Story of O
by Pauline Réage, translated by Sabine d’Estrée
Grove, 199 pp., $6.00
All the apparatus of pornography is here—whips, chains, leather goods of many kinds, dungeons, costumes including masks, gowns that roll up in back like window shades, breakaway trousers, gags, and even a few items which are not in the traditional inventory. Poor O, the heroine, is beaten, branded, and punctured, exposed to every possible view, hideously violated, but for all this, Story of O is a little off center as a pornographic novel. Except for a stirring passage or two—the famous taxi ride, for instance, with which the novel begins—tumescence seems not to be the central issue, and may not be the issue at all. Rather, one is struck by an atmosphere of prestidigitation, of double and triple meanings that suggest an elaborate literary joke or riddle which extends even to the question of O’s authorship. Pauline Réage, except as author of the present book and of the preface to another, seems not otherwise to exist: None of her admirers claims to have met her, she has not been seen in Parisian literary circles, and it has been said that she is actually a committee of literary farceurs, sworn to guard their separate identities, like the pseudonymous authors of a revolutionary manifesto.
In any case, like Miss Réage herself, her characters too are more presences than people, disembodied for all their obsessive carnality; spirits or essences. It is a little as if an Indian temple frieze had been transposed to the porch at Chartres. Sex is all they think about or do, but physical gratification seems not to be what they are after:
O was happy that René had had her whipped and had prostituted her, because her impassioned submission would furnish her lover with proof that she belonged to him, but also because the pain and shame of the lash and the outrage inflicted on her by those who compelled her to pleasure when they took her, and at the same time delighted in their own without paying the slightest heed to hers, seemed to her the very redemption of her sins…. As a child, O had read a Biblical text in red letters on the white wall of a room in Wales where she had lived for two months, a text such as the Protestants often inscribe in their houses: IT IS A FEARFUL THING TO FALL INTO THE HANDS OF THE LIVING GOD No, O told herself now, that isn’t true. What is fearful is to be cast out of the hands of the living God…Oh, let the miracle continue, let me still be touched by grace, René don’t leave me.
We are, in this passage, in two worlds at once. One, obviously, is the world of Justine and her progeny, but in the other we smell the remains of John Calvin and behind him that lacerated troop of believers who, through their wounds and privations, hoped to achieve communion with their terrible but necessary God. Story of O is …