The Big O

Erotica in the canon


THE STORY OF O, a once-notorious French novel about a woman, an obsession, and a lot of whips and chains, turns 50 this year. To mark the occasion, France has included the work on an official list of national triumphs.

"Official" recognition of a work of outright erotica as a "national triumph" may seem perverse, but The Story of O has earned its celebration. The novel, attributed to one "Pauline Reage," finally paid off centuries of French-language erotic tedium with an acknowledged classic.

No nation has enjoyed a greater reputation for producing and tolerating such works—from the 17th century "whore dialogues" that swept Europe to the original Paris edition of Joyce's Ulysses—than France. Philosophe Denis Diderot penned an 18th-century novel featuring talking vaginas, while poet Guillaume Apollinaire spiced up one of his short works with incest and urine fetishism. And then there's Marquis de Sade.

Most such works were written rapidly, anonymously, and for the money, and they show it. O, however, is a different matter. Author "Reage" lent her masochist heroine both eloquence and insight; the character communicates not only her humiliations but also the pleasure she takes in submitting to them. In short, the work transcends the fetish at its center. A common reaction to the novel is to express warm admiration despite a stated disinterest in sadism or bondage.

"Pauline Reage" was identified 10 years ago as Dominique Aury, a woman of distinction in French letters. She wrote the book in her 40s to prove to a doubtful lover (Jean Paulhan of the French Academy) that a woman could write effective pornography. Paulhan was impressed, arranged its publication, and even wrote a notoriously opaque introduction. French authorities cracked down on O when it appeared, and the book was long sold surreptitiously.