Parisian literary circles for some time, the true identity of the author as respected journalist and translator Dominique Aury was finally revealed in 1994 when The New Yorker published an extract from the John de St Jorre book Venus Bound - The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press And Its Writers. St Jorre's lengthy and well investigated account of the 'journey' of Story of O from an initial 'love letter', then stack of pencil inscribed school exercise books, to 'succes de scandale', makes for fascinating reading. We learn 'O' began as Odile, based on a friend of the author. The inherent symbolism and suggestion of the female sex was not intended. Rene was a vestige of an adolescent love. Sir Stephen, a man glimpsed at a bar. Roissy is that part of the countryside north of Paris now ensprawled by Charles De Gaulle airport. Not everything is accounted for however, and there are knowledgeable doubters who suggest the name Dominique Aury is pure fiction, another 'mask' obscuring perhaps, the fact that the novel had been a team effort.
'O tried on each of the masks. The most striking, and the one she thought transformed her most and was also most natural, was one of the owl masks...'
The death of Dominique Aury on April 30th 1998 understandably went unnoticed by a multitude of Story of O readers who knew the novel's author simply as Pauline Reage. The newspaper obituaries recording her death in Paris at the age of 90 seemed finally to put the seal of approval upon the claims that Reage was literary prize winner and receiver of the Legion d'Honneur, Dominique Aury. But one 'mask' revealed another and now it was made clear that the actual name of the author of Histoire d'O was Anne Declos. It was apparently, from her mother's maiden name Auricoste that the writer derived the pseudonym Aury, and it was in order that her mother be saved from embarrassment that Aury maintained anonymity regarding the writing of Histoire d'O for some forty years.
"Who is she", they were saying, "who does she belong to?"
Story of O ends with O being paraded at a select garden party dressed only in a chosen mask of an owl and led by chains attached to her genitals, a scene Aury may well have witnessed at a fancy dress party in Paris (there exists a photograph of Leonor Fini dressed for a party taken several years ahead of the writing of Histoire d'O - the costume is almost identical to that which features in the Just Jeakin film). O has become a human cipher, at the disposal of all who desire her.
'She was then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from
Paradoxically O experiences a feeling of transcendent happiness and total absolution - a mystical tale's-end which lifts the book above mere perversity and had Graham Greene describing Story of O, "a rare thing, a pornographic book well written and without a trace of obscenity".
"The artistic interest here has precisely to do with the use not only of erotic materials but also erotic methods, the deliberate stimulation of the reader as a part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience."
-Eliot Fremont-Smith The New York Times
The influence of Story of O is wide ranging. I count myself amongst a number of acclaimed artists inspired to trace lines and colors across paper and canvas in attempts to visualize the essence of Histoire d'O. These now include Fini, Dubigeon, Crepax, and Britain's David Wilde and Lynn Paula Russell. British photographer John Dietrich has at least one of his sumptuous color photographs simply titled 'O'. London has its very own 'Lady O Society'. One of Germany's leading 'fetish' magazines started life as <O> (the title has recently resurfaced in America).
The influence of Story of O upon several European 'fetish' magazines including that entitled <O>, all of which record a burgeoning 'fetish club' scene; upon dance club culture; television and magazine advertising; pop music promotion; and upon the fashion catwalk is well documented. One recent manifestation of 'O' was the release of a three hour audio cassette from Watershed Audio. Story of O is read with care, precision and candor by Kate Alexander (another pseudonym - the voice is curiously familiar...) and although not the book complete, it is completely in the spirit of the original novel and read at a brisk pace perfectly suited to the text.
Further manifestations of Story of O, and its continued publication following the death of its author, are guaranteed. The movie video and the latest editions of the novel and its comic-strip cousins are all now readily available on the Internet. In fact the original novel is now available in its English language entirety on the Internet!
For the connoisseur a variety of the Leonor Fini illustrated editions are available in France. Editions Astarte have recently published further drawings by Loic Dubigeon entitled Return to Roissy. Scarce early editions of Histoire d'O turn up occasionally at specialist book dealers in Paris, London and elsewhere. In Paris the old yellow cover editions can sometimes be found amongst the second hand books and antique prints of the little book stalls along the edge of the Seine. But whichever edition the prospective reader might buy, he or she should beware, - Histoire d'O is strong medicine! - J.G. Ballard described the book as both, "strange and marvelous... like keys to a corridor of unexpected doors in our every-day lives...".
Read the book or buy the tapes and your dreams and fantasies might roam the corridors of Roissy for ever after.
"thanks, to Aury for showing me, and others, the way into the chateau.."
Molly Weatherfield SALON Aug.1998
The main part of the above article first appeared in the fetish fashion magazine Skin Two in the autumn of 1997 (Issue 24). An earlier version appeared in Desire magazine. THANK YOUs on my original website included:
Grateful thanks to John de St Jorre, and John Baxter. Tony Mitchell and Tim Woodward at SkinTwo . Several book-dealers in Britain (you know who you are!). Ian and Leslie-Anne at Desire. Paul Woods (of the former Coventry Gallery). Photographer John Dietrich. Caroline for posing with one of my paintings at Olympia. Friends at the 'market' (Chris King - fondly remembered). China Hamilton, Lynn Paula Russell, Noel in Britain and Markus in Germany for their encouragement. Rowen at the Erotic Print Society. . Freddie for lending me the book one summer in Oxford Street way back in the seventies. And a thank you to the director of Preaching ToThe Perverted for getting one of my paintings in shot right at the end of the film.
In memorium :
Dominique Aury ( born Anne Desclos, Rochefort-sur-Mer,
France, 1907, died 30 April 1998 )
photographed in December 1997
a few months before she died at the age of 90.
RETURN TO KEY O