The Smuttiest French Novel Ever Written, Still Shocking 50 Years Later

A new graphic novel based on Story of O.

A woman’s existence, wrote French literary critic Dominique Aury in 1958, is “charged with truths of two kinds: those concerning submission and folly in love –– and those regarding daily life.” These days, much of the writing about women’s lives tends to concern daily life—work, child care, Internet dating—rather than passion. Occasionally, though, the folly bursts to the surface in all its tumultuous glory. One such moment has just arrived in the form of a graphic-novel adaptation of the dirtiest and most daring of French books—one that still feels shocking more than 50 years after it was first published.

NBM’s Eurotica comics line has just released a deluxe new edition of Guido Crépax’s Story of O, based on the quintessentially smutty French novel of the same name. When the novel was pseudonymously published in 1954, it rocked the small Parisian literary world. The intelligentsia had reason to believe it was written by one of their own, and they went wild with guessing. George Plimpton, André Malraux, and Raymond Queneau were all suspects; still others claimed to have written it themselves. The main character, O, is a Parisian fashion photographer who submits to no end of sexual torture for the pleasure of her directing lover. In his approving presence, she is whipped, raped, and abused in countless ways. The author, whose identity was kept secret for 40 years, was revealed in 1994. To the horror of some, and confirming the suspicions of others, she turned out to be a woman, Dominique Aury, who had written the novel to depict her own fantasies.

What’s shocking about Story of O is just how shocking it really is. You’d think, in our pornified culture, that a novel scandalous in 1954 might appear quaint today. But no. Aury delivers the hard stuff straight on, and it’s just as potent now as it was back then. The book begins with O and her lover, René, walking through the Parc Montsouris, an idyll that ends as René guides O into a mysteriously waiting car and delivers her to a castle at Roissy, just outside the city. There, she is stripped, bound, and made to submit to the whims of a host of masked men.

By Page 10, the doors of the castle at Roissy have slammed shut, and we see O gang-raped for the first, but not the last, time. The scene is unapologetically horrifying, and we’re given no context for it, nothing to leaven the abuse that leaves O “sobbing and befouled by tears” while “the furrow of her loins … burned so she could hardly bear it.”

Beyond the pure violence of these acts, it is O’s attitude of unwavering consent that startles. Upon leaving Roissy after two weeks, she observes:

That she should have been ennobled and gained in dignity through being prostituted was a source of surprise, and yet dignity was indeed the right term. She was illuminated by it, as though from within, and her bearing bespoke calm, while on her face could be detected the serenity and imperceptible smile that one surmises rather than actually sees in the eyes of hermits.

What would make a woman exult in her own submission? It was in an interview with John de St. Jorre in the New Yorker in 1994 that Dominique Aury revealed her identity, admitting, at last, that she had written the novel for her lover, Jean Paulhan, a prominent intellectual who had written the introduction, “Happiness in Slavery.” Aury and the married Paulhan had had an affair, which began in the 1930s, when she was in her 30s and he in his 60s, and continued until his death in 1968. In the interview with St. Jorre, Aury movingly states that she wrote the novel out of a fear that Paulhan would leave her. “What could I do?” she asks, “I wasn’t young, I wasn’t pretty, it was necessary to find other weapons.” The weapon she chose captivated not only Paulhan but generations of readers, inspiring countless tributes and adaptations, including a movie starring Udo Kier, a song by the Dresden Dolls, and a short film by Lars von Trier.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a few feminist critics have taken issue with all this, calling it male fantasy at its worst and accusing Aury (or Réage) of betraying her gender. Aury’s response, as told to St. Jorre, was that she had simply written scenes from her own fantasy life, begun when she was a teenager. “All I know is that they were honest fantasies,” says Aury, “whether they were male or female, I couldn’t say.” She also states the obvious by saying that the book wasn’t meant as an instruction manual. “There is no reality here. Nobody could stand to be treated like that. It’s entirely fantastic.”

It may be fantasy, but many agree that it’s something more, too. As the writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, a contemporary of Aury’s, put it in the introductory note written for the novel’s 1965 English-language publication, it is “not dependent upon the sensual fire,” but on something that is “genuine,” “mystic,” and “anything but vulgar.” Mystic or not, one can’t help but feel, when reading Story of O, that there’s something more than pornography going on here, that what Aury is really portraying is the beating heart of passion at its wildest and most raw.

It’s the great paradox of women’s lives that we are expected to begin life with a passionate union and then immediately put it away and get on with the business of working and raising children. Adult women who get stuck on the passion are deemed unstable or tragic. Given that, it takes an extreme act—an act of self sacrifice—to break out of the bind.

Daphne Merkin wrote about giving herself over to spanking in her New Yorker essay, “Unlikely Obsession.” Toni Bentley wrote her strange and surprisingly great ode to anal sex, The Surrender, in 2004; Cristina Nehring summed up the instinct in her refreshing apologia for passion in literature and life, A Vindication of Love, writing,“every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence.” Dominique Aury lit the way with Story of O, a novel that begins and ends with messy degradation, and in which every physical act leads to spiritual transcendence.

Crépax’s beautiful drawings of naked women encased in a velvety black cover are worth drooling over. But the images, which can be merely voyeuristic in the absence of Aury’s layered writing, do not quite get at the crux of the novel. Somehow the pictures themselves emphasize the sex and domination and not the nature of passion itself. Throughout the book, O and René exchange assurances of love, and right at the heart of the story, O describes the beginning of this passion:

In the space of a week, she learned fear, but certainty; anguish, but happiness. René threw himself at her like a pirate at his prisoner, and she reveled in her captivity, feeling on her wrists, her ankles, feeling on all her members and in the secret depths of her heart and body, bonds less visible than the finest strands of hair, more powerful than the cables the Lilliputians used to tie up Gulliver, bonds her lover loosened or tightened with a glance. She was no longer free? Yes! thank God, she was no longer free. But she was light, a nymph on clouds, a fish in water, lost in happiness.

In describing the place where violence and tenderness, pleasure and pain, love and brutality all meet, she’s not describing an eccentric fetish culture, but a universal desire. We can all recognize in this description the thrilling vulnerability of falling in love. To forge a deep connection with another human being is to transcend the bounds of our selves, Aury is saying, and only then can we truly be free.

Aury was in her 40s when she wrote Story of O. Paulhan was long-married and staying that way. Though their relationship was relatively public, they weren’t about to buy a house in the suburbs, have some kids, and get active in the local French PTA. What they had was passion, and it was this passion that Aury celebrated in the novel she wrote and offered, chapter by chapter, to Paulhan. She was that rare woman, who, whether by chance or by choice, was not seduced by the rewards of domesticating her love. She stayed in the passion, explored it, and gave it to her readers whole.

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