The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Holiday Porn

Carved altar piece, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Carved altar piece, Victoria and Albert Museum.

“They showed her the riding crop, which was long, black, and delicate, made of thin bamboo, encased in leather, the kind one sees in the windows of better riding equipment shops …” The Story of O, Pauline Reage

Now that the holiday season is upon us – perhaps the most sexless time of the year unless you count being groped by a colleague in a Santa Claus cap at the office Christmas party a turn-on – The Sultanette thought that a musing on sadomasochism, bondage, and submission might add a spin to Santa’s query of who’s naughty or nice.

First stop, Bridget Jones – no Linda Lovelace but stick with the program and I promise to divert your attention from stocking stuffers to more libidinous handouts. (Haven’t you already stopped worrying about what size polo shirt to get for Uncle Walter?)

Back to Bridget, The Sultanette was more shocked by The New York Times review of Mad About the Boy, the latest saga in the life of “our favorite hapless heroine” as Vogue described her, than I might have been by any one of the Fifty Shades of Grey had I chosen to read them. For The Times review, “Will Have Small Glass of Wine” by Sarah Lyall, breezily states that, “Bridget’s amorous adventures … make the prospect of middle age not so bad at all.”

Quelle relief! The New York Times reveals to middle-aged women everywhere that we’re not dead yet. They reassure us that Ms. Jones, now widowed with children can still, with her ”dumb drunken tweets” and “uncomplicated 29-year-old who reintroduces her to the joys of sex” have a shot at the fast lane. The incredulous Lyall exclaims, “Who knew middle age could be so eventful?”

And so, to the venerable newspaper that first went to press in 1851 and sounds like it, The Sultanette now submits Dominique Aury whose book, The Story of O, written in her late-forties in 1954 under the pseudonym of Pauline Reage, might be the ultimate act of seduction.

images“I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty” Aury tells Pola Rapaport in the director’s intimate documentary, Writer of O, when she curled up one night “beneath the little lamp still lighted at the head of the bed” to begin the book, written on a dare by her lover, Jean Paulhan, in the midst of their three-decade affair. He had said a woman didn’t have the chops to write a convincing work of pornography and so partly as a writer’s challenge and mostly to keep the attention of this man known to have a wandering eye, she exposed her deepest fantasies.

Described by Geraldine Bedell in The Observer, the novel combined a “hallucinatory, erotic intensity” with “explicit scenes of bondage and violent penetration in spare elegant prose” so that the purity of the writing made it seem reticent “even as it dealt with demonic desire, with whips, masks and chains.”

Yet the bourgeois-bred, “nun-like” Aury had other distractions before its writing. During the German occupation she had distributed an underground magazine, Lettres Francaises. She’d worked on a literary magazine, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, and at the prestigious Editions Gallimard (publisher of Camus) where she was the only woman to sit on the reading committee. She had published a collection of 17th century devotional poetry, too, and along the way was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Sainte Apolline upended.

Sainte Apolline upended.

“O recalled the prisoners she had seen in engravings and in history books, who also had been chained and whipped many years ago, centuries ago, …” The Story of O, Pauline Reage

She had met Jean Paulhan during the Occupation. A decade older, he is described by Bedell as “handsome in an imperious way” with features expressing “amusement and disdain.” Paulhan had become a literary giant at Gallimard, and surely in the intellectual milieu of ‘50s Paris, he must have been an imposing figure to the literary ingénue.

fire_safety.1352763957Yet as Aury later tells it, she wrote that first night in her bed “without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting, or discarding … the way one breathes, the way one dreams … wrested from herself or, who knows, returned to herself.” After all, “books were their only complete freedom.”  Their sex toys. And so she wrote to Paulhan “the way you speak in the dark to the person you love when you’ve held back the words of love too long and they flow at last.”

She read it to him in tantalizing segments during the stolen moments mandatory to affairs (“the watch always remained on the wrist”) in hotels near railway stations where they made love, or parked along back roads in the Bois de Boulogne, exposing her vulnerability to him in full-frontal literary eroticism.

Georges Seurat, The Gardener, 1882

Georges Seurat, The Gardener, 1882.

“A gardener appeared on the path, pushing a wheelbarrow.  The iron wheel could be heard squeaking over the gravel. … he would have seen O chained and naked and the marks of the riding crop on her thighs.”The Story of O, Pauline Reage

It was a violent act of intimacy but Paulhan urged her to publish it. She agreed if she could remain anonymous. When Gallimard turned it down, he took it to a daring young publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert. It went to press simultaneously in French and English (by the publisher of Lolita) and has never been out of print.

A year later when O won the Prix Deux Magot, it also won the attention of the French vice squad. Called upon to testify, Paulhan refused to disclose its author’s identity. Aury’s secret was still guarded among the cognizanti in the ‘80s when she attended an event with President de Gaulle who surreptitiously greeted her with, “Ah, the writer of Story of O!”

In 1994, when Aury was 84, still properly composed in cardigans and cravats, she agreed to the interview with British journalist, John de St. Jorre for The New Yorker where she outed herself, forty years after the book was published. But in 1968, sitting in the hospital at Paulhan’s bedside as he lay dying, Aury at sixty-one had more stunningly revealed herself.

CandleburningShe wrote again that night as Pauline Reage, to the man who she loved entirely and would never possess: “Who am I, finally,” said Pauline Reage, “if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part which has never betrayed itself in public … but communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary …?” (Return to the Chateau)

It may well be fallacious to compare a campy chic-lit character with the inscrutably erotic Aury. After all, Bridget Jones is a fiction. But if The Times chooses to identify her persona as an icon of “middle age,” than The Sultanette brazenly offers up Pauline Reage. She is not a real person either. Or is she? Is she that “long silent part” in any of us? Was Aury’s risk, not in writing The Story of O to keep her lover’s attention, but in paying attention to the deepest part of her own story – the story it takes middle age to know – and that we so often leave untold?

“There is always someone within us whom we enchain, whom we imprison, whom we silence. But a curious kind of reverse shock, it can happen that prison itself can open the gates to freedom.” Return to the Chateau, Pauline Reage