One evening in the winter 1953/1954, Jean Paulhan gave Jean-Jacques Pauvert the manuscript he had alluded to many times in their conversations since 1952. A few months shy of 70, Paulhan had been for three decades one of the most influential figures of the French literary world. 27 years earlier, he was appointed as the new director of the Nouvelle Revue Française (“New French Review,” NRF), arguably the most important literary journal in the whole of Europe. He held that position for 15 years; then, in 1940, the German occupation caused him to lose it and join the Résistance to the German occupation while collaborators took the NRF; because of its history of collaboration, the NRF was banned at the Libération, in 1945. A few months before that night with Pauvert, in 1953, the journal was restarted as the “New New French Review” and Paulhan was at the helm once again. A few years later, he would become an “immortal”: the word the French use to refer to the members of the Académie Française.
At 27, Pauvert didn’t have the influence of the man handing him a manuscript. But in spite of his young age, in a few short years, he had already established himself as a key character in the publishing world and Paulhan knew what he was doing. After a turbulent school career, in 1942, age 16, his father took him to the “Librairie Gallimard,” the highly prestigious press that published the NRF and which, in those years, was still led by its founder, Gaston Gallimard, who was once friends and publisher of Marcel Proust. Pauvert was a troublemaker in school; there at least he would learn a job! 3 years later, in 1945, age 19, Pauvert created his own press and he was the first to take the writings of the Marquis de Sade out of the black market: in an act of defiance toward the government he published them in the open, with his name, as the publisher, adorning the cover. He paid a hefty price for that provocation: 10 years of litigation. But he won the case and that was the first reason for his name to go down in history!
The manuscript he received from Paulhan was a novel telling the story of a woman named O who, not out of deception but out of her own volition, accepts the most refined tortures and humiliations from the man she loves as well as from anyone, man or woman, he orders her to submit to. Depictions of sexual acts were graphic and the torments visited upon her were utterly refined. Most remarkable was the literary quality of the book: it described in graphic terms oral, vaginal, as well as anal copulations, the use of objects, piercings, and all sorts of devices creatively used, but it did so in a language that was cold, austere, reticent, and often reminiscent of very classic, 17th century, mystic and religious French poetry; it read as a dark novel that went somewhat like a text by Sade, but one where the subject matters never overwhelm the author who remains at all times in control of their account and of the literary effects that direct their writing. In short: the writing was strikingly modern! However graphic, Story of O was not pop literature; it was high literature. Written by some sort of Sam Steward (LHOF 2012), but a Sam Steward that combines what Steward kept hermetically separated in his own life: Phil Andros, but Phil Andros having a correspondence with Gertrude Stein!
“That’s my book. Paulhan was right! This is the book I’ve been looking for for years,” was Pauvert’s immediate, enthusiastic, reaction upon finishing the manuscript that same night.
The book came out in June 1954 in French under the title Histoire d’O. Pauline Réage was the author. Paulhan added a preface about happiness in slavery. In it, he described the novel as “the fiercest love letter a man ever received.” Just a few weeks later the book came out in English at Olympia Press, the famous Paris-based publisher who catered to a clientele of travelers in search for books that could not, because of obscenity laws, be sold in the USA or Great Britain.
The book did not initially get the popular success Pauvert had hoped. About 1,000 copies of the French edition were sold in the first year and a grand total of 1 press article was devoted to it in the first few months. The book, however, did become a sensation in literary circles: two very prominent writers, André-Pieyre de Mandiargues and Georges Bataille, both of whom had put eroticism at the center of their writing, published articles in literary journals where they treated the book as a chef d’oeuvre of eroticism and mysticism; in their view, reading it simply as porn was missing the point.
That specialized attention received by Histoire d’O in literary circles ultimately triggered the diffusion of the book far beyond these limited circles. On January 21, 1955, six months after its release, the book received the "Prix des Deux Magots," a relatively prestigious literary award. For the second time, the prize was awarded to a woman, Pauline Réage, and she was receiving it for an erotic novel — a genre in which women writers were exceedingly rare. What’s more: the attribution of the prize was unambiguous; in the jurors’ votes, none of the other books came close to Histoire d’O.
That prize changed the course of history. There had been talk of legal pursuits immediately upon the release of the book; the prize, by creating publicity around it, made those inevitable. An investigation was opened in July 1955 with a prosecutor intent on charging the author and the publisher; but in order to do that, he first had to find out who was hiding behind Pauline Réage. Interrogated, Pauvert simply said he had received the manuscript from Paulhan and did not know anything about its author. As for Paulhan, he claimed a woman had given him that manuscript one day, he had sworn to protect her anonymity, and besides he had no idea where or who she was…
Identifying the author behind Pauline Réage was to be a favorite activity among the Parisian literary elite and beyond for years to come. Many were suspected. Some, like Albert Camus, thought the novel was too graphic: “A woman? Never! This was not written by a woman!” Paulhan, of course, was a primary suspect since he was the source for the manuscript. But others were suspected too, including Pieyre de Mandiargues, the soon-to-be Culture Minister André Malraux, Henry de Montherlant, Raymond Queneau who, as a member of the jury, was photographed with Réage receiving the 1955 award with a towel covering her head. With the notable exception of Dominique Aury, a close associate of Paulhan who was also at times rumored to be Pauline Réage, all the suspects were men. Gilbert Lély, a remarkable poet, a biographer of Sade, and in many ways his first reader (when, in the 1940s, he was given access to the documents the family owned), compared the writing of the book with the style of an erudite author and wrote to her immediately after the book’s release that there was no question in his mind: she was that person! She did not respond…
The prosecution of course created publicity around the book! A man of the stature of Paulhan was suspected and Pauvert, just out of the Sade prosecution, was creating trouble again! An anecdote about Dominique Aury, the associate of Paulhan, will show the extent to which the book had become a sensation. Her son, Philippe d’Argila, recalled a ceremony he attended with his mother and Paulhan at the Presidential Palace in the 1960s. They were greeted by the President, the Général de Gaulle, who welcomed Aury with a loud: “Oh, I hear you are the author of Histoire d’O?” She, of course, was caught by surprise and acted as though she had not heard anything.
But socialites trying to identify the author behind the pseudonym is one thing; a prosecutor threatening to charge the author, the publisher and the writer who brought the manuscript, is a very different one. Paulhan was interrogated for the first time in August 1955. And then again several times over the course of the next 2 to 3 years. Pauvert was indicted and scheduled to be tried in January 1958. Paulhan was subpoenaed as a witness for the trial. But in a surprise move, the prosecution dropped the charges and the trial never took place! Instead, the book was subjected to three prohibitions: it was illegal to sell it to minors, to advertise it, and to display it.
Realistically, though, the book did not need any publicity anymore: the prosecution had already done that work!
The surprise move did not come out of nowhere, however. Aury, the Paulhan associate who had at times been rumored to be the author, had worked it out. Her intervention had something very Réage-like to it. Réage did her thing — writing a book — with mastery, and then never tried to receive credit for it. Similarly, Aury intervened and she resolved the legal quagmire but everything was done behind the scene — and the scene was set in such a way that the chance of anyone ever hearing about it was virtually inexistent… until, that is, she decided to reveal her role in this affair, 40 years later! Her gynecologist, who was also a friend, happened to be the significant other of the French equivalent of the Attorney General. Aury went to see her friend and, when asked what the matter was, she pulled out a copy of Histoire d’O. Of course her friend already had a copy! What she didn’t have, however, was the context that Aury filled her in on, including Paulhan’s and her specific roles. Nothing more needed be said: an invitation to lunch came two days later. A nice little house, with a chapel in the yard: where Napoléon married Joséphine. The lunch took place, it was pleasant, Aury seated next to the governor of the Bank of France. She did not exchange a word with the A.G., the reason for her presence was never brought up. He only insisted on walking Aury to her car at the end. There he kissed her hand: “I was very pleased to meet you!” And that was it. Recalling this decades later, Aury notes the courtesy he showed by avoiding putting her in a position where she had to ask or thank for anything. Nothing needed be said. He simply wanted to see up close what kind of woman writes a novel like this.
Pauvert thought the book would sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Prudent, however, he initially only printed 2,000. In the end, the book sold more than he probably ever imagined. But it took much longer than he thought. The legal obstacles, in France and elsewhere, had to be resolved first. It was nevertheless the French book the most widely read in the world in the 1960s. By 1975, it has a success that nothing can stop: 800,000 copies sold in France — a number that, however impressive, pales by comparison with the 4,000,000 paperback copies sold at the same date in the US. Translated in 20 languages, adapted multiple times in movies, the book is by then — and has remained since — the SM book the most read in the world — until 50 Shades anyway — but unlike 50 Shades, Histoire d’O never presented a tamed view of SM — quite the opposite!
As the reader just understood, unless they knew it before, before (and long after) she was Pauline Réage, Pauline Réage was Dominique Aury.
Aury had met Paulhan around 1939-1940. She was in her early 30s, he was 23 years older. She had been working on a collection of French religious poetry from the 16th and 17th century, after coming across a trove that had never been seen before. Her father knew Paulhan and he offered to introduce her: Paulhan’s considerable power at Gallimard could be useful.
They worked closely during the editorial process and they grew closer. To support the Résistance against the German occupation, she helped distribute a clandestine paper called Lettres Françaises (people were deported for much less so the risks were real). One day, she brought a copy of Lettres Françaises for Paulhan, asking him as she was handing it to put it in his pocket and not show it to anyone. Little did she know he was the editor and publisher of the paper… She thought she had made a fool of herself; perhaps more importantly, their common participation in the Résistance provided one more area for them to connect.
Over time, Paulhan introduced her to a considerable network of writers that included Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Marcel Jouhandeau, Albert Camus with whom she had a short affair, and, most importantly, Edith Thomas. Thomas, a novelist, journalist and historian, was a member of the Communist Party and she was the only woman member of the Comité National des Écrivains (National Committee of Writers), a collective of writers opposed to the German occupation. Aury and Thomas gradually became lovers: Thomas had never been with a woman and she was troubled at first; Aury was much more in command of the situation.
Although it didn’t last for more than a couple years, the relationship with Thomas was very important in Aury’s life and in some ways, Histoire d’O can be read as a love letter of which she (who inspired Anne Marie) was the second recipient. Their break up, in 1947, was a direct result of the growing importance in Aury’s life of the love of her life: Paulhan. Their collaboration on an anthology of writings under the German occupation brought then closer than ever. By the time the book was released, in February 1947, they were lovers.
With a considerable number of studies and translations in the immediate after war, she showed a remarkable productivity. The late 1940s is also the moment when she was invited to join the reading committee (comité de lecture) of Gallimard: every Tuesday, at 5pm, in front of the Gallimards, a dozen of writers give their assessment of the 2 manuscripts each of them took home in the past week. The first woman invited in those all-male meetings… and for 25 years the only one! She immediately became a pillar of the committee and her opinions were listened to with attention. With a formidable power of life and death over manuscripts waiting to be published in the most prestigious press of the country, she had, in just a few years, become the most influential woman in the French literary world.
By then, Aury and Paulhan’s relationship was an open secret. Paulhan was married; his wife was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and she gradually lost the ability to leave her bed; Paulhan probably felt that he could not leave her. For that reason, Aury and Paulhan never lived together. She would have to wait until 1968 — when he was dying and she spent every single night of his last 4 months sleeping on a small, uncomfortable bed in his hospital room— to share his bedroom for an extended period of time. Living separate lives gave them a freedom that they both enjoyed. But it also gave their relationship an aura of clandestinity, of secrecy, that perhaps Paulhan, but certainly Aury, enjoyed. We often feel that being free is being free to be and tell who we are at all times, without deceit or secrets. For Aury, the opposite is true. Throughout her life, time after time, adventure after adventure, she never feels freer than she does when she gets to say one thing and do another; to be one thing in public, and another in secret; to keep up appearances during the day and defy conventions at night.
A quick glance at any photo we have of Aury will make the point without so many words. There is — to put it mildly! — a disconnect between Aury’s looks and what we might have imagined the author of Histoire d’O to look like. Aury was austere in the way she dressed; she was dressed in black most of the time — at times grey or brown but that’s as colorful as she would get! At Gallimard, that earned her the nickname of “la nonne des lettres” (the nun of literature).
That woman is not Réage and she clearly never tried to be: on the contrary, she cultivated an appearance as remote from Réage as possible. Let us suppose for the sake of the argument that what she aspired to, and could never get because of social conventions, was to be herself at all times, i.e. be Pauline Réage: there were plenty of socially perfectly acceptable ways that she could have been, if not Pauline Réage, at least much closer to her; wearing make up, clothes that show and valorize her body, etc. Instead, she carefully constructed the image of Aury as the polar opposite of Réage because projecting that image of the “nun of literature” while being the author of a book that no one would suspect could be by this woman is what she experiences as freedom. Being free, for her, does not mean telling people who she really is; it means, on the contrary, being who not a single person would suspect she could ever be. And that, of course, means working hard to project an image that is not who she is.
Saying that Pauline Réage was a pseudonym for Dominique Aury does not imply that Dominique Aury was a real name: it was not. Like a Matryoshka doll here, under a pseudonym we find another pseudonym. For long before she was Dominique Aury, Dominique Aury was Anne Desclos. It is only shortly before World War II that she became Dominique Aury.
Desclos was born in 1907. Her father’s family had emigrated to Great-Britain around 1870 and her father was born and grew up in London. Bilingual, he became an English professor in France; an erudite, he owned an important book collection; a free thinker, his collection included lots of libertine books and from a very young age, he let his daughter use his library at will. There she read libertine authors such as Crébillon or Les Liaisons Dangereuses at a very young age.
Her mother, by contrast, was distant, cold, and a misanthrope who was disgusted by the human body. Because she did not want to have to raise a child, early on, Desclos was sent to live with her paternal grandparents outside of Paris. Growing up there as a solitary child, she was surrounded by books and devoured them.
In college, she studied English at the Sorbonne. There she acquainted herself with a group of students admirers of Charles Maurras, the great reactionary, monarchist, antisemitic, theorist of the far-right who was without contest the most influential figure on the French educated youth in the interwar. In 1929, she married one of them, Raymond d’Argila, a Spanish aristocrat. The next year, they had a son, Philippe. By 1932, she had moved back with her parents, with her son, to escape from her abusive and violent husband.
Many years earlier, when she was 15, an erotic correspondence she had with a classmate named Jacqueline was intercepted: they were ordered never to see each other again. At 30, she fell secretly in love with a sculptor named René. Jacqueline, 15 years after they were told to never see each other again, seduced René and won him over. Desclos, through René, had met a certain Jacques, a colleague of Raymond, with whom she started an 8-year, clandestine and secrete, relationship. Jacques was famous under a pseudonym: Thierry Maulnier.
Maulnier, Desclos’ most important romantic involvement before the War, was an important thinker of the Action Française, a Maurassian organization that was influential among the youth. He was a virulent anticommunist and his compromission in collaboration with the Germans during most of the war would have made him a very plausible candidate for a death sentence at the end of it. But — in a manner that resembles the duplicity of Aury in other areas — he was smart enough to cultivate, however timidly, other connections too, and to take his distance from the collaborationist régime at the right time: that eventually saved his life.
Desclos’ involvement with Maulnier, like with Paulhan later, was both romantic and intellectual. But the generosity of Paulhan stands in sharp contrast with the pettiness of Maulnier. Around 1938, they collaborated on an anthology of French poetry for which she contributed very substantially, and arguably the most original parts. The book came out with Maulnier alone listed as the author. Her name appeared simply as having helped with the selection of the poems. The anthology was a wild success and when it went for the third reprinting, even that mention was removed. Desclos asked Maulnier to intervene but he would not bother them with such trivial matters.
With Maulnier, who used a pseudonym, she started using them too. In L’Insurgé, a journal he creates in 1937 to denounce the Popular Front (the leftist government responsible for the most transformative politics of wealth redistribution under the helm of Léon Blum), she contributed articles signed at times as Louise Auricoste, the name of her mother, and at others Dominique Aury. The appeal of “Dominique” was obvious: a name the French use for men as well as for women, it did not designate her as a woman, presumably allowing her to be taken more seriously. Aury was an abbreviated version of Auricoste, her mother’s name.
Who was that woman then? And what was her relation to O? Is Histoire d’O a representation of her relationship with Paulhan? It is unlikely. First, because nothing is more alien to her than the notion of writing to tell one’s truth. Desclos/Aury only ever wrote to play with her reader, confuse them, present herself as other than she really was.
The novel has two main goals. On the one hand it is a seduction device with which she tried to write things he liked (with what success!) in order to keep him. Together with the things that he liked was a confession of the things that she liked and which she was hoping to get him to make happen. She never intended to do the things that he liked. They were there simply to get him to lend a favorable ear to the things that she confessed wanting. He took that very intimate confession and publicized it — in other words, he refused to hear that this was a confession and a request.
To be less cryptic. When asked if her relationship with Paulhan was anything like Histoire d’O, she vehemently responded that “violence” was never in any way part of their relationship. He might have liked it, but it takes two and that was not her thing. What was her thing, however, was the debasement and humiliation; being shared with different men and women; being objectified. Paulhan was far too jealous and possessive to give her that.
So who is she really, and where is she in the book? A couple of anecdotes will serve as vignettes by way of a conclusion here.
First: It has been said by several who knew her that in her youth, Desclos would at times dress like a prostitute and walk up and down the street of Les Halles, then a popular, seedy neighborhood which was home to a number of prostitutes. She enjoyed being looked down upon — for something she was not.
Second: a mysterious incident around 1934. Desclos and Maulnier are recent lovers; the incident involves Jacqueline, René, and a couple other people. One night, a strange ceremony took place in Le Louvre; one that is highly compromising for all parties involved. It becomes a problem when Raymond hears about it and his lawyer wants to get to the bottom of it to damage Desclos’ reputation in their divorce. A swinger party in a museum where she and perhaps Jacqueline were exchanged among men is the most plausible hypothesis.
Third. February 6, 1934 is an important date in French history. That day, an antiparliamentarian protest organized by Action Française turned into a riot causing the deaths of 30 to 40 people while 2,000 were wounded. This crisis is perceived (wrongly) by the Left as an attempted coup. Because of it, the Left unites its force, which will result 3 years later in the election of the Popular Front that Maulnier hated so much. That day, Desclos is at the far-right protest with Maulnier. On February 9, another protest is organized by the Communist Party in response to the far right. Desclos is there too. Alone this time.
Cherchez la femme!
(with considerable help from Gayle Rubin, Viola Johnson,
Claire Paulhan, Pola Rapaport, Eric Legendre).
For inquiring minds…
Angie David, Dominique Aury. La Vie Secrète de l’Auteur d’Histoire d’O, Editions Léo Scheer, Paris, 2006.
Pola Rapaport, Writer of O, 2004 (movie)
John De St. Jorre, “The Unmasking of O”, The New Yorker, 08/01/1994.