Again, as soon as Jürgen pushes open the street door, you enter a world of half light, cool and calm; again, you walk up the six flights of stairs beside him, hand-in-hand. In the dim front room, as you pass the bookcase, you notice a leather-bound volume: Die Geschichte der O. What could that be about? you wonder.
Aury tells in the The New Yorker interview how, the long-term mistress of Jean Paulhan, she conceived the book as a love letter to the celebrated author, critic and academician. Though in his sixties by this time, Paulhan was known to have a high sex drive and a fondness for younger women. Fearful that he might be tiring of a woman approaching middle age and knowing his fondness for the writings of the divine marquis, Aury determined to compose a spicy narrative which might appeal to Paulhan’s sexual predilections. Sheherazade-like, she was writing in order to keep their love alive. It did the trick. Paulhan was entranced by the first 6O pages which Aury dashed off almost automatically, basing the writing on fantasies of submission which she had had since childhood. He urged her to write more. Within weeks, the novel was finished. Paulhan begged Aury to let him find a publisher. She agreed, on condition that the novel be published anonymously. The pen-name Pauline Réage, it seems, had no conscious significance—Pauline was inspired by two famous women, Pauline Borghese of Renaissance Italy and Pauline Roland, a nineteenth-century defender of women’s rights, whilst Réage was chosen at random from a property register.
The novel, we now know, was a ‘lettre d’amour’, but was the work based on real events or was it a product of pure imagination? What fascinated and excited Paulhan, Aury told St. Jorre, was the relationship of the story to her own life, an issue going beyond mere authorial identity to the complex set of relationships between the text and the subject’s desire. The author has already given an unambiguous answer to this question: She would never have tolerated violence, all the events of the novel are imaginary and not real. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the main lessons to be drawn from Histoire d’O: Sexual fantasies are not to be confused with reality, a woman being capable of deriving enjoyment from an imagined sexual violence unacceptable in real life. Both Story of O and Pauline Réage are constructs with no identity in the real beyond the text: ‘Story of O’ is a fairy tale for another world […] which now only exists between pages of print. It was a book by an unknown woman, and I am amazed beyond belief that I was she.’
With the hindsight of our knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the writing of the novel, the issue of a ‘lecteur virtuel’ or ‘reader in the text’ might seem clear-cut: If the work was a letter to Jean Paulhan and not a work intended for publication, then the woman depicted in the text is intended to be accessible not to anyone but to someone, a narratee who is both singular and known—a characteristic of confessional literature, in particular. Does this make Histoire d’O the most perfect example of reader-centred fiction or rather is the text closed off to the general and especially the female reader by the existence of a specific male narratee? Statements by the author would appear to support the latter hypothesis: ‘You need an accomplice for this kind of writing. A woman could not play this game without a male accomplice, and a male accomplice who loves her, because nothing of this nature can be confided in a man, unless one loves him.’