O m’a dit: Régine Deforges’ interview of Pauline Réage (cont’d) #literature

I am posting here, on several pages, the end of my translation of Régine Deforges’ s interview of Pauline Réage (1975) . The beginning is here.

Death of DidoRD – What seduces you in  a woman, what draws you to her?

PR – Her beauty, and her courage.

RD – Her beauty?

PR – In essence, yes. I am full of admiration. I so easily find beauty in a woman, I am so moved by women’s beauty, without the slightest temptation to even touch a beautiful hair, but I always have the same emotion, admiration.

RD – But what is it that moves you so much? Fragility?

PR – But it is not at all fragile, a woman’s beauty, it is not always fragile the beauty of eyes, skin, the beauty of the body, so beautiful. Men also are beautiful, and they have started showing it, fortunately.

RD – And are you a conquering individual when you are interested in a woman?

PR – It’s going too far. I have been, a little. It seemed evident then.

RD – And you could share this love with another woman or another man?

PR – It never was the case, as those were unique relationships, unequivocal. But it felt natural, the one not preventing the other.

RD – Through the ordeals, the tortures you have your heroines subjected to, one senses a contempt for that body that you say , elsewhere, to be an instrument, and as an instrument to be maintained in good order.

PR – Of course, it used for procreation, for pleasure, it’s an instrument. It is horrible not to be master of one’s own body, but it is also wonderful. If you cannot be master of your body, let someone else be, whether by your consent or by your wish. In all cases the body is something to be subdued, mastered, possessed.

RD – It is used, as you say, but why that taste for destroying that body?

PR – Because all things are made to be destroyed, thrown away, not to last. It’s books, or paintings, that last, or stone statues. A bit more than us in any case. When you give birth to a child, you give him death at the same time as life. When you write a book, it may not die.

RD – What strikes me too in Histoire d’O, is that women are treated, and ill-treated, in the most erotic manner, but never men. Why not?

PR – Ah! It’s like that. It’s a world of men who love women, not of men who love men. One of the most interesting letters I received when the book was published, was written by a man who told me that what I was writing about did exist, but to his knowledge for men with “garçons”. For, he said, it was much easier and pleasurable to subdue boys than girls. Strange observation.

RD – But wouldn’t it have been very erotic to place some men in the same situations as O and her colleagues?

PR – I did not even think of it. It meant nothing to me.

RD – So it is really as if eroticism can only be lived through a female body?

PR – For me, yes.

RD – Ah! I, sometimes, would love to see the object changed… There is something that recurs often, that is O’s exposure.

PR – Ah! Yes!

RD – There, you’re going too far.

PR – Yes. In “la Condition Humaine” Malraux makes a short comment about a female character, where he says that for many women “eroticism means being naked in front of the chosen man.” And then it stops there, besides, she’s not that keen on giving herself to him, to sleep with him. Well, I think that exposure is that, I did not think of it, but I realised what it was once, later, it was finished.

RD – Yes, but (in your book) there, O is more than naked, the girls are opened, offered, they are placed in obscene positions.

PR – Atrocious, grotesque.

RD – And why that desire for grotesque? They could be exposed without it.

PR – It’s a form of nastiness, of anger…

RD – Towards?

PR – I don’t know. Oneself? Yes, towards oneself. This need to go all the way, that furore, it’s a form of destruction, the need to break something, to desecrate something.

RD – Furore towards that body?

PR – Towards that body. But that body is something atrocious.

RD – Something that betrays you, that deserts you?

PR – Something that drops you on the way, that cannot be trusted.

RD – One feels that, at times, you are not so sure what to think of the female body?

PR – But I don’t know what to think of any kind of body! A body is the locus of happiness and unhappiness, of triumph and sacrifice, and finally and always, of disaster. What better use for it than to prove to whom we love that one belongs to him, and thus that one no longer belongs to oneself? Do you want a sacrilege quote? What O says to her lover, without saying it, is what believers repeat endlessly: in manus tuas, Domine (in your hands, Lord). It is just that, for her, and her companions, the proof which is requested from them ceaselessly, they are ready to provide, ceaselessly. The fate they meet is the demonstration of their will to achieve a total abandon, to submit themselves totally. They want to be possessed, utterly possessed, to death. What they seek is to be killed. What does the believer seek, if not lose himself into God? To be killed by someone one loves seems to me the ultimate rapture. I can’t think otherwise. And I am not alone. The famed Japanese suicide contracts are but examples in reality of a phantasm which is wide-spread.

RD – What do you exactly mean by “abandon”? Listening to you, one would think that is what you are seeking most, but also, that being abandoned by the one you love, is what you fear most?

PR – Thank goodness my unhappiness is behind all my hopes. I don’t see the contradiction, or rather the ambiguity, other than the use of the same term. Active in one case, passive in the other. But this is clear: to give oneself to one, is to depend on him. You are no longer your own, you rely on him, you are carried by the noise and fire you have given yourself to. But if the one you love ceases loving you, looking at you, living at least in part for you, as you live for him, if he abandons you, then you fall back in the outer darkness, the obscurity that is hell. Hell is every day life when no-one loves you, when you are alone. But, at the same time, that has not such importance. One gets used to it,  and that is for the best. One learns modesty. One should not take one too seriously, and use big words. It’s the common fate from which, from time to time, one is freed by the love of someone one loves. I don’t know if you have noticed them, sometime in the tube, on a bus, in the street, women, girls, men, with a sort of radiating face, who say nothing, walk as if on a cloud, those are in love, probably. It is that kind of blessing that means that all a sudden, one feels preserved, protected, for a while, for sure, one knows it’s precarious, that it won’t last. But while it is there, one is alive, one is in a sort of paradise.

RD – Why does it not last? It should last forever.

PR – It’s a fact, it never lasts, there is always something, one of the two gets tired, leaves, or dies. “Two doves loved each other tenderly, one of them was bored at home.” It happens: one of the two gets bored.

RD – Ah, this is so unbearable.

PR – What can I do? I think so too!

RD – Ah, I can’t stand it, one would rather die.

PR – Particularly if it is always the other who’s bored, but let’s be honest, it’s sometimes us.

RD – That’s what (Françoise) Sagan was telling me last night, love, passion, never lasts more than two years.

PR – She’s right, only, for some people it’s two years, for others it’s twenty years.

RD – You think so?

PR – Naturally.

RD – I am not completely utopian then, if I pray for it to last?

PR – Or, it’s me who is. But one cannot receive one thing without also its opposite. Love is a garden which is open to you, whose fruits you can enjoy for a while. Then, as in Arabic tales, the garden disappears, and you find yourself in the desert. But don’t complain: you had the garden (for a while), you were lucky.

RD – Why does one find peace in torment?

PR – Because one is taken out of oneself, I think. But torment is always the same: it is purely in the mind. I have no taste for tortures, which I feared dreadfully. But I had that obsession from childhood, perhaps from pious books. There is nothing better than pious books to give one a good idea of tortures. For example the Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine, with pictures. I was given a nice copy, a strange idea, with pictures of wood prints from the fifteenth century. There I could look at all the tortures of martyrs and saints.

RD – And was it voluptuous for you that reading?

PR – I can’t say, but I was greatly impressed.

RD – Did you not think that by describing complacently erotic tortures in Histoire d’O you would inspire a following?

PR – No, absolutely not. Tortures and violence in Histoire d’O are entirely of the same order as fights in crime novels. Heroes get butchered on page ten, then pop out on page fifteen, fresh and healthy, it’s phantasmagoric and unreal. It belongs to the domain of dreams. It’s the same thing for Histoire d’O. This is, if you will, a sort of convention of the genre, not that I wanted to follow a genre, it is just that the genre imposes itself spontaneously, innocently I dare say. One over-does this in order to give the idea of what it is about, one puts in more of it to say very little. The excess is a symbol, not a reality. I can assure you that the tortures of erotic novels, and the fights, injuries and violence of crime novels, are the same thing. This arises from the same principle, the same genre.

RD – Okay, and as Jean-Jacques Pauvert [publisher of Sade’s work, and of Histoire d’O]  has often said, Sadism existed before Sade, and even before Gutenberg [Johannes Gutenberg, the German blacksmith credited with the western re-invention of the print press], but it would appear that, as soon as one enters the erotic genre, one touches more than a simple description of tortures or fights. Those scenes are not merely spectacular fighting.

PR – But the clashes in crime novels are not only spectacular fighting. They are enlarged images of the courage, of the strength of the story’s hero. They are proof of his invulnerability. For O, the accepted torments are proof of her abandon. They are there to signify, and make closer, the impossible, the inconceivable, the absolute.

RD – I’d love to know what remains now of O for you. Do you feel tenderness for her now?

PR – Tenderness goes too far, I see her with a little pity, and sympathy. She was very courageous.

RD – But when you say “pity”, you are saying that she always had a choice.

PR – Yes, but it’s very cruel all the same, even when one has a choice; she was not free, since she loved, one is not free when one is in love.

RD – Why not? Why can’t we be free and in love?

PR – Because one depends entirely on the feelings of the person one loves. One depends on him, on his happiness, on his unhappiness, on his breathing. One of the most admirable sentences I have heard, that was just before the war [WWII] with a man I loved [probably Thierry Maulnier]. I could not be with him in public – another clandestine life – and we had booked a private box, to be private, to watch Ondine, Giraudoux’ play. At one point, you might remember, Ondine realises the knight  no longer loves her, and she says: “The grass has turned black.” It’s like that. When one loves, and one believes, fears, that one is no longer loved, the grass turns black.

RD – But isn’t your freedom returned to you then?

PR – No, your freedom is not returned. I have never forgotten the grass turned black. Many years later, one of my friends was left by a boy he was very much in love with. There was over Paris a splendid sky, with grey and pink clouds. “Ah,” he said, “one cannot be entirely unhappy, for as along as there are clouds like that.” And I replied: “But, Pierre, this shows you are not really unhappy, when one is really unhappy, one cannot see the clouds.”

RD – There is no longer any beauty, when we are really unhappy?

PR – No, all is gone. It comes back later, love gives, love takes away. Love is something really cruel. You remember Virgil? One of very few quotes I have retained from my classical studies, there is nothing more pedantic than quote the Aeneid.

RD – It’s a very beautiful story. I read it three times when I was fifteen to seventeen.

PR – But who now reads it, or re-reads it? Not me, evidently. The only episode I remember is Aeneas in Hell, who sees Dido through the shadows, as the moon through clouds, Sicut per nubile lunam, and explains:

Hic quod durus amor crudely tabe per edit

Secreti celant calles, et myrtea circum sylva tegit.”

“Where, those whom pitiless love has wounded of its cruel pestilence, secret paths hide them, and the forest of myrtle surrounds them in its shelter.” Those woods of myrtle ands asphodel’s, inhabited by white and sad ghosts have always stayed with me, mysterious and familiar. Those stances I translated and learnt by heart when I was fifteen or sixteen, and never forgot them,  for I read and learned them at the time I was reading and learning Racine [Jean Racine, French dramatist], and as I fell in love for the first time in my life. With one of my school girl friends as it was; classical, perfectly innocent love. Every day that summer I was waiting for the postman. I learned a lot that year. I learned all this together; and it was learnt once and for all. Today I feel that I have followed those secret paths all my life. I really believe that the joy of living, the possibility of living I was given, were given through love, so that when love goes away, all goes away. It is not true, of course, since nothing stops, and there comes a time when pain gets diluted, one sees the clouds again, when grass no longer is black. But at the time, it’s really black grass, gone clouds, dead light.

RD – When all beauty, all life disappears.

PR – All life. One lives for the other, and if he goes, what remains?

Thus my life, thus my body

My spirit being joint to yours

The union of our fires

Makes one soul of our souls

You live in me, I live in you

I am more you than not me…

RD – Who said this?

PR – (Jean) Bertaut, a writer of the sixteenth century who wrote a poem about the legendary Hermaphrodite, named Fantasie. 

RD – Fantaisie!

PR – Fantasie – as in the English fantasy – in sixteenth century French, meant imagination, phantasm. It’s a beautiful baroque poem. I copied it, kept it, I still have it, on the right in my desk, in the folder where I keep phone numbers.

RD – You spoke earlier of clandestinity, we come back to that often.

PR – Ah, yes with the theatre box. It was at the Edward VII theatre, with Madeleine Ozeray and Jouvet, and I recall being moved by Ondine’s despair. Everything then was for me so precarious, so threatened. Threatened. Vigny: “Her quiet and always threatened love.” You see I am full of literature, as others of religion. But literature helps to live too. My country is books.

RD – It’s weird, we have had quite different lives, but we have this in common: we belong to the world of books. I have been librarian, publisher, book binder: with passion. Literary prestige is the one I am really sensitive to. My lover told me once, after ten years: I know what we have deeply in common: literature. What books do you reread most often?

PR – Proust, whom I discovered at the NRF [La Nouvelle Revue Françcaise, the literary magazine of Gaston Gallimard. Pauline – Dominique Aury, was literary secretary of the NRF until Jean Paulhan’s death in 1968], as he was published. Shakespear, Villon, Beaudelaire, the Bible. I have four versions. The one I prefer is King James’.

[to continue on next page]

Régine Desforges and Pauline Réage: O m’a dit

I will be posting here the whole text of Régine Desforges’ s interview of Pauline Réage, author of Histoire d’O (© 1975, 1995 Éditions Jean-Jacques Pauvert).

Régine Deforges interviews Pauline Réage in 1975, twenty one years after “Histoire d’O” was published (1954).  Régine is then forty, and in 1968 founded her own publishing house, “L’Or du Temps”, and its first erotic novel, Irène, was banned by the censors.  Pauline is sixty-eight, but her true identity as the author of O has not yet be revealed (it will be in 1994, as the following text mentions).

For the new edition of O m’a dit, in March 1995, Régine wrote this introduction.  Pauline will die three years later.

“I have with the author of Histoire d’O a relationship of infinite tenderness, made of profound affection and respect, and I know she has for me the softest of friendships.

She is now an old lady [in 1995 Pauline is eighty-eight] but I cannot see her as such. I see her rather as a lost child, as I am, in the world of adults; always capable of saying things that surprise them or shock them.  This submissive is a free and loyal being.  Even though I am not so sure that loyalty be such a great quality.  One uses it when one needs it, as one can conclude by merely looking at our politicians…  The loyalty, which one believes to owe to others, is a trap in which someone as free as Dominique Aury [Pauline’s “official” literary name]  may sometime be caught. But I love her the more for it.  Don’t we love the very weaknesses of those we cherish?

Why Dominique Aury instead of Pauline Réage? She herself lifted the veil over the identity of the author of Histoire d’O in a long interview with the New Yorker, in July 1994 [Pauline’s/Dominique’s real name was Anne Desclos but she was known in her profession as journalist and literary editor only as Dominique Aury].  There she “admits” being the author of the most erotic and troubling novel of the 50’s, which only knows a worldwide success twenty years later.

Cinema has not done justice to the book, the great film of O and her love is yet to be realised.  Perhaps it is too late?  Histoire d’O talked to us, as a disciple of Fénelon and of Madame Guyon (classical mystics of the 17th-18th century), of “abandonment in the hands of the Loved one”.  This quietism is no longer of our time.

To please me, Dominique Aury agreed we composed O m’a dit. I owe to this proof of friendship to have overcome my fear of writing; she forced me to develop some of my questions or digressions.  I obeyed her and this work appeased my anxiety. One or two years later I published my first novel Blanche et Lucie [Blanche et Lucie is the history of Régine’s two grand-mothers].  For this I am for ever indebted to her.  The following year it was Le Cahier Volé [the Stolen Notebook], in which I tried to describe what would hinder my writing for more than twenty years.  Of that fear I am not completely cured.

For a while Dominique and I thought of adding a chapter to O m’a dit. “But my child, I have told everything and I am so tired”.  I did not insist.  This book expresses the essential on the manner (the writing of) Histoire d’O was undertaken.     Perhaps today I would be more combative, more incisive, more brutal?  But already then, I wanted to protect her, and, I admit, she intimidated me still a little.  I was amazed to know her so well, she the author of a book that had so much taken hold of me, that I had read so many times with the same emotion, the same deep effect on me.  This was childish on my part.

Now, when we evoke Histoire d’O and O m’a dit, we feel that a long time has gone by, that women and men, overfed by television and films with forcefully realistic images, can no longer be moved by O.  I did a survey of twenty and thirty year-old women [Régine writes “girls” and “young women”] who have read O. All have recognised, even when they disagree with the tortures O accept, that they felt like making love when they discovered the story.  Thus the words still have the greatest strength of evocation.  As for the men, something like nostalgia of a time that preceded feminism seems to float on their eyes.  But they are wrong, one can be a feminist and take pleasure, like O, in being a sex object.  For who decided to be that object, if not her?

O m’a dit is a sincere book, where neither Pauline nor I have cheated.  It still looks like us.”

#WritersWednesday: O m’a dit/5

O m’a dit/4

Jesse Draxler -  From the ‘Imagina-Cells’ series, 2013RD – Why is it, in your view, that there is no other woman writing erotic books?

PR – There was none, I believe, twenty years ago, there are many now: Violette Leduc, Jeannine Aeply, Emmanuelle Arsan, Xavière – one out of two sign with her own name, the others with pseudonyms.

RD – Now, yes, as you said, but before?

PR – I don’t know at all. There were women in love poetry: Louise Labé, Mraceline Desborde-Valmore. There was the Écrits de Laure, who was George Bataille friend, but at the time – 1930 – the circulation was only among a small group. Of a specifically erotic novel written by a woman before contemporary time I know none.

RD – But how was it that you could write this story, besides the fact that it was a gift to the man you loved. How were you tempted to write it?

PR – I did have the temptation. But not before I met someone who wished to desired to read it. I would never have written the story without that need to write a letter. It [Histoire d’O] is a letter.

RD – So we can conclude that if you had not met the person you meant to write the letter for, Histoire d’O would never have see n the light of day?

PR – Exactly.

RD – So your readers are just lucky you met that man. Otherwise we would still be saying: “Women don’t write eroticism.” Finally Histoire d’O was written to seduce a man? It’s all there is.

PR – Yes, to seduce him.

RD – But why seduce him, he was already your lover?

PR – Because one is always afraid that it won’t last! And one always looks as a way to make it continue. Like Scheherazade.

RD – It could be read as a challenge. And in the case of Histoire d’O many people want it to be real. They confuse everything. “You could never have dreamed that story.” It makes one wonder if they have ever dreamed, to deny the other the right to fantasize that way. It can’t be, it bothers them.

PR – That’s what Mauriac called “Memoires d’une Belle” [A prostitute’s memories] without realising it was  phantasms.

RD – Yes, and in this domain of eroticism they are all so convinced. They want it to be you.

PR – Still in the most fantastic books there are plenty of small things that are true, that make the whole feel real, as you can only express a truth, when you want to express it, if the detail of what you are saying is true. The whole may be false, but the detail must be true. The rule, for example, of the early science fiction, in Wells’s extraordinary stories for example, or Swift, was the absolute veracity of the detail, which convinces the reader and gives the impossible the illusion of reality.

RD – That makes the success of the S.A.S. [I just don’t know what RD means here]

PR – And afterwards there is a multiplier.

RD – Then one can dream.

PR – You have set an “exponent” [again not sure of what they mean exactly, perhaps that once the reader has adopted the illusion thus created, more fantasies are possible]

RD – You are aware that this book, which for me is a master piece, is viewed by others as filthy, and they say so.

PR – I know, I have experienced it, as when one did not know it was mine, and people spoke freely in front of me, so I am used to be told, indirectly, you have written a revolting story, this is filthy, this is vile, you have dishonoured women, yourself, it’s badly written, badly composed, not thought through, everything. I even received a letter from a woman who cursed the body who held me as an unborn, biblical insult if there was one. I am ok with it, people have the right to judge as they see fit. I will not say: withdraw their word, it’s too unpleasant. You slut, just to make money… But it’s not true, it wasn’t to make money. I did not expect that. It took time, by the way.

RD – It was on top, a bonus. But why filthy? What did you disrupt, but did you touch exactly?

PR – I think now that I insulted women’s modesty and men’s honour, innocently, if I may say so, without trying to or even being aware of it, which is aggravating.

RD – Were you aware of what was happening, this rise in celebrity year on year, almost month on month, for more that twenty years, this general sensibility that you were ahead of and was now catching up with you? Today it is so obvious, one cannot deny you wrote the Liaisons Dangereuses or the Portuguese Letters of our time, as Jean Paulhan wrote [in the preface to H d’O.] What effect does this have on an author? And moreover an author whose real name or face the public does not know?

PR – But it’s not me the celebrity. It’s an image, a tale that has grown, little by little, I don’t know how nor why. Is it even mine? O is the symbol of pure love, love that remains pure through debauchery. That absolute love, we all search for it, and that search was caught one instant into a book written by chance, that’s all. It was a strange adventure. That book written by chance brought me deep friendships, insults, mocking, knowing smiles, sarcasms. Why did I do it? Let’s say it was a way to express childhood and adolescent phantasms  that lasted long years, repeated “time and again” [in English in the text] as one says, it is certain. Why describe them at that time? Things that are so essential, so profound, one needs, I believe, to express them sometime, and the circumstances were right for me.

RD – But why then? Why have you waited so long? [PR wrote H d’O. when she was forty five or six]

PR – Maybe because I had plenty of other things to do before, like living, and because I had found the instrument, after learning the business of writing a little [Pauline had written her own poetry anthology, as well as contributed to several other books, as well as articles and columns in various magazines]. You will tell me one is born with it or not, it’s not certain. It is sometime an unused instrument. One has to use it to know one can do it, and then one knows one can do more. And “more” means expressing the phantasms.

RD – But it’s a man who triggers the exposure of the phantasms?

PR – It’s a love that could have been another love, but it’s a love, of course. But one needs an accomplice for this kind of writing, as one needs an accomplice for this kind of action, inasmuch as someone would want to act, I mean in her/his life, would want to live this kind of story. A woman could not play this game without a male accomplice, and an accomplice who loves her, as nothing of the sort can be trusted to anyone other than the man she loves.

RD – Agreed. But in publishing the book, you two have chosen to make those phantasms public and make the other accept that complicity. There, for once, you came out of your clandestine life, even if you stayed there.

PR – Yes, but it was not me who thought of it. It’s not me who asked [to publish], I had not imagined for one second that it could be published.

RD – But you did not say no either.

PR – Of course not, why should I have refused? Because it was dangerous?

RD – You said you did it because you had an accomplice, the fact of making it public may lead to conclude…

PR – That I had numerous accomplices? A desire for communication, universal communication?

RD – A desire perhaps to let your phantasms and your unrest be shared with other men.

PR – Ah, no, no, that’s not what I sought; it was not a mean of seduction to just anyone. It was a mean of seduction for a specific man, yes.

RD – But publishing was a mean of seduction of that man too?

PR – Publishing was what he wanted, it did not matter to me.

RD – But it was not one more seduction?

PR – No, when one gives something, it’s given, one does not try to claw it back in bits. It’s very simple for me. I don’t undertsand why people ask this question. I have replied to that.

RD – Yes, in Une Fille Amoureuse [the introduction to Retour à Roissy]. But isn’t there a deeper reason?

PR – If there is I don’t know it, it may exist, but I don’t know it. I can’t determine that myself. It was a dangerous thing to do [to write such a book when she did] and I have always had a taste for danger, that is true. But it was the kind of danger I did not like, precisely. The physical danger I liked, but the social danger much less so; a danger that put at risk the family equilibrium was not attractive at all to me.

RD – But was it not a dangerous step regarding your love itself?

PR – Absolutely not. The dangerous step was at the beginning, when I wondered whether this text, as I was showing him [PR was taking to JP when she saw him what she had written since their last meeting] was not going to compromise the idea that he had of me, or the love he had for me. And no, I realised quickly it did not compromise anything, to the contrary. Thus that risk was promptly set aside. But if I took it, I was shaking when I did, as I did not want to take it [the risk to lose JP by showing him her manuscript] but I did because I could not not take it.

RD – And why could you not avoid it?

PR – If I wrote the story, I had to show him. Writing it and not showing it made no sense.

RD – But showing him was a risk?

PR – Yes of course.

RD – And that risk also meant you desired to do it.

PR – Without a doubt. But a risk, when one is in love, one takes everyday. One takes a risk with a new hairdo, when we say we want to travel, when we meet someone  we find horrible, or admirable, and we talk about him. One takes a risk all the time. To love someone is to live in danger and insecurity.

RD – But him, when her read this book which was a demonstration of physical love and of the noblest love, was he not tempted to put you to the test?

PR – But how, put me to the test?

RD – See how far you were able to go with your phantasms, those things you expressed to him, for at the same time you were inviting him. You seemed to say: this is what I expect from you.

PR – Of course. But no, he probably dared not, and besides, sharing as in the story was abhorrent to him. Thus, from that angle, what I might have desired, I precisely did not risk [sharing herself with other men] and what I did risk, of the order of physical violence, I did not accept, so it was a complete deadlock, since of the two phantasms one was unacceptable to the man I had met, and the other I could not bear.

RD – So?

PR – It was a deadlock, it stayed at the stage of phantasm, idea.

RD – Did it bother you?

PR – No, not at all. I had been used to this for a very long time after all. In my head it was not new.

RD – For me, these things in my head, very often I need to verify, even in this domain, even at the cost of disappointment. The challenge, the test, the risk, yes. But what marvel to be tested by the one we love, when we answer the challenge, and when the risk disappears only to be replaced by a higher risk, when the limits are pushed back… In truth, we are so similar and yet so different; I am fascinated by this. I am wondering if you would have gone much further than me [in the exploration of the phantasms]  if it had been given to you. If at every step you had been asked for another one? Until death, like O?

PR – Is not this the supreme temptation?

RD – I understand and I don’t. For me pleasure leads only to life, to more pleasure. Yet I also feel what you feel. But the more modest temptations you have always avoided?

PR – Since my first try with the unlucky Inca pottery collector, yes, I have eschewed them. I had to recognise that I had no gift for prostitution.

RD – Yet you think of it rather in good terms?

PR – I do, but I would have had to get on with it seriously, and I was too susceptible. It’s just ridiculous, I demanded respect, as if I were more respectable than anyone else. I realise how preposterous this is, but it is so.

RD – Because [respect] is totally excluded from that type of relationship?

PR – It seems to me.

RD – I am not sure. But do you think it [prostitution] is a desirable and enriching experience for a woman? I am not talking about professionals, but for one woman, me, for example?

PR – It seems to me it is, it should, it should have been, for me too. I end up thinking it’s a missed vocation, but those are vocations for which one has to be free, completely, and one has to start early.

RD – But you could have prostituted yourself for the other, the one you loved?

PR – Oh yes. I have known women, who had, shall we say, that opportunity – inasmuch as they desired it, it was an opportunity, but they did not desire it so it was a chore for them. They agreed to it or force themselves to it to prove they could do it. I find this both legitimate  and completely absurd and pointless at the same time. In this domain we should only do the things that please us.

RD – Or if your pleasure reaches that of the other.

PR – Or please someone, yes of course.

RD – One feels that there is like a disappointment somewhere between O and her lover, and that she wants to say: it is thus you desired me, wanted me, so be it, why not? It’s like a challenge, verging on aggressiveness.

PR – Yes, I think part of it is a challenge.

RD – One could think that there is something like a desire for retribution in the fact of going through with one’s fantasms.

PR – But retribution for what? None in any case toward that lover, as for him there was no case for retribution, those offered phantasms unrealised and unrealizable, either from him, or from me. But that, did not matter, it was already extraordinary that the idea [the book] was accepted. Then, retribution toward the male gender generally, I don’t deny it, and yet I  became aware of it only after the event [PR may mean either once the book was written, or after it was published, I don’t know which of the two]. I once received an astonishing letter from a man who told me: “The way you conceive men is unthinkable. They are awful bastards. Fancy that! Here’s a boy whom a girl trusts entirely, and the first thing he does, is to betray her, to give her to someone else, when she is in his hands.” Well, let’s say that my first idea of men was that of the fearless and noble knight, and that, after I was twenty, I fell from a great height. They were not at all what I thought. Those who love, do they really? Those who are courageous, what kind of courage? And those who have only one word, how much worth is it? So there is a challenge, always present for that stranger one imagines and expects: will he have enough strength and heart to accept that image I offer him and that frightens him?

RD – That disappointment  that arises in your twenties, what was it, what happened that confronted you with the cowardice of those men?

PR – Reality, evidently!

RD – What makes an adolescent have this certitude that will dominate all her life?

PR – Probably because she has too high and noble idea of what men are, and she discovers with experience that they are no Sir Galahad.

RD – But what shows you that, what makes you suddenly so certain?

PR – Evidence. They promise, and don’t deliver. They say they love you and it’s not true. Or if it is it does not make things any different. It’s extremely rare someone who keeps to his word in this world. You may tell me: neither women. Yes, but women don’t make the same claim.

RD – True. But what was the precise event? Or tell me you don’t want to answer.

PR – There is no precise event.

RD – Nothing precise?

PR – Yes, once, a secret given, a secret that was betrayed.

O m’a dit/3 #WritersWednesday

Avant propos

O m’a dit/1

O m’a dit/2

Aristide Bruant RD – Were you, as an adolescent, a young girl, at all sensitive to those popular songs around the “légionnaire”? [foreign légion soldier] Do you remember?

PR – Yes I recall. No, not at all.

RD – What do you think was the reason at that time for that liking for the légionnaire, and also the girl, the whore?

PR – Ah, but I was brought up, I daresay, with the songs of Aristide Bruant. And I, who cannot sing, I still sing, out of tune of course, some of his songs:

A la place Maub’, l’avez vous vue

ou bien dans la court du dépôt?

Ma gigolette est est perdue!

A s’est fait poisser dans la rue…

[On the square Maubert , have you seen her

or in the courtyard of the jail?

My girl she’s lost!

She got picked up in the street…]

I don’t know if you recall, there is a very beautiful text about this, a whole section of Colette’s “Les égarements de Minne”. Minne, absolutely seduced by those stories and who goes on the “fortifs” [the ancient surrounding walls of Paris, the unsavoury belt of the capital] to look for the real Casque d’Or. And she finds an old drunk hag who asks her: “What are you doing here?” That was dreadful. She comes home in the morning, she’s found passed out at her mother’s hotel, they think she’s been raped. It’s very pretty Les égarements de Minne.

RD – You mentioned Casque d’Or, right, which is one of the most beautiful, most poetic films ever made, one of the most false at the same time, on that milieu, with that character of the donneur [Judas] which is so important in that literature. The traitor, what is it for you, is it something very important?

PR – No, and yet, I have always been struck by one of the essential themes of the one of the greatest writers I know, [Joseph] Conrad. [One of] His last novel[s], The Rescue, one of his last short stories collection, Tales of Unrest, almost always tell the story of two men, one of whom is the brother or the best friend of the other one, and all of a sudden he squeals against him, sells him, betrays him. It is very, very strange.

RD – And why do they betray?

PR – For a woman I believe.

RD – In general for a woman? OK, so for you the traitor is not important?

PR – No, Jago, looks to me absurd, it seems to me without interest.

RD – But what do you do then about jealousy?

PR – It seems to be that, in love, that is the greatest crime. I find that, when one loves someone, what is unbearable, is that he leaves you, that he quits; the fact that he may have an interest in someone else, is not that serious providing that he stays, that he does not leave you, providing that he comes back, that he still loves you, that he does not abandon you.

RD – You don’t feel as abandonment that the man you love be interested in someone else?

PR – No, I have always been under the impression that one can love several persons at the same time. I was perfectly capable to love two men at the same time. Not in the same way, but love both of them, yes.

RD – Ah! This is strange; since I know what it is to love, the universe is split in two: on one side the person who is loved, on the other side all the men, with whom one can do anything, since they are just part of the landscape, the background, and sometimes, besides, curiously, one has for that reason even more tenderness for them. But you gave to the feeling you had for either of them the name “love”?

PR – Ah yes, without a doubt.

RD – Did they know that you loved both of them?

PR – No, one had to lie.

RD – Ah, since they were jealous?

PR – Certainly. I have, alas!, only known jealous men. I ask myself why, and to what extent I did not intend that.

RD – And what does that do to you when one is jealous of you?

PR – This concerns me, saddens me, I find this unpleasant, stupid, unfair. Ah yes, I have about this a very peculiar concept. Noone is ever of my view, so I must be abnormal.

RD – When, in front of O, her lover touches the breast of another girl, she slides against the wall, passing out, she is jealous then.

PR – I was then exact, without realising it, it’s possible.

RD – Here is the text: “What pleasure did she give him, herself, that this one, or another would not give him too?” So, the fact that someone else gives the beloved being the same pleasures as you does not make you jealous? Being replaced like this does not make you shriek?

PR – One is not replaced, if the one who loves you does not go away, or comes back. And on what ground, because you love him, would you deprive him of what he likes?

RD – This is very strange, one cannot make you speak of jealousy, you don’t know what it is.

PR – I don’t know what it is.

RD – Well, I know what it is, now, jealousy, and I could talk to you about it a long time, for hours. Jealousy is a passion and as all passions, it is dominant, it crushes whoever is subjected to it. Jealousy is the feeling of love pushed to the extreme; it’s the desire to melt oneself in the other, to be the other, to own the other. When, inadvertently, that other, that other we love, looks at another person with, it looks to you, interest, or, horror, attraction, it seems to you, pleasure, or, depth of despair, if you surprise, or believe you surprise, a kiss. Then, the reversal, the collapse, transform body and soul into a mass of sufferings. Jealousy is the dry throat, the clenched hands, the heart stopping and restarting abruptly; it’s the body sliced through by a blade, bent on the pain, the weak knees, the shrieks smothered by pillows, fists and forehead bruised by the wall; it’s the desire to destroy the other to smithrens, pull his eyes out, his sex, his heart, to make him feel in his body the pain that takes me apart. As for the one who was looked at, or caressed, or kissed by the lover, there aren’t tortures I could not invent for her. I am rather soft and hardly mean, but when I feel jealous, I only see tears, cries and blood. I am pushed by a desire for revenge. Revenge for what you may ask? Revenge because I feel less loved, since he looked at another woman, he took an interest in her. I feel betrayed. I feel as if I was stripped of what gave me strength: his love. I know that all that is idiotic, I tell myself time and again, I try to control this madness rising inside me, and I sometime succeed at the price of sufferings I won’t describe to you. While this crisis lasts, this excess, this excess of passion, I live in a reddish mist. Once it’s over, I am without strength for hours, my body broken, as if I had been beaten up (this is what maybe I need), with my heart beating very fast or very slowly. I feel I could kill, or kill myself. You will tell me that jealousy is a lack of self confidence, a sign of pride, the greatest crime in love, an abomination, a disease, and it’s all that and worse still. Oh, this is dreadful!

PR – It is indeed dreadful, really, what you are telling me. I feel I luckily escaped. I had a lover who betrayed me often and I recall he used to leave letters around the place. I used to pick up the letters from the table and tell him: “You could have told me.” And his reply was: “Well, I left the letter.” And me: “Yes, so that I understood, but why not telling me?” Him: “Oh, but this is embarrassing.” I recall one day he told me something really funny. He asked me to come to the theater to see I don’t know what play, and I could not, I had a clandestine life. I replied: “Why not inviting that girl?” – “Oh, I can’t, he said, I don’t know her enough to invite her to the theater.” Eh yes, I understood very well, he knew her well enough to sleep with her, but not to invite her! It is so, one can sleep with someone and not know him, or nearly not. It’s the whole difference between pleasure and love, and even between pleasure and friendship. One gets closer to the horrid 18th century definition: the exchange of two fantasies and the contact of two skins – or the famous glass of water against which Lenin complained (was it Lenin?), even though a glass of water when one is thirsty is blessed.

RD – There one touches something, the fact of being attentive to the other. Finally one realises that very few people pay attention, either to the ones they love, or those who surround them, being concerned, really looking at them. On eis very seldom looked at really, and one looks very little. But why?

PR – It depends. I have always looked much at people I loved or those I lived with.

RD – Is it out of consideration or why according to you?

PR – Because people interest me. A writer I admire once said to me: “You don’t like literature.” I replied: “What do you mean, I don’t like literature?” – “No, you like people.” He was perfectly right. What I like in literature is people. The people one sees through literature. That’s why I so much love reading. God knows I sometime read books without much interest and I find something interesting in them because there is someone behind, even when they are very poorly written. Even when they have no literary value, they may have some humanly speaking.

RD – Isn’t it exhausting, sometime, for you, that interest in others?

PR – I find not, not until now. Ah no, I don’t find it exhausting. It’s the opposite, it’s others who make me feel good. You will tell me that that too, is an alibi, it’s a way to get out of oneself, to be freed from oneself, to immerse oneself in others.

RD – Why are you trying so much to be freed from yourself?

PR – One gets tired of oneself, don’t you think? It makes me tired to be me. Am I of such good company? I am often melancholic, which is not pleasing, so just as well to think of something else, do something else, just as well to get interested in others.

RD – And then it forces you not to be sad? After all, those others help you?

PR – Much so. The mere fact they exist.

RD – But you know very well that from the time you look attentively, they really start to exist. The look one aims at peopleis a very important thing.

PR – I don’t know, I am not aware of it.

RD – It is very important. The fact that you take an interest in people, that you really look at them, you give them a new existence., which is not only theirs, but which is also the one you want to give them. They are in front of you almost as you wish them to be, or as you imagine them.

PR – Do you believe we transmit something? I doubt it.

RD – I am convinced of it. You may be in the street, or at the terrace of a café, the crowd flows like this, and all of a sudden, you look at someone, but look really at someone walking towards you, and that someone is about to catch your gaze and after a while there will be a different attitude from the person who’s being looked at. He feels alive because he is seen. I have often observed this, something happens in the body, he stands up.

PR – Yet it is sometime unsufferable to be looked at.

RD – Ah, that is different. It’s the perpetual agression, effectively, from the street or from others, being looked at in a certain way.

PR – There is a really interesting thing in Jean D’Ormesson’s last novel [perhaps Au Plaisir de Dieu?], when he speaks of the way one was brought up in a large family. It was: “Stand up, you are being looked at.” And I believe, as a form of education, that that is extremely important, the feeling that one must stand up straight because one is being looked at. It’s very salutary as well. People must stand up. To go and get shot or to be applauded. It’s the same thing after all.

RD – Yes, but that is a question of moral standing, but there, aren’t we a little old-fashioned both of us?

PR – I don’t see what morality has to do with it. It’s rather a way to be in control, to guard oneself. What the Chinese call not to lose face. And if this means being a fossile, perfect, I don’t ask for more. One is always, in some way, out of one’s time.

RD – Are you feeling besides your time, I mean, besides the epoch?

PR – For certain things yes.

RD – For example, what do you think of all those feminine movements? Of all that happens in the world by women?

PR – I am well embarrassed to think anything about it, because, firstly, they [women] vegetate under a contempt and a mysogyny which is till widespread. And it is evident that French laws have been iniquitous, thanks to Napoléon, who was unlucky enough to have stupid and badly behaved sisters, and so said: one cannot leave a family in the hands of such [turkeys]. He was right as far as his sisters were concerned.  On the other hand I don’t believe the M.L.F. [Mouvement de Libération de la Femme: fairly agressive French women liberation movement of the 70’s] be a solution.

RD – Don’t you think that it is precisely through the excess of some women, with what may be unpleasant, even schocking or unwelcome, that awareness may arise from both men and women?

PR – I am not aware of it. I am very puzzled by this. I have never been a member of a feminist movement, but I have always been a feminist. To be truthful, I’d say, what is serious, in my case, is that I have towards men in general, neither in the slightest inferiority feeling, nor much admiration, I mean for their character, the way they lead their lives, of taking or not taking their responsibilities. There is a type of man I admire, entirely out of fashion, today ridiculed, for whom what is imperative is courage, the promise given, courtesy, and not taking oneself too seriously. I have known some of them, they were always fairly rare, but when it was fashionable there were some good imitations. In daily life I find very few men are adult. They may be so in their jobs, not always at home. How many women know that with their husband they have one more child. Men are irresponsable like children, unbearable, often, like children. Women are more reasonable, reasonable people are women. Note that it is, for them, the obverse of a fundamental quality; it is those who aren’t reasonable who change the world, who make life move. Maybe women are already too busy giving life, to work towards changing it. And once I have said that, it does not take me anywhere, if I am on my own with this view.

RD – It’s not that you are on your own. I do not know whether women are reasonable and men unbearable. Children, often it is obvious, but if it is women who are adult, why is it that they let themselves be manipulated so much.

PR – I do not undertsand it and it may be that my ideas are all wrong.

RD – Because, the masters of the situation, if one can talk in this way, the strong beings, are women, I am deeply convinced of it. But they play the men’s game by making them believe the opposite.

PR – They cope with what’s most urgent, the easiest. It is easiest to make them believe. It’s not honorable but it is practical.

RD – Yes, we agree, but in the meantime, all the problems of the world, of life in general, they largely come from men who make the laws and lead the world. I don’t know if it would be better if women were to take over, I don’t know. But I mean that find more and more unsufferable that state of infantilism where women are still kept, those beings who poison mushrooms on certain days of the month, or spoil the mayonnaise. At the same time maybe it’s true, I don’t know.

PR – But note that what we are accused of then is not infantilism but sorcery. Less humiliating – but worse.

RD – There are excesses committed by members of the M.L.F., or in the old days by suffragettes, but aren’t those excesses necessary?

PR – The suffragettes’ excesses were nothing compared with those of the M.L.F.

RD – I don’t know if you are familiar with the feminist movements that developed from 1830 to 1848. There was a feminist, not feminine, press, considerable developed by early in the 19th century. There were three or four issues at a time, then [those publications] disappeared.

PR – Wihtout much result, it seems to me.

RD – Not always. But what is your concept of feminism, a new feminism that would be effective and interesting for everyone?

PR – I don’t know, look for example, at the first women to be ministers, that was in England, and there is an extraordinary mysogyny in the Englishman, and yet the first women rights were recognised in England. It’s not easy. In America it’s the same: women have the right to vote in America, and for a long time. One has managed to explain to them that if they want to look pretty and have husband and children, they should keep out of politics. One has managed to prevent them from working. Besides, you won’t tell me that having a husband and children, keep the house, cook, look after the children on top of an office job is ideal? It is not true. It’s to add to one curse, child bearing, another which is work. We are told: work is a right, it’s a gain; but it is not that simple. It’s a gain of freedom, since one has a bit of money one can spend without referring to one’s husband, period. For the rest, it’s supplementary slavery.

RD – You’re quite right. But I have to say it’s something which is becoming clearer now. Women realise they have been had in this business. Because having two jobs, as you said, at home and then at the office or the factory, is not that exciting.

PR – One comes home, and it’s time to prepare dinner. One washes the children clothes, at least put them in the washing machine, if there is one, one has to clean the dishes, even with a dishwasher, in any case, one must do something more, as the husband sits down at the table. Sometime he is kind and helps do the dishes, but it’s not that frequent.

RD – That explains how difficult it is to exchange, the simple exchange of two persons after a day’s work, if one is twice exhausted, it’s not possible. People can’t do it.

PR – And there are many women who have a small income, and in oredr to pay for a house helper, go to work eight hours a day, to earn wages that are exactly what they are going to have to pay the house helper.

RD – Why?

PR – Because they are bored at home, I assume. They are lonely women. I have had friends whose husbands earned lots of money, who stayed at home, doing nothing. They looked after the children, and once the children had grown up, after the grand children, their family, their house, and they were at a loss, and envied me, who at the time was working hard, who was very tired. When I came home I only wanted to go to bed. They thought it was perfect. Moreover they were probably right.

RD – But why do people find it so hard to be free?

PR – People struggle to live, be free, have a life they like. Living, just living, is difficult. One must be free and at the same time not be. One must be both free and constrained. A psychiatry doctor, of the old school, said: “One needs two ot three hours each day, something obligatory to do, even it it’s boring and no fun.”

RD – Why this advice?

PR – Because it helps one to stand up, to live. One needs something obligatory to do every day. One must not be in a void.

RD – One mustn’t be totally available.

PR – One mustn’t be in a void, needing only a phone call to get one’s fur coat, or one’s apartment cleaned, or whatever. That anything be resolved on one’s order. Which means simply, in good French, that very rich people are also fatally very unhappy. So, there we come to something which is revolting, since one seems to reiterate the old say that money does not make happiness, when it is true that some money makes people happy, and its lack makes them unhappy. I have known three women, no longer young, one is now dead, all three billionaire, and I know they lead, or led, a life that does not fulfill them. One of them is generosity itself, kindness and delicacy, and let herself often be exploited with infinite patience, without ever being duped. I am not sure she’s happy, but who is?

RD – But what would you do, yourself, if you had so much money?

PR – Mad things of course. Reforest half of France… The third one, once, asked me: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?” I was beginning to tell her, and she threw up her hands. She too gives away her money. God knows but what I was suggesting did not amuse her.

RD – But what would you do?

PR – Oh! I was saying that I’d buy apartments for my friends who are not well housed, I’d furnish them and give them away. “Ah, she said, they would call you to sort out the toilets.” I replied: “There are plumbers…” But it is clear that giving, without limits, must be wearing too. And yet you know the Provence fisherman’s prayer: Virgin Mary, let it be one catches enough fish to eat, to give and to be stolen. It’s the only money philosophy I find defensible.

RD – I think that money is an erotic element.

PR – Of that I am entirely convinced.

RD – And why?

PR – Because it gives value, that’s all. If a girl makes herself very expensive, it must prove she is worth it to her own eyes as well as others’. If someone marries you and spends a lot of money for you, it’s because he considers you worth a lot. It’s also a form of power, and power is seductive.

RD – Surely, but I think there is also something else. It’s that by being payed, however expensive one is, one becomes nothing more than a mean of exchange, a merchandise, an object. And for a woman, from time to time, it is not unpleasant to be a merchandise, an object of barter. Besides, to be transformed, changed into something else, is an erotic element. Hence the tattoes, the hot iron branding. Without going that far, ear piercing to wear the gifted jewlery, already… But in a love affair, if a man had payed you, what would it have started for you?

PR – That never happened to me, and thus the problem. I imagine it would have given me the greatest pleasure.

RD – Yes, I think I’d like that very much. But isn’t there for us, for you, some thing we learned, a prudishness which means…

PR – That we don’t accept?

RD – But would this have troubled you?

PR – An additional pleasure wouldn’t it?

RD – Ah! Yes, my view too. But why do people say that’s what is most schocking with prostitution, but that exchange is for me normal.

PR – Body for money, I have never found that schocking, personally, unfortunately.

RD – But you know full well that society finds it schocking.

PR – Yes, I must be an anarchist.

RD – That’s right. But the fact that a woman, a girl gets payed is considered a bad thing. Don’t you think that now, money is given, I was about to say, a bad role?

PR – There has to be some modesty somewhere, so it’s given to money.

RD – It’s given to money. For me, what I have been accused of in court: “But, madame, you are making money with those books.” Upon which, scared to death, I replied: “ When one works, has a job, it is to earn money, to earn a living.” Selling guns is not considered a bad thing, but selling obscene books that may arouse people, that is entirely schocking.

PR  – So it seems.

RD – It’s acceptable to sell guns, but not one’s body, or someone else’s. Where does that come from?

PR – Soliciting is illegal, not prostitution.

Rd – But why can’t we solicit? Someone who sells tomatoes says:  come and look at my nice tomatoes. A girl could say: come and see my beautiful breasts or my lovely eyes. Is it anything more? But no, I am wrong, its much more, obviously. There is something in amourous relationships that is so much more than just coupling.

PR – It’s a strange and mysterious thing. Sleeping with someone is never entirely simple, I mean by that, even when it is entirely venal, if you want, when the two don’t know each other, when it does not last, the fact that there is desire and pleasure, at least for one of them, establishes a kind of communication that is magic and incomprehensible, and I am not far from thinking sacred, if there is anything sacred on this world, which is not certain. If anything is sacred on earth, well, it is love, the pleasure and happiness one can draw from it. And tenderness which is never mentioned? That unexplainable trust that is asummed by the fact of giving access to one’s body to someone else, that closeness of men and women to each other, that one does not avoid, when one loves, even for an instant? Tenderness that remains when desire, when lust have passed, isn’t it the most extraordinary gift of life? This gift is so miraculous that even if one is not aware, one feels it, one seeks without knowing. Even the pretence of love can be a gift. One then makes love to look good, to be prettier, to be smiling and feel free, for the joy of disposing of oneself. It is the last consolation left to human beings, in a difficult life, a meaningless life, that one does not understand. And in fact it is the only thing that links us to the rest of the universe, it is the only thing that makes us similar to animals and plants, by which we participate in the creation, and which is given to all beings.

RD – Yes, yet this pleasure one starts recognising as a goal, you are saying that it is something very mysterious, but that is rarely – but it does happen – shared. When it is shared, it’s out of this world, always.

PR – Of course, but it does not matter, if one of the two gets it, it’s already something. But the goal, it seems to me, is as much the encounter as the pleasure.

RD – Ah yes, but there, one sees you are woman. There is that great tenderness of women who have given pleasure to their man. Even though, some men have that tenderness too. But it is so weird, pleasure, so variable.

PR – But it can be what one wants, variable, elusive, as much as you want, unpredictible, uncontrollable, OK, and then? It is a gift from heaven. There ain’t two, just one. That, by which you touch, with all meanings of the word, someone else.

RD – Do you believe it is one of the things people, consciously or not, try to recreate in their relationships?

PR – It looks that way.

RD – You think that one can experience a great pleasure with someone one does not love?

PR – It depends on people. The classic story of the girl who experiences such great pleasure with a boy she does not love, when she feels nothing with a husband she adores, but I don’t know. I imagine that boy she does not love, she loves him a little.

RD – But I feel something fishy behind this. It does not please me at all. I mean heart and body cannot be wrong to that extent. It’s like a game when one card is missing: something is falsified.

PR – There is always a missing card. There is always a cheat. One is betrayed by one’s principles, one’s heart, one’s body. A body is a dirty frame upon which one cannot rely – or not for long, the heart makes mistakes, that burns and suffers for him who’s not worth it, and principles, ah! principles, as many chimera that reality destroys! But the miracle of the instant exists. Isn’t it enough for you? Bless the sky for those moments when someone faints in your arms, and you in his. Then you touch the clouds, the flowing stream, you are one breath in the wind – the rest, it’s the incomprehensible life, given to us and made by us, only to be endured.

RD – Yes. No. I don’t know.Oh! I don’t like to endure… But since we are talking about pleasure, I am lessand less in agreement with that kind of philosophie that is popularised by cinema, books, porn magazines: pleasure is the same, everywhere, with anybody, there is only quantity that counts, the only question is: how often. It’s not rue, one has to say it. Pleasure is that sacred feast Sagan [x] talks about in Réponses. It’s not hygiene. It’s not the hitch one srapes and forgets… It’s OK to leave the guilt, to forget the 19th century when women’s pleasure was considered inconvenient, when masturbation led to a prompt death, etc. But the trouble is… I, the erotic books I published were not to reassure people, they were to disturb them. Well…

to be continued…

Jan Mankes:  Rozen in Vaas

#WW O m’a dit/2


O m’a dit/1

Corset RD – You say somewhere, about a man in a bar – it’s in the preface to Retour à Roissy – [Une Fille Amoureuse] a man of your age says: “Have you seen that man, in his fifties, how good he looks, I don’t understand that women are only interested in guys in their thirties.” Or something to that effect. And you did not tell him, but you thought: of course it is that type of men they are interested in. Why?

PR – I don’t know, one always looks for a father.

RD – So, one has practically always sought to make love to one’s father?

PR – Ah yes, surely, and at the same time without doing it.

RD – Without doing it? Incest exists.

PR – Oh, why not? Brothers and sisters who love each other, that must be a delight. And I read once a love story between father and daughter which impressed and troubled me, from a mediocre writer though, Claude Farrère. And you have not to have known any country doctor to ignore fathers making their daughters pregnant, it’s not that rare.

RD – You loved your father very much?

PR – I loved him much, and admired him a lot.

PR – Was he someone who kissed you, took you in his arms?

PR – Yes, of course.

RD – So there was some sensuality between you?

PR – Oh yes. He was a man who adored women, who was with women very kind and generous, not materially, for he was penniless, but the generosity of the heart and devotion! He was marvellous.

RD – He really listened to them?

PR – He was very attentive, very impassioned, very convincing. He was not handsome, short and thick, with a round head, stocky, sturdy, easily angered, a fighter. And me too incidentally, I don’t look the part, but as a child I was always fighting.

RD – You were a gang leader?

PR – Yes, I always had gangs when I was young.

RD – You ran fast?

PR – Very. I was a middle distance runner.

RD – Were you a sporting type otherwise?

PR – Only for running and a little tennis.

RD – You had a taste for competition in sport?

PR – No, not that much. To achieve a good time, that was all. Competition did not interest me. Only in the class room. If I was not first or second I went mad.

RD – And you were first?

PR – Sometime.

RD –  What religion were you brought up in?

PR – It’s a bit of a funny story. I had to be a catholic since the majority in France is catholic and it’s easier. Such was my mother’s view. My father would rather had me as a protestant. So, nothing was decided, but I was left with my father’s mum who was from Brittany, and she did not hesitate: catholic and Bretonne, she sent me to catechism, without telling anyone, for it was scandalous I was not baptised. One never admitted it, and when I came to the age of my private communion, seven year-old, she managed for me not to do it somehow. Then, at eight and then nine there had to be a solution. That was during the 1914 war [WW1]. She finally admitted I was not baptised. Scandal, horror, abomination. I was told, I had to be told since she could not show a baptism certificate, and hence could not do my first communion.  I had already confessed I don’t know how many times, had followed mass with passion, the month of Mary, I was very pious, everything one can imagine at that age, and suddenly, like a strike of lightning in a clear sky, I learned I wasn’t baptised. Do you know what it felt like? This was very funny. I was going to a college then, a state college – the town was too small to have a lycée [high school]. There were interns and sometime one sat at the interns’ s desks. I had lifted the top of one of the desks and found some beautiful writing paper, and I had stolen one sheet and an envelop. I must have committed other crimes in my long life, if none other than against love and friendship, and yet remorse is pursuing me about that sheet of paper and envelope, real remorse; and all I saw in the fact I was not baptised and I was going to be, was that my sins were going to be erased without having to confess I had stolen. And do you know why I did not want to confess? It was not for the shame of the story, not at all, but because I would be told to replace the paper and I no longer had it.

RD – What did you do with it?

PR – I can’t remember. But you have to admit it’s a weird story. Strange child’s reaction. So, I did my first communion alone, no white gown, almost in hiding (already clandestine). The same day, christening and first communion, with just my mother there, very annoyed she was, who found that very irritating, who could have done without it, and me too in a way, part from the erasure. That’ s it.

RD – So you did not admit the theft in confession?

PR – It was erased, I no longer had to say anything!

RD – You have noted the proportions that in our mind certain faults take, the disproportionate importance, the excessive remorse that peccadillos leave with us.

PR – Peccadillos yes.

RD – Why is that?

PR – Its weird, I don’t know. For me it was a serious thing. I still see the sheet of paper. It must have been light blue or grey.

RD – Was it pretty? 

PR – It was very pretty, with a doubled envelope. I have never seen any as beautiful.

RD – A man I know well tried once to explain to me how much self-control, and distance, add to the practice of eroticism according to him. For example, to decide one month ahead to  execute on such a day, on such hour, an act of debauchery, as they say, that one would in general execute only in a state of strong excitement. And thus to do it, almost inevitably, at what everyone would call a bad time. On order, and from cold.

PR – It’s the cold gaze Sade talks about. “He stared at me with the cold gaze of the true libertine.”

RD – I am not sure I was then a good pupil. I am not incapable of premeditation, but coldness is not my forte. But we were talking of writing…

PR – Yes, I had much read the minor erotic writers of the 18th century, who contrary to the 17th century ones, are extraordinarily decent in their expression. Crébillon, Les Hasards du coin du feu, it’s an exquisite piece and perfectly decent, whereas if you read Malherbe, his erotic writing is abominable in the terms. Les Priapées, it’s horrible!

RD – Ronsard’s erotic pieces are not better. I believe it’s also due to the epoch’s vocabulary which was very crude.

PR – The epoch’s vocabulary was the same in the 18th century. You find it, that vocabulary, just as crude in Casanova. It’s much cruder in Casanova than in Crébillon. It’s not that the vocabulary had changed, it’s because a concept of decency, precisely, had intervened. One can say anything, but one must say it decently. Otherwise it’s embarrassing, it’s gross, it’s vulgar. Mind you, I understand the utility of terms that are gross and vulgar, they have their value, their weight, their efficacy.

Why not the words one has placed on bugle’s soundings, the guards’s room songs, why not the limericks too, so funny and so gross? But for me, I was getting by better with decent terms.

RD – O does not like it when Sir Stephen talks about her in crude terms.

PR – No, it’s the thing that most humiliates her.

RD – But in fact she endures it, of course, as she endures the blows, the touching. She’s humiliated , but she accepts it, she seeks humiliation, so why not that one. Is it that for her, in her particular case, those words have the value, the efficacy you talked about, which is conceivable?

PR – Of course, but brutality in the terms, is another form of rape, a more subtle form.

RD – But you said it’s a humiliation; but why humiliation, it’s too much, it serves no purpose.

PR – Do you think so? O seeks destruction, and the deepest destruction is humiliation. One may kill someone, one must not humiliate her. One may execute a political enemy, but not insult him. I understand that one can execute someone when circumstances dictate, if one considers the person dangerous, to be got rid of. Kill him but don’t insult him, don’t torture him.

RD – On the other hand the death penalty does not appear to you unacceptable?

PR – No, there are things far worse than death.

RD – It’s certain, depriving someone of freedom being one of the most abominable things.

PR – Death, one always arrives there, and there are people, there are human beings for whom, alas, one can do nothing, and it is better for themselves and others, it is better if they are dead.

RD – So do you think that society should and can protect itself, precisely, by eliminating certain individuals?

PR – Without doubt, but one should not give oneself a good conscience for it.

RD – Well, now, one would rather give oneself a good conscience by not doing it.

PR – Let’s say that one does it when one cannot do otherwise. It’s a sad necessity, but one should not imagine it is justice, that is not true. It is obeisance, how to say that, to a need for self-protection, a reflex of self-defence, but one should not believe that is being fair. Justice, I don’t believe that exists. And yet it a thing I most believed in, that seemed to me essential. I foolishly believed, for a long time, in liberty and justice, I mean the possibility of liberty and justice. And I still feel injustice as a terrible thing. [Dominique Aury witnessed the horrors of the occupation of France, and then, at the Libération, the summary executions of collaborators, women shaven and paraded in the streets]

RD – When one is punished, when one punishes a child unjustly, it is atrocious, the child may not easily recover from it.

O PR – I remember bearing a deep grudge against my mother for punishing me once when I lied to her. I had lied to protect her young maid who dated a “fiancé”, as she told me: “Please don’t tell Madame”, and I said no, I would not tell. But that wrench told my mother I don’t know what tale, and my mother said: “You see, you lied to me, you said you were there and you weren’t.” I did not say anything, I let myself be punished with such a violent feeling of injustice and despair that I ran away to drown myself. It was near the sea, on holiday. I never had the courage for a whole hour to get in the water. I went back home. I never forgot. You know, in the English education system, of old, there was almost a rule: if a child was punished – probably beaten – for a fault he did not commit, and one realised it. He was told that he had only to bear the injustice and the blows without complaint, that was the way to learn about life. So, I was learning.

RD – Did you feel a desire of revenge towards the maid?

PR – Not even. Since I promised to her not to say anything, I said nothing. She did, well, she spoke. What appeared dreadful to me was that my mother believed her rather than me.

RD – Your mother did not trust you.

PR – No.

RD – It’s very important for you that you are trusted?

PR – Yes, even when I don’t deserve it. I try though to deserve it.

RD – What is it in life that brings most pain, in your view? Injustice?

PR – Oh no! One gets used to injustice. No. But being separated from those one loves. One is in hell. I am not sure there is paradise, but I know there is hell. It’s separation.

RD – Have you been often separated from people you loved?

PR – For a very long time, yes, very often, and many times.

RD – You seem to be loyal to your word, your friends, your commitments.

PR – I don’t know. I try.

RD –  But you don’t appear to have a concept of loyalty in love, of loving loyalty.

PR – No, this sounds absurd to me. I have been faithful to people I loved, never slept with another person when I was in love with someone. Sadly, by the way, I would have liked to have slept with someone else sometime, very often it happened to me to desire that and not do it because I had promised not to do it. It’s absurd to promise obeisance and loyalty.

RD – You never promised?

PR – Sometime. And kept my promise. But if I have been loyal, I am afraid I was never obedient.

RD – Yet for you, obedience is a beautiful thing.

PR – Yes, it is a beautiful thing.

RD – You praise its advantages in some cases, but not for you.

PR – No, I am not obedient.

RD – Do you like being obeyed?

PR – Not much. No, but I would be very obedient if I was in a military unit. Something entirely ridicule, that you don’t seem to appreciate, and it is very amusing you don’t see it, since for me it is evident, is that I suffer from a vexed military vocation. I like accepted discipline, the firm timetable, the chores. If I received an order in a unit, for example during the war, when I had something to do, when someone in the network told me to do it, I strictly complied. Meeting at such and such time, I was always there. [Dominique Aury joined the Résistance in 1942].

RD – The taste for uniform, is apparent in the way you dress.

PR – It makes life simpler.

RD – It is handing over one’s fate to other hands, as one hands over too heavy a load. It’s Lawrence [of Arabia] coming back as simple soldier in the army. A general once told me: “I have chosen to be a soldier, and obey, to be free.” But isn’ it a bit of a contradiction, your uniform, with the one you make O wear?

PR – Naturally.

RD – But clothing is very important in O’s story. Every detail of the clothes is chosen for its erotic value.

PR – Any garment can be erotic. The vast dominoes of masked balls, as much as the peplums with wet folds of antiquity. But there is a classical outfit (corset, suspenders, garters and black stockings), that is very troubling to wear. It’s a phantasm I no doubt share with many women. In the great erotic uniforms, there are also for me the 18th century dresses, with a long bust. If I was able to describe with so many details O’s outfits, it’s because I once studied the history of garments… I was fascinated by those long  corseted dresses that pull up the breasts. Those skirts that prove that one can wear them without any underwear. The nuns at the convent where my mother studied, an order founded in the 18th century, wore that kind of garment, wide skirts, underskirts, nothing underneath, and when they climbed a staircase to higher floors, their little pupils were watching at the bottom to see the white naked thighs, and were laughing secretly. This scandalised my mother forever. The verb to truss was invented for those skirts…

RD – And it is also a most troubling word. But O’s uniform…

PR – O’s uniform is a sign of acknowledgement, as is the way she dresses. If you want, in this story of acknowledgement and of uniform, there is part of romanticism of the secrete society. But it is a masculine thing generally. It’s men who create secrete societies and I have long dreamed of those. So, during the war, the resistance networks, it was perfect.

RD – You belonged there.

PR – It was ideal. Moreover one risked something.

RD – Moreover you risked your life. Was that something that pleased you?

PR – That pleased me, yes, very much so.

RD – But it was with the goal to stop something.

PR – Ah, that was to have these people go. [The German occupier]

RD – You did not like them? 

PR –  It’s not that I did not like them. No, I did not like them, that’s understood, but they had no business here. They only had to go back home. It’s the Go Home principle, all simple. For example I am a passionate anglophile; not anglophile, anglomaniac. But if the English came over as occupiers, I would have only one idea, to kick them out. [Dominique spells out the position of many French right-wing nationalists, unless they were convinced fascists, who opted for résistance to the German occupation]


#WW ~ O m’a dit/1

O m’a dit/1


In the text: RD is Régine Deforges, PR is Pauline Réage, notes [in brackets] are from me. All html links are mine. © Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1975, 1995.

Lettres Portuguaises 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 Elle the 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’Express Jean 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…

[end of part 1]

#amreading: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of the likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment to pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” ~ Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I Capture the Castle I am a happily married man. Gorgeous and I rarely argue about anything of substance, and when we do, it is with the certainty that I will quickly realise my error. Books, and the interpretation of certain books may be the exception. I tend to take the viewpoint of the author, or at least what I guess that might be. She, is the Reader.

So it is that, a few of days ago, I picked up Her copy of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”, and proceeded to read it the same day, on a train journey to Paris. The novella moved me to tears. I found Barnes’ description of ageing, of the confusion of memories and feelings this implies, the nostalgia of the whole tale, and the tragedy of the characters, simply overwhelming. I understood the Man Booker Prize jury and their decision in 2011. This is a small masterpiece, a jewel of a book that one must read and re-read.

I found poignant the description of the college boys growing up, their hopes, their shattered illusions, their eventual defeat once they accepted that Life would definitely not turn out as Literature. I identified myself with Tony Webster, the gentle (my view) fellow who learnt to survive, was victim of a manipulative and heartless young woman in the person of Miss Veronica Mary Elizabeth Ford, to my mind fully deserving Tony’s own description of bitch and “cockteaser”.

I too believed that History was the lie of the victors. And my taste in music were not that different from Tony’s own. So, I too felt “like a survivor from some antique, bypassed culture whose members were still using carved turnips as a form of monetary exchange.” That actually made me laugh – on a good teasing day Gorgeous calls me her “Neanderthal”. If you haven’t read the book then stop reading this post now. The rest would spoil your pleasure when you come to reading it.

I have my interpretation of the tragedy, and was even more disgusted at Veronica’s antics when Tony, with good reasons, attempts to contact her again: this confirmed to me his correct diagnosis regarding the lady. But of course nothing is that simple.

Gorgeous said then that since I’d finished the book she wished to have my views on it. I was happy to discuss it and had no concern about the outcome. I gave my wife my views of the book, in a literary sense, and then of the story and of the characters. It turns out that her interpretation was completely different. For a start her belief was that it was Tony who had made Veronica’s mother pregnant. This made/makes no sense to me although I admit that my reasoning is solely based on the fact that Mrs Ford mère – Sarah – left Adrian’s diary in her will specifically for Tony, with a note saying that Adrian’s last months had been happy. To my mind, Adrian, the philosopher, had somehow got close enough to Veronica’s mum and made her pregnant, “at a dangerously late age”. Of course there is still an unexplained mystery as to how and why. To my mind the explanation may be that young Veronica behaved just as badly with Adrian as, before him, with Tony, and had taken him to bed merely to frustrate Tony – didn’t she push Adrian to write to Tony that they were “going out”?  – Upon which the said Adrian followed Tony’s recommendation and visited Mother with the unplanned consequences. Wife was not convinced. Wife thought Tony Webster was a fine example of male brutishness and insensitivity, in one word another stupid prick, although She admitted that I may be right about the paternity. As for Veronica’s attitude and “cockteasing”, Wife declared, to my stupefaction, that a young woman had a right to chose her own ways to satisfaction. I  nearly choked, and felt awkward since that affirmation is, of course, undeniable. But I thought it was about a relationship, and what of the mess that evidently ensued, and that Tony in his older age only discovered as a result of receiving Mrs Ford’ s letter via her solicitor? What of Veronica’s refusal to explain anything to him but let him guess at some of the truth through parables and a display of contempt that surely would infuriate anyone? What was her right to withhold, perhaps destroy, Adrian’s diary that her mother had legated to Tony? I was on the wrong track. As Tony says: “There was no arguing against “feelings”, because women were experts in them, men coarse beginners.” Well now, for a start I have never thought the “Sixties” were a time of “permissiveness”. For a tiny minority of “artists” maybe, but for most of us – here and there and everywhere – the decade was a time of hypocrisy and lies. The main problem then for young people was contraception, when things were not cheap and not easy to get, and we were poor.

“But I was wrong about most things, then as now. For instance, why did I assume she was a virgin? I never asked her, and she never told me. I assumed she was because she wouldn’t sleep with me: where is the logic in that?” – I really felt for Tony reading this. Gorgeous said he was an idiot. And by inference I was on my way to become one too!

He had been warned. Mother had told him: “Don’t let Veronica get away with too much.” I am sure Mother knew what a bitch daughter was, and Tony was evidently not Miss Ford’s first victim… Still. Some forty years later he tries to understand. Yes he wrote that odious and very stupid letter, and rather than warn his friend, as a true comrade should have done, he insulted him, and her. I said to Wife that I would never have done such a thing, Wife looked at me critically.

I said, “Whichever way one reads the book, Miss Veronica Ford is the personification of all that can go wrong with human relationships.” Gorgeous smiled: “and of course it had nothing to do with him?” I thought again of Mr Tony Webster: “Why should we we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?” But Gorgeous had the last word, when she quoted Adrian himself: “If life is a wager, what form does the bet take?”

If you have read “The Sense of an Ending”, we are interested in your interpretation of the book and its characters!