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Not many authors can boast of having written a best-selling pornographic novel, much less one regarded as an erotica classic – but Pauline Réage, Dominique Aury, and Anne Desclos (1907–1998) could. All three were the same woman, but for years the real name behind the incendiary work was among the best-kept secrets in the literary world. Forty years after the publication of the French novel ‘Histoire d’O’, the full truth was finally made public. Even now, some still considered it the most shocking book ever written. When the book came out, its purported author was ‘Pauline Réage’, widely believed to be a pseudonym. Although shocking for its graphic depictions of sadomasochism, the novel was admired for its reticent, even austere literary style.
Anne Desclos (or rather, Dominique Aury, as she became known in her early thirties) was obsessed with her married lover, Jean Paulhan. Paulhan and Desclos bonded through shared intellectual passion; during the Nazi occupation of France, while doing work for the Resistance, they became lovers. Aury was fascinated by intelligence, a friend recalled: ‘The intelligence of Paulhan was obvious; and for her it became a kind of obsession.’
‘Histoire d’O’ [Story of O] is an account of a French fashion photographer, known only as O, who descends into debasement, torment, humiliation, violence, and bondage, all in the name of devotion to her lover, René. Over the course of the novel she is blindfolded, chained, flogged, pierced, branded, and more.
Aury wrote the book exclusively for Paulhan. ‘Story of O’ was first triggered by Paulhan’s offhand remark that no woman could ever write a ‘truly’ erotic novel, but a more compelling motive was her fear, however, irrational, that their relationship might end. ‘I wasn’t young, I wasn’t pretty, it was necessary to find other weapons’, she later revealed: ‘the physical side wasn’t enough; the weapons, alas, were in the head.’ The novel was written as a challenge to Paulhan’s dare. ‘I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him’, she told the documentary filmmaker Pola Rapaport shortly before her death. Aury never intended the novel to be made public, but Paulhan insisted on it. For her, the manuscript was simply a long letter that had to be written. She hoped this gift would ensure the permanence of their relationship. It was the ultimate love letter.
Paulhan was awestruck. When he excitedly asked if he could find a publisher for her work, she agreed on the condition that her authorship remain hidden, known only to a select few. She gave herself the pen name ‘Pauline Réage’: ‘Pauline’ after Pauline (Bonaparte) Borghese, elder sister of Napoleon, who was famous for her sensual, decadent pursuits; as well as Pauline Roland, the late-nineteenth-century French women’s rights activist. Despite the apparent blur between ‘Pauline’ and ‘Paulhan’, Aury said later that her appellation had nothing to do with him. (Some insisted, wrongly, that she chose the name because it sounded like the French for ‘Reacting to Paulhan’.) As for ‘Réage’, she’s supposedly stumbled upon it in a real estate registry. Like many pseudonymous authors, Aury saw identity as unstable and felt perfectly as ease inhabiting a self that refused to remain a fixed star.
Desclos had already toyed with her identity well before ‘Histoire d’O’ was published. At some point during the war, while working as a journalist and translator, she discarded her original name, Anne Desclos, erasing it entirely from her professional and personal life. Almost no one knew that Aury was not actually her own name she kept that fact a secret. She had chosen ‘Dominique’ for its gender neutrality, and ‘Aury’ was derived from her mother’s maiden name, ‘Auricoste’.
Who would suspect that Dominique Aury was Pauline Réage? In midlife, Aury was a respected figure: an influential editor, a writer and a jury member for various literary prizes. She’s earned the Légion d’Honneur; she had translated into French works by authors such as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Virgina Woolf; and she had been the only woman to serve on Gallimard’s esteemed reading committee. Her demure appearance gave no hint of owl masks or dog collars. She was polite, refined, elegant and shy. She could not be described as beautiful.
The glaring incongruity between her work and her personal life was not lost on Aury; this was why the pen name was so crucial. She insisted that ‘it would have been wrong to mix what was for so long a time secret with something that was always banal and devoid of interest’, Aury never felt a need to justify the distinction to anyone; it was what she wanted, and it was nobody’s business. She was not ‘living a lie’, because Dominique Aury was not ‘Pauline Réage’, who had produced the scandalous work. ‘For a long time I’ve lived two parallel lives’, Aury explained. ‘I have meticulously kept those two lives quite separate, so separate in fact that the invisible wall between them seems to me normal and natural.’
Within weeks of the publication an English translation was hastily released, issued by Maurice Girodas of the Olympia Press. This edition ‘horrified’ Aury; she found it ‘vulgar’ and said that ‘it cheapens the character of the book.‘ (She did approve, however, of the translation published by Barney Rosset’s Grove Press in 1965.) Fan mail and hate mail poured in. Such a fuss was made that Girodas and Jean-Jacques Pauvert (her French publisher) were interrogated by French police after the novel won the Deux Magots prize. (Aury herself accepted this prize, her face covered by a white cloth and her hands and arms in long white gloves). Both men refused to reveal the whereabouts of Pauline Réage, and despite an investigation, no legal action came of it.
As a prime suspect in the making of this scandalous text, Paulhan paid a price. When he was nominated for membership in the elite Académie Française – which consists of forty members known as ‘immortals’ – the opponents of his candidacy are said to have placed a copy of ‘Histoire d’O’ on every Academy member’s chair in protest. (He was elected anyway.) He was also forced to provide a deposition to the vice squad in 1955 as it held hearings to determine whether legal action should be taken against the book. Of course he lied in his testimony; he declared that ‘Mme. Pauline Réage (a pseudonym) paid me a visit in my office . . . and submitted to me a thick manuscript.’ There was some truth in Paulhan’s deposition – his feelings about the manuscript and why he had championed it. He revealed that he was struck by the book’s literary ‘and, if I may say, in the context of an absolutely scabrous subject, by its restraint and modesty.’ He said nothing about being in love with the author, but he was completely honest in recalling his first response to it, ‘I had in my hands a work that was very important in both its content and its style’, he said, ‘a work that derived much more from the mystical than from the erotic and that might well be for our own time what ‘Letters to a Portugese Nun’ or ‘Les Liasions Dangereuses’ were for theirs.’
He concluded his statement by reiterating that Réage did not wish to reveal her true identity, and that he intended to protect her desire for privacy. ‘Nonetheless’, he added, ‘since I do see her fairly regularly, I shall inform her of the statement I have just made, and in case she should change her mind I shall ask that she get in touch with you.’
Aury had her own dealings with the police: they showed up at her house one day to interrogate her about the book, and she feigned ignorance. Inexplicably they chose not to pursue the matter – a courtesy for which she was grateful. But she did feel terribly guilty that the vice squad had focused so intently on her lover and her publisher.
For years there were rumours, hints, and speculations connecting Paulhan and Aury, and at some point the connection had become an open secret in literary circles – yet her privacy was respected.
Decades later, Aury offered a full public confession. Her lover had been dead a long time. Her parents were dead. She felt she was reaching the end of her own life. There was nothing to lose, nothing at stake now.
The August 1, 1994, issue of the New Yorker printed an expert from a forthcoming book by the British writer John de St. Jorre, ‘The Good Ship Venus’, about the infamous novels published by the Olympia Press. When the author interviewed Aury for his book, he was treated to ‘a double surprise’: he learned definitively that she was Réage; and he learned that the name Dominique Aury ‘was itself a disguise’. Although she asked that he not published her actual name, the now elderly lady was otherwise ready to confess at last.
In 1975, Aury had given a long, wide-ranging interview to Régine Deforges, an author whom Aury admired. She was interviewed as Pauline Réage, and she provided honest answers about her life and work, and her philosophical views on art, sex, war, feminism, and so on, without disclosing her true name or getting too specific in her personal anecdotes. She could open up while remaining anonymous. The interview was published in book-length form as ‘Confessions of O’, no photo of Réage appeared in the book. The jacket copy noted, ‘In these pages one senses clearly a presence, a person, where once there had been only a pseudonym. The face may still be shrouded in mystery, but now, at last, the voice is clear, authoritative, and of a rare intelligence.’
See also Richard Seaver.
Ciuraru, C. (2011), ‘Pauline Réage & Dominique Aury’, Nome de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, pp.309–331
‘A Blindfolded Pauline Reage Receiving an Award’, Corbes Images, retrieved 15 September 2013
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