The woman born Anne Desclos one hundred years ago today left her greater marks on the world under different names. As Dominique Aury, she was a renowned writer, translator and resident critic for the venerable French publishing house Gallimard; but most of those who know her by either of these names likely knew her first as Pauline Réage, the pseudonymous author of the erotic novel HISTOIRE D'O (THE STORY OF O), first published in 1954. Desclos died in 1998, but has since become the subject of a wonderful documentary by Pola Rapaport, WRITER OF O, which I reviewed for the July 2006 issue of SIGHT & SOUND (unfortunately not archived online).
As a voracious reader in my late teens and early twenties, before video came along to dilute such self-improving disciplines, I always looked to Grove Press as a brand of quality. I would haunt the used bookstores of Cincinnati in search of unfamiliar authors who had the good fortune to share literary barracks with the works of Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Henry Miller, and the translated works of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, and others. This was how I discovered writers and books like John Rechy's CITY OF NIGHT, Frantz Fanon's THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, Robert Gover's THE ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR MISUNDERSTANDING, and the harrowing works of Hubert Selby, Jr. (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, THE ROOM). It is also what led me to the austere, white-jacketed First Edition of THE STORY OF O that I was so lucky to find -- and it was the only book out of hundreds acquired over the years at Cincinnati's late, lamented Acres of Books that caused the perenially self-absorbed proprietor to give me a second look. Remarkably, though I had read any amount of scandalous prose under the Grove imprint, THE STORY OF O was the only one of their books to carry a disclaimer on the dust jacket recommending its sale be limited only to those over the age of 21.
Perhaps because I was young enough to read THE STORY OF O for the first time without any real foreknowledge of sadomasochistic subculture, before I had read either Sade or Masoch. Therefore I was able to receive it in the spirit in which it was written: as a bravely told love story so selfless in its desire that the act of submission became a state of grace. I have reread THE STORY OF O since and I still believe it is one of the most important novels of the 20th century and a sure contender, at least in Richard Howard's translation (the best I can judge), for one of the most beautifully written. But of Mme. Réage's works, I am most irresistably drawn to the prologue called "A Girl in Love," which opens her slim 1967 sequel to her premiere work, RETURN TO THE CHATEAU. Among the happy accomplishments of Pola Rapaport's film is committing a very convincing interpretation of this short piece -- in which the author looks back on the circumstances under which O came to be written, delineated in some of the most perfect, naked, emotional prose I've ever read -- to celluloid. I reread it for the umpteenth time before going to sleep last night and it remains, for me, perhaps the most moving description of the writing process I've found, with not a word misplaced. I bow to her.
To mark the centenary of someone like Anne Desclos, and more particularly Pauline Réage, is somehow more profound, I find, than marking the centenary of an actor or filmmaker, as I usually do on this blog. It reminds me that time and history claim more of us than our names and the broad outlines of our biographies; they also absorb the secret and powerful stories, told and untold, of our most violent passions.