RD – Pauline Réage, you are the author of one of the most read modern French novels in the world:Histoire d’O. A book that was scandalous and which still frightens people a little. A book which asks a number of important questions, above all for women, and a book that has changed many things, as well as people. Jean Paulhan said so in his preface, in any case. Jacqueline Demornex, who has published in Ellethe first and only interview with you so far…
PR – There won’t be another one.
RD – Jacqueline Demornex introduced you in this way: “She is sitting there, silent. How could I dare talk to her of eroticism, of Sadism, of O? Pauline Réage looks like a nun. Navy blue suit, flat shoes, no make-up at all… One is intimidated.” And it is as you are, as little conforming to the idea the public may have of the author of a scandalous book. And here I am, in front of you, myself a scandal maker, a young woman who has published erotic books, who has posed naked for popular magazines! The public knows my image, and I know which idea they have of me: a sort of literary pin-up, champion of sexual freedom which she practises evidently twenty four hours a day. Image sometimes convenient, sometimes annoying. But for now it is your looking at me that matters to me, and I too am intimidated.
PR – That I could intimidate anyone, and you particularly, puzzles me. I do not understand. Because I am quiet? But I am going to talk…
RD – May I also tell you that I have for you an immense respect, and an immense admiration. Admiration for the writer of Histoire d’O and of Une Fille Amoureuse [the preface to Retour à Roissy, written as Jean Paulhan was dying in 1968], a moving half-confession which is not known well enough. Respect for the woman who reveals herself a little in this latter text, and who I have the privilege to know now, a little better than her readers.
PR – I do not deserve more respect than anyone, you know, nor admiration. Please do not embarass me.
RD – Do you know that all the women I have asked to read Une Fille Amoureuse cry while reading it?
PR – No I have no idea.
RD – But, first, we are going to talk about Histoire d’O, of course. And before we talk about the book and its reading, I’d like to explore, for literature small history’s sake, what was Histoire d’O’s birth in 1954. There are facts still somewhat obscure, perhaps even things you, the author, do not know…
PR – Now you are surprising me, but then…
RD – I am going to read to you something I found during my research. It’s a testimony by Jean Paulhan to the Brigade Mondaine [Paris police vice squad responsible for offenses against decency and morality], on 5 August 1955, at the time court action against the book was being considered. Since the author was still unknown, the publisher and Jean Paulhan, who wrote the beautiful preface Le Bonheur dans l’Esclavage. Listen:
“Brigade Mondaine. Testimony of M. Jean Paulhan.
On 5 August 1955. We [name of officer]… taking statement from M.Paulhan Jean, man of letters, whose address is 5, rue des Arènes, Paris.
Who stated: about three years ago, Mrs Pauline Réage (which is a pseudonym) came to see me at the Nouvelle Revue Française [JP was a director, the NRF was the literary review published by Gaston Gallimard] which is under my direction and gave me a big manuscript titled Histoire d’O. I receive every day eight to ten manuscripts, but this one surprised me immediately, both by its literary quality, and, if I may say so, in a perfectly risqué subject, by its restraint and decency.
I sensed being faced with an important work as much for its form as for its tone, drawing much more from the mystical rather than from the erotic, and that could be in our epoch what the Lettres de la Religieuse Portuguaise [Letters of a Portuguese Nun] or Les Liaisons Dangereuses [The Dangerous Liaisons] were in other times. That’s what I said to Mrs Réage when she came to see me. I added that I would be willing to talk about this book to Gaston Gallimard, and that if Mrs Réage succeeded in having the book published I would try and write a preface.
Gaston Gallimard, after hesitating for two years, declined the book. M.Defez, director of the “Deux Rives” [small publishing house] first accepted it but later, bacause of some political trouble where he was involved (the Despuech affair) asked Mrs Réage to take it back.
It is then that I took the manuscript to M. Jean-Jacques Pauvert who accepted it enthusiastically and published it at once. In the meantime I had written the promised preface that was published as introduction to the novel. This preface, that insists on the philosophical and mystical sides of the work, found itself to some extent out of balance. M.Pauvert, in agremeent with Mrs Réage, having withdrawn from the book without telling me the whole of the third part where the heroine is faced with her decline.”
That is what we find in Retour à Roissy…
… “I am not aware of the numbers printed.
I add that Mrs Réage, coming from an academic family she feared to scandalise, has always refused until now to reveal her real name. It was her first novel.
Moreover I add that I am not the author of the manuscript, nor have I ever made corrections to it. It is enough to confirm this by comparing my style to that of Mrs Réage.
I do not think that there is a book to place in just everyone’s hands, no more than Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Les Lettres d’une Religieuse Portugaise, but it is enough if one reads it with attention, I believe, to realise it is on no account similar to pornographic material. If it presents any danger it is rather by the violence of the passion it describes, and by the endless dream it seems to be immersed in.
I have nothing to say neither on the material circimstances of its publishing nor its distribution.
As I told you, Mrs Réage does not want her name to be known. I have committed to her as I have done with other authors not to reveal her name.
Nonetheless, given that I have the opportunity to see her regularly, I will inform her of the statement I am making now, and if she were to decide to make herself known, I would invite her to contact you.
I also found the letter in which, a few days later, Jean Paulhan was explaining to the head of the Brigade Mondaine (“Dear Sir” he wrote) that he was sorry, but that decidedly, Mrs Réage wanted to keep her anonymity. Is this how it all happened?
PR – There are other things to say, it seems to me. But the police was rather generous. I learned at the time they had discovered my name, address, date of birth and everything on my identity. They never referred to it. I can’t help seeing in that a kind of Ancien Régime elegance, a sort of courtesy towards an unknown and insignificant woman simply because a woman. Maurice Garçon [Famous Advocate] who defended Jean Paulhan, said about me something – he did not know me either – in the same vein: “One must not bother her.”
But of course they turned against Jean Paulhan and Jean-Jacques Pauvert, and I have felt guilty to let them alone take all the risks…
RD – OK. In summary: in June 1954 an unknown lady publishes with Jean-Jacques Pauvert a novel called Histoire d’O. If the book has any impact, it is, at the beginning, in a very small lettered circle. Jean-Jacques Pauvert told me that the first run of two thousand copies lasted fifteen months. In January 1955 there was some agitation because the book received the Deux Magots prize, but sales were modest.
PR – The booksellers thought that the book was or was about to be banned and they were selling it under the counter, or even letting it, sometimes at a premium, a book one could find entirely normally at the publisher. There was a sort of really curious muffled scandal. Everyone talked about it in private, but the press was silent.
RG – Critics were not very courageous for example.
PR – Let’s say rather that they did not find the book interesting. I recall Claude Elsen’s article in Dimanche Matin, a weekly that has since disappeared, and of course [André Pieyre] de Mandiargues’ article in Critique, very early, and [Georges] Bataille’s in the Nouvelle Revue Française, a little later, and that’s about it. For an article in L’ExpressJean Paulhan wanted to explain that Histoire d’O seemed to him one of the most important books of the last ten years, but his reply was taken out by the paper, apparently.
RD – That’s right. One talked about Histoire d’O only in private, or there were little allusive snippets in the gossips columns. One has to remember those times. In 1954,[Henry] Miller and Sade are on trial, the papers are careful. And Histoire d’O?
PR – I believe a number of judges wanted to take the publisher and the author of the preface to court, but many others did not want that. In the end advertising the book was banned, and that ban was lifted not that long ago [in 1960].
RD – Now, let’s talk about the novel itself. Why that scandal, in your view, those threats of law suit, those partial bans, that went on even when much less decently written – to repeat Jean Pulhan’s phrase – works were published?
PR – It is true that Histoire d’O long remained, still is for some, the most scandalous of books. It’s the subject, of course, but I think also that it is mainly because the book was written by a woman, even if some journalists believed for a long time its author to be Jean Paulhan.
RD – We all know now that it was a woman, and I believe you are right, that it is that fact that gave Histoire d’O its diabolical aura, that taste of sulfur. What what was it about? I’d like to recall, briefly, the subject for those who, extraordinarily, would not know it. O is a young woman whose lover prostitutes to the members of a sort of secret society, and then gave to her half brother Sir Stephen. In the end O is about to be abandoned by Sir Stephen, and you wrote: “She wished to die. He consented.” In-between O is taken in all sorts of way, captive, whipped, always with her consent, which she is always asked for.
There are two ways to read such a book. First by being sensitive to the literary master-piece, to the greatness of feelings, to that “inconceivable decency”, that “great wind of fanatism”, that “pure and violent spirit evoked by Paulhan [in his preface]. Then there is a vulgar way, of which the best example is in the report of the Commission du Livre [Censorship body tasked with supervision of publishers], that wanted to have Histoire d’O trialled in 54-55. I can’t resist the pleasure to quote, as it may be a text you don’t know either.
PR – Indeed…
RG – Here goes:
“The Commission, after listening to M… report and having discussed it.
Considering that this book published by Jean-Jacques Pauvert means to retrace the adventures of a young woman who, to please her lover, subjects herself to any erotic phantasm and any torture.
Considering that this book, violently and consciously immoral, where debauchery scenes with two or more characters alternate with scenes of sexual cruelty, contains an appalling and condemnable germ, and thus is an outrage to good customs.
Is of the view that there a case for trial.”
It’s a beautiful text is it not?
PR – “Violently and constantly immoral” is an exageration. I always feel to reply as the Junie of Britannicus [a play by Jean Racine, 1669]: that I have deserved neither that excessive honor, nor that indignity. Also tempted to reply that good customs are offended by simply reading daily newspapers. Death camps offend good customs, so does the atomic bomb, and torture – life itself offends good customs, in my view, and at any time, not specifically the various ways to make love.
RD – Yes, but society always takes time to become aware of changes in customs. From time to time a book is published that is scandalous, that confuses, and then one realises that the author, before everyone else, and often without even being aware of it, has captured and updated what is called “a new wave of sensibility”, while only thinking of describing her own phantasms. It seems to me that this is what happened with Histoire d’O. If this book , as it is said, had such an impact on all those who read it, across the world, it is that the men, but above all the women, who read it, found in it an echo of their thoughts or secrete impressions, often without being aware of them. That sort of books is a pointer, and it is those that get burnt. Of course you knew that very well, didn’t you? You knew very well you had written a scandalous book?
PR – A socially scandalous book yes. Fated to the libraries’ inferno. That one would hide on a shelf behind other books, like Boccace [author of the Decameron], the Crébillon Fils [18th century French novelist] on my father’s bookshelves, and others more brutal.
RD – Did you find those? And at what age?
PR – Oh! Fourteen or fifteen, I believe. I was reading absolutely everything that came my way, so I read them, but did not understand much.
RD – And your father knew?
PR – Naturally.
RD – What did he say?
PR – He said: “Well, you’re starting early, but you won’t understand a thing, one will have to explain.”
RD – And he explained?
PR – Of course, a real natural sciences lesson, with anatomical schematics in colours. That put an end to school yards whisperings for me. Moreover an older girl friend, whom I always suspected to be in connivence with my father, proposed a cousin of hers for a real life lesson. The cousin swore to leave me intact, but to show me everything.
RD – At fourteen! What luck! I remember that extraordinary expectation, that vertigo in front of the unknown…
PR – Maybe I was fifteen, can’t recall.
RD – And you accepted? Did you like that cousin, did you love him?
PR – You’re funny! I had never met him. But I wanted to know and I did. I met him with my friend at a bar, and followed him to what turned out to be a hôtel de passe [brothel]. Still today I can’t understand how we got in. I looked so childish that eight days earlier I could not get in at the Sainte-Geneviève library. But we got in. And he did explain to me everything, with demonstrations and (limited of course) functioning to back it up. In short we two formed live anatomic drawings. It was well interesting.
RD – You make me dream! But weren’t you embarrassed?
PR – Not at all. I was a bit frightened by that erect member of which he was so pride – and frankly that pride was a bit comical. I thought that must be well embarassing for him, and that it was nicer to be a girl. You wouldn’t have to push me much for me to admit that I have hardly changed my mind on the subject. As for all that sweating, mixing of saliva and flooding, it was not terribly engaging. Fortunately there was hot water, towels and Eau de Cologne.
RD – Strange initiation. If it had been me I would not have come out of it a virgin. Listening to you I was trying to be in your place and I was very disturbed. And that freed you?
PR – Freed from what? Sexual taboos? But I did not know what taboos were. It was as if they did not exist. I did not make the link to religious education precepts, which had collapsed in one go well before that. What had moral interdictions to do with bodily functions? I did not even think of it. It remained only information that saved me looking for it in youthful flirting, a knowledge that made up some sort of obstacle. I knew what precise dangers and physical strain one had to go through to reach, in the body, that love for which I had only a simple idea, and not yet the least feeling at all. It remained also the certainty that there were things one did not do or talk about in the full light of day, because it was embarrassing for everyone. Of a strictly personal order. So long years later the imperative reaction played out: not to compromise family and close friends, not to sign. One speaks only to accomplices.
RD – But when the book was published, did anyone, bar the accomplices, have any clue?[about who had written it]
PR – Nearly no-one. But given the horrified reactions, I realised to what extent it caused scandal.
At a friend’s dinner party, there was a famous doctor I knew very well. My friend knew nothing about my part in the book at all, and she talked about it; that man always read new books just published. He had read it and said: “People who write that [sort of thing] are very ill”, which really amused me since I did not feel mentally ill at all, nor particularly perverted. Maybe I was wrong. There was an incident which confirmed for me why I had to remain silent. A chap from the provinces, who had been often at my parents’ when he was studying in Paris, as he was passing through a few years later, came to pay a courtesy visit to my mother when I happened to be there. He had studied law but was mad for literature. Suddenly he turns towards me and says: “We (it was a small group in that remote province that was publishing a [literary] review), we are certain that it is you who wrote Histoire d’O.” I look at him without replying. There is a silence. Then my mother’s voice, very calm: “She has not told us this ever.” Another silence. Once the chap was gone, my mother asked me if I wanted tea. That was all, once and for all. But I understood.
RD – Understood what?
PR – That my freedom depended on my silence, and hers too: hers was the refusal to know, mine the refusal to speak.
RD – But were you O? Could you have behaved like O in some situations?
PR – I do not know. I know that, first of all, when I was young, the man I lived with liked the success I happen to have very much [success with men], it amused him a lot he used to say. If I was with him walking on the boulevard, or sitting in a café, he would say: “Did you see, on your left, you got a bite.” Yes, things like that. On the other hand if I was walking on my own on the Champs -Elysées, for example, like all young women [PR says “girls young”] I flirted sometime. It never got further than a declined offer. Only once did it go further. It wasn’t in the street but at an exhibition, I flirted with a gentleman [“un monsieur trés bien”]. He was handsome enough, brown hair and blue eyes, very polished. “May I offer you a drink?” Yes we go for a drink. OK. One date, two dates, three dates, many compliments, and one day: “Let me invite you for tea, I know a quiet place.” We went to the quiet place. Of course it was a brothel. And there the gentleman undertakes to do more than tenderly pressing my hand. His hand goes for my knee, and he starts saying “tu” [“tutoiement” is a form of familiarity in France, and certainly at that time]. I stood up and slapped him, and left indignant for he had said “tu”.
RD – I fully understand that kind of reaction. You did well, he was not a gentleman at all that fellow.
PR – I do not know what he should have done, but he did not do what it would have taken, and nor did I.
RD – He did not do what he should have done and he did what he shouldn’t have. He did not have to say “tu”. One may make love with someone, but there are familiarities unacceptable, from some people.
PR – But we should [accept such familiarities?] Why giving ourselves such importance, why believe we are so precious? Yet I did not see myself as precious, not at all. But there you are, I was capable of telling myself stories, to stick my neck out a bit, but apparently, I was unable to act. It was neither logical, nor courageous. Maybe it was the fear of complications, of blackmail, of the drama of a possible discovery. I never tried to understand exactly why I never went any further. Probably because what I wished for, in fact, was some sort of proof I was given when someone showed interest in me at first sight, and that I did not want anything more. I was reassured enough by that sole fact. And maybe also I did not have the disposition, nor true desires, I mean physical, everything being in my head. With that man, for example, everything should have worked out very well. In my mind that is, everything was working well. But in reality not at all. I told myself I thought I had the vocation, well, apparently not, my system was not working. I was an idiot. It was mortifying was it not?
RD – You have just said something really interesting: “I thought I had the vocation.” Which vocation exactly?
PR – Soliciting, prostitution, I suppose. I was telling myself it must be exciting: being all the time desired, and without any doubt profiting from it, why not? Ah well, here we go! At the first opportunity I act like a stuck-up madame.
RD – And if that man had done what was required? That is if he had been considerate, but also determined, and had taken you firmly to his room?
PR – How does one know? Do you mean that my life would have been different? I doubt it. Otherwise I would have found other opportunities…