The Weekend Australian - Review
A PAIR OF RAGGED CLAWS
At the start of each year I think about adding something new to this column. Last year, the coronavirus lockdown was the inspiration. I finally read Robert Musil’s masterpiece The Man Without Qualities and quoted passages from it here each week. This year I have decided to reread books I haven’t read in ages and to read for the first time books I have been meaning to read for ages. I won’t do this every week, but when I do I will share my thoughts.
First, a re-read: The Story of O, by Pauline Reage, published simultaneously in French (Historie d’O) and English in 1954. This was an easy decision, as Miles Franklin winner Steven Carroll has written a novel that reshapes this landmark of erotic literature and Geordie Williamson has reviewed it here today.
When it comes to the rereading, where possible I will read the same book I read the first time. In this case, it’s the one in the photograph here, a shaggy Corgi from 1976, with a shot from the 1975 film adaptation on the cover. I must have bought it second hand, as the biro-ed 50c suggests, so I’m not sure how old I was when I read it. Perhaps late teens.
Before I talk about the novel, I want to mention the book. Its final page brings back memories of a different time. Under the heading A Selected List of Fine Fiction for Your Reading Pleasure is a list of books and their prices in pence. You could tick off as many as you liked, clip out the form and post it, with a cheque or postal order, to Corgi’s perversely named Cash Sales Department (‘‘no currency”, the form warns) in Cornwall.
It makes me laugh that the “fine fiction” selected for readers of The Story of O includes most of Philip Roth. The first two books on the list are A Soldier Erect and The Hand-Reared Boy, each by Brian W. Aldiss. To be fair, it’s an alphabetical listing by author’s name, but even so it shows that some things in advertising never change.
And so to the novel. As Geordie writes, Pauline Reage was a pseudonym. At the time of publication, a lot of people assumed the novel was written by a man. Why? Well, it’s about a beautiful young Frenchwoman, O, who is whipped (and worse) as part of her duties as a sex slave to her lover, his older English stepbrother and a variety of other men, including even the valets at the chateau in the Paris suburb of Roissy where her training begins.
They were wrong. It was written by Dominique Aury (also not her real name, but she was a woman), an intellectual, reserved member of the French literary scene. She was 46 at the time. When her identity was revealed 40 years later, she said she wrote the novel for her lover, Jean Paulhan, who was older and a bit of a literary lion. She wrote it partly in response to his belief that when it came to sadomasochistic literature no one could come close to the Marquis de Sade and partly to keep him interested in her.
On reopening the novel 40 years on, my first thoughts were whether it would be shocking, whether it would be published today and whether — pondering what I may have missed as a younger reader — it was an allegory for, say, the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II. The answers, I think, are yes, yes and no.
Yes, it makes EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey look like Play School. Like James’s bestseller, it is about sex, with its attendant psychological dimension. Yes, it would be published, at least in France. Michel Houellebecq’s 2019 novel, Serotonin, features canine-human sex. Enough said. No, it is not about Nazis. At the risk of being crude, while O does denote occupation, it’s of orifices.
Here’s a bit from early on, when O is taken to the chateau, that I think covers both bases. “… your one primary task, your only significant duty … is to avail yourself to be used. Your hands are not your own, neither are your breasts, nor above all, is any one of the orifices of your body, which we are at liberty to explore and into which we may, whenever we so please, introduce ourselves.”
(O was first going to be called Odile, the name of a close friend of the author who was in love with Albert Camus. But the author, who worked with Camus at publisher Gallimard, ended up going with just O. She wrote the novel in bed in pencil. When, interviewed in her 80s, she was asked why, she said, “So as not to stain the sheets”, a mischievous aside Carroll includes in his novel.)
Perhaps the most confronting aspect of the novel is O’s not just willingness but desire to submit, the pleasure and peace and love she finds in it. “She was amazed to find that the memory of the whip could leave her so tranquil, so serene …”
Susan Sontag referred to this as “an ascent through degradation”. This goes to the almost hallucinatory feeling of the novel. We are dealing with the human imagination, in all its endless corridors, its darknesses and its mysteries. We are dealing with sexuality which, for all our openness, remains opaque.
That’s enough of O for now. I have decided on next week’s book and it will be a first time read for me. All I can say in advance is that I think it’ll have less sex, but more death.
Perhaps it came in with the firewood;
it’s not a great leap from the fireplace to my bed.
A tiny lizard in my hair; Godzilla in miniature.
Then frozen in the corner of my pillowcase like an embroidered alchemy.
It visits a juxtaposition of cool, silk ferocity.
I sleep, regardless of the freed serpent caught like a thought in my hand.