A review of a new graphic novel based on the pornographic Story of O.

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March 4 2010 1:23 PM

The Smuttiest French Novel Ever Written, Still Shocking 50 Years Later

A new graphic novel based on Story of O.

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It may be fantasy, but many agree that it's something more, too. As the writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, a contemporary of Aury's, put it in the introductory note written for the novel's 1965 English-language publication, it is "not dependent upon the sensual fire," but on something that is "genuine," "mystic," and "anything but vulgar." Mystic or not, one can't help but feel, when reading Story of O, that there's something more than pornography going on here, that what Aury is really portraying is the beating heart of passion at its wildest and most raw.

It's the great paradox of women's lives that we are expected to begin life with a passionate union and then immediately put it away and get on with the business of working and raising children. Adult women who get stuck on the passion are deemed unstable or tragic. Given that, it takes an extreme act—an act of self sacrifice—to break out of the bind.

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Daphne Merkin wrote about giving herself over to spanking in her New Yorker essay, "Unlikely Obsession." Toni Bentley wrote her strange and surprisingly great ode to anal sex, The Surrender, in 2004; Cristina Nehring summed up the instinct in her refreshing apologia for passion in literature and life, A Vindication of Love, writing,"every aspect of romance from meeting to mating has been streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence." Dominique Aury lit the way with Story of O, a novel that begins and ends with messy degradation, and in which every physical act leads to spiritual transcendence.

Crépax's beautiful drawings of naked women encased in a velvety black cover are worth drooling over. But the images, which can be merely voyeuristic in the absence of Aury's layered writing, do not quite get at the crux of the novel. Somehow the pictures themselves emphasize the sex and domination and not the nature of passion itself. Throughout the book, O and René exchange assurances of love, and right at the heart of the story, O describes the beginning of this passion:

In the space of a week, she learned fear, but certainty; anguish, but happiness. René threw himself at her like a pirate at his prisoner, and she reveled in her captivity, feeling on her wrists, her ankles, feeling on all her members and in the secret depths of her heart and body, bonds less visible than the finest strands of hair, more powerful than the cables the Lilliputians used to tie up Gulliver, bonds her lover loosened or tightened with a glance. She was no longer free? Yes! thank God, she was no longer free. But she was light, a nymph on clouds, a fish in water, lost in happiness.

In describing the place where violence and tenderness, pleasure and pain, love and brutality all meet, she's not describing an eccentric fetish culture, but a universal desire. We can all recognize in this description the thrilling vulnerability of falling in love. To forge a deep connection with another human being is to transcend the bounds of our selves, Aury is saying, and only then can we truly be free.

Aury was in her 40s when she wrote Story of O. Paulhan was long-married and staying that way. Though their relationship was relatively public, they weren't about to buy a house in the suburbs, have some kids, and get active in the local French PTA. What they had was passion, and it was this passion that Aury celebrated in the novel she wrote and offered, chapter by chapter, to Paulhan. She was that rare woman, who, whether by chance or by choice, was not seduced by the rewards of domesticating her love. She stayed in the passion, explored it, and gave it to her readers whole.

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