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Updated: March 2, 2007
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The Story of O
When The Story of O (Histoire d'O) by Pauline Réage was first published in France in 1954, it shocked and scandalized the literary world. That a woman could have possibly have written such a thing was simply unthinkable. Soon, though, "Pauline Réage" was winning writing awards for O. The name was clearly a pseudonym, and many candidates were widely discussed as the possible author, -- all of them male.
The Story of O became an international best-seller. It was banned in Britain twice. Translated into 23 languages and published in 57 countries, it soon became the most well-read piece of French literature outside of France. Eventually it went on to become the best-known work of erotic literature of the twentieth-century and something of a Bible to those who shared the fantasy. It has still not gone out-of-print after more than forty years. Many scholarly papers were written about it, both in the fields of literature and psychology as well. Years later, angry feminists burned copies of the book in public demonstrations. It was accused of encouraging self-hatred in women and violence in men.
The graphic but elegant account of a Parisian fashion photographer who surrenders herself into sexual slavery was brought to the screen in 1975 by Just Jaekin, the director of Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman. Corinne Clery starred as O. The film was promptly banned in Britain, but it was a big hit in the rest of the world. Even the mall cinemas showed it in special midnight screenings for months. It aroused new interest in the classic novel and its mysterious author. Clothing and jewelry described by Pauline Réage have been made and sold ever since. No fewer than fifteen more attempts were made to film The Story of O, but for all its flaws, the first still remains the finest.
Pauline Réage kept the secret of her true identity for forty years, until in 1994, she finally told her tale. Since before World War II, she had been the lover of a famous French literary critic and magazine editor who was 24 years older than her. By 1954, when she was 46 and he was 70, she was afraid that he was losing interest in her. She wrote Histoire d'O, filling it with her own childhood fantasies, to regain his attentions. It worked. He called it, "the most ardent love letter any man ever received." Surely, that must be true. Ironically, he had once said, "Women are incapable of writing an erotic novel." O proved him wrong. He wrote the preface, entitled "Happiness in Slavery" for the first edition and was thought by some to be the true author of O for many years.
The real Pauline Réage went on to be an award winning novelist, translator and editor under her own name, taking over the magazine after her lover passed away. She sat on juries for literary prizes and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur.
She died on April 30, 1998 at the age of 90. Her name was Dominique Aury.
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