The Story of O by Anne Desclos
Pauline Reage is the pseudonym under which Anne Desclos published the now infamous Histoire d'O. She began working for Gallimard Publishers in Paris after graduating from the Sorbonne and began a secret affair with her employer Jean Paulhan. He was an avid fan of the Marquis De Sade who he pushed to get republished along with Albert Camus, Jean Genet and other provocative authors. He had remarked to Reage that no woman was capable of writing comparable erotic literature. She took this to heart and began the Story of O, her graphic sadomasochist book that would become her most famous novel fourty years after its publication when she finally revealed herself as its author. During her time at Gallimard she harnessed her love for English Literature into translation. Having been bought up bilingual she became responsible for translating or introducing in French notable writers such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot and F Scott Fitzgerald. Due to the books highly sexual nature it was brought in for obscenity trials, the ending was cut out and the book was banned by law for sale to minors.
Reage was openly bisexual, Paulhan was aware of and allowed her affairs, the most notable of which was to novelist Edith Thomas, whom the character of Anne-Marie in the book is based. She fought to have Violette Leduc’s works published in full by Gallimard after they too were censored by the French government. Desclos was an eminent figure in literary France and her presence in society was extremely highbrow, she was described as soberly quiet and nun like in her behaviour. This edition features a beautiful essay by her partner Jean Paulhan on the Story of O whereby he ruminates on the nature of women and the remarkable dignity and style of the work itself: “There is a grandeur and there is a joy as well in abandoning oneself to the will of others (lovers and mystics are familiar with this sense of grandeur, this taste of joy) and in finding oneself, at last! Rid of the weight of ones own pleasures, interests and personal complexes.”
This exploration of dignified submission walks the line between degradation and emancipation that remains shocking to read to this day. However, the core themes of the subject are rooted in our history. “To confess your love by proving that no humiliation or rejection is able to ever stop you from loving: this idea has its Christian origin in the tradition of the pur amour. Even if God has condemned you to eternal suffering in hell (which, aware of your sins, you cannot but thankfully accept), you nonetheless are capable of loving him. It is even the best condition to do so. Precisely because you have no ‘return’ whatsoever, you love him for reasons that have nothing to do with your own interest. Purified from any selfish motive, you relate to God with a pure love.”
Novels like Histoire d’O are explicitly erotic expressions of the religiously promoted idea of this ‘pure love’ – of love as radical selflessness. In a sense, pur amour still belongs to the essential way we look at love today in the West, even in a post-Christian world the sacrificial dimension of love is fetishised and deified. Desclos’ book holds its own among the most famous subversive novels ever written and its continued success perfectly exemplifies societies continued fascination with love, desire, devotion and sexual deviation.