Story of O was so beautifully written that this alone should’ve been enough to give it literary credibility.
I recently read the 1954 infamous, mysterious and controversial short novel by French author Pauline Réage.
When it was published, the book caused a considerable upheaval. Nobody knew who wrote it. Nobody knew what to say and how to approach it, so they did the worst thing—they labeled it wrongly as pornography. The theme was sexual submission, a highly improper issue in the times of post-WWII propriety, and unbending moral values.
It was easy not to see the forest for the trees.
Why the pornography tag persisted for decades is beyond comprehension. Story of O was so beautifully written that this alone should’ve been enough to give it literary credibility.
The movie from the 1970’s based on the book, which I did watch, fascinated me on a superficial level, although I didn’t find any true value in it. I don’t know enough about the art of film to prove it. But thanks to it, I neglected to read the book. It is pornography, after all, isn’t it?
It’s not. It’s a masterpiece.
Even to say that Story of O is an erotic novel, let alone pornographic, would be wrong. Story of O is many things but foremost an allegory, a probe into the subject of human submissiveness and dominance on the absolute level, not just sexual. S/D is one of the basic human relationships, after all. Most of us are submissive to some (your boss, your military superior, your parents, partners…) and dominant over some others (the people we supervise at work, our children, our partners). Most of these S/D relationships are considered normal. They are sanctioned by law, customs, habits, regulations. They’re deeply rooted in our psychology. This is the way we function—socially, emotionally, biologically.
What is submission? Dominance in disguise?
Pauline Réage throws us a challenge by taking this natural order of things to an extreme level and presenting us with (some of) the possible consequences.
How far are we ready to go? Where is the line? Can human isolation and loneliness be so profound that some of us can’t find ourselves within us but only within another human being? Where we stop being us and become someone else? (Can I live if living is without you?) How far would the other person go to dominate us, and what kind of need does he/she have to fulfill through dominance?
What is submission then? Dominance in disguise? And vice versa.
It opens many other questions–of freedom, freedom of choice, absence of love, perception of love, alienation… name it.
Story of O had two endings, cleverly interwoven in the last paragraph/epilogue. Pauline Réage leaves it to us to chose how to conclude her story in our imagination.
But which ending did she chose? For some reason, it was important to me to know. (Once someone asked Margaret Mitchell what happened to Scarlet O’Hara after Reth Butler had left. She became a better woman, Mitchell said, but she never had him back. I always find this interesting.)
Story of O will always make me feel uneasy. Like every great book should.
I didn’t get it right away. So indefinitely sad was I for days that I couldn’t see it. I felt the same heartbreaking sorrow as after reading some other ‘small books’: Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, or Anna, Sorror by Margaret Yourcenar, or Embers by Sandor Marai. Masterpieces often come in small packages indeed. I actually really like Story of O in the above mentioned company of powerful small books. It is its right place.
Then, only days after I read Story of O, I stumbled upon (and isn’t that fascinating!) another small literary gem, Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Anne Rice, whose story is based on Story of O, understood Pauline Réage’s novel so well that she was able to give us the definitive answer to that question with her own ending. And yes, we chose the same one, Pauline Réage, Anne Rice and I. It helped my sadness to disappear, although Story of O (as well as The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty) will always make me feel uneasy. Like every great book should.
Decades after being published, Story of O continues to inspire writers, albeit with various success. The wildly popular Fifty Shades saga was also inspired by it, but it’s like a glass imitation of a genuine diamond. Or, if you like, a McDonald’s Happy Meal in comparison to the finest foie gras on a toasted French baguette, to stay close to the geographical origins of the novel.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that one of my favourite pop fiction authors, Sylvia Day, wrote an introduction to one of the latest editions of Story of O. Her insight is interesting because it completely missed the point. Or perhaps it’s just yet another facet of this phenomenally complex novel.
About the terrific Sylvia Day perhaps some other time. I’ll be back to the topic of erotica as well. There are four erotic novels that I’ve been madly in love with for years…