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The Story of Whoa (Kind of NSFW)

The Year of Genre was supposed to be fun, guys. It wasn't supposed to make me feel weird or uncomfortable. It was supposed to whisk me away to charming worlds previously unknown, allowing me pause from daily strife and the ickiness of being human. Yet, here we are. 

While Josh was reading Fifty Shades of Grey (a task that I'm insanely jealous of now) and being bewildered/bored by it, I was reading the Story of O and absolutely hating it. The prose was dry (given how, ahem, wet the content is), the translation awkward (though, in the opinion of the translater, bolstered by the author's praise, it's the best of the available French to English translations), and the subject matter was, for me, nearly intolerable. 

Fueled by a desire not to read the rest of the book, I did what any comic book fan would do: I bought the graphic novelization of Pauline Réage's (pen name for Anne Desclos) Story of O, illustrated by Guido Crepax, and read/ogled that instead.  

A brief synopsis of Story of O

O's lover René takes her to a chateau called Roissy, where she is made to dress in garments that make her entire body available at any time to any men who are staying at the chateau. She, along with the other women who are staying there, are not to close their mouths or legs at any time, and are not to look any of their "masters" (the men at the chateau) in the eye ever, forcing them to look at the penis instead, lest they be flogged on the spot. While at the chateau, the women are often beaten, but not enough that they should grow to like it.

Eventually, O leaves the chateau with her lover, but then is passed on to another man named Sir Stephen, so that she may learn how to be obedient without being in love with her master first. Eventually, she falls in love with Sir Stephen and allows him to brand her with his mark (yes, literally). Additionally, she gets her lady bits pierced and tagged with Sir Stephen's mark (think of an animal being tagged and released, but on her vagina). In the end she finds that she enjoys her place as a slave, and willfully submits to her master's every whim until death.

While a number of people believe that this novel represents sexual liberation of a woman through sexual slavery, I personally believe it to be a story of a woman with Stockholm syndrome. However, as I mentioned before, I chose not to read the actual book, but rather to read the graphic (emphasis on the graphic) novelization of the work, so likely there are things that I missed, or misconstrued. Still, I would argue that in order to really experience a book the reader must be able to align his or herself with the conceit, and I was unable to do that in this case.

A friend of mine mentioned that the thing about genre is that you need to want the fantasy. I did not want the fantasy in this case (but, some people do, and that's totally cool).

Something we've been trying to determine through the Year of Genre is whether or not these books count as "literature." While I'm not certain that I'm ready to answer that question about Story of O, I can offer up a quote from "A Note on Story of O" by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, which appears before my edition of the book:

 "...of the two planes on which it is constructed, that of the mind (or rather: the soul) ruthlessly dominates that of the flesh. The picture that the four long chapters give of the modern world (Paper Darts Note: the book was published in 1954, so modern here is not contemporary to us), the action, the characters, are all extraordinarily vivid; above all, they are not dependent upon the sensual fire as they would be in an erotic book. Here we are dealing with a genuine novel, one we should not hesitate to categorize as a mystic work. For, beneath the guise and methods of eroticism, the subject is the tragic flowering of a woman in the abdication of her freedom, in willful slavery, in humiliation, in the prostitution imposed upon her by her masters, in torture, and even in the death which, after she has suffered every other ignominy, she requests and they agree to."

So, I don't know. Is the book about sex, or is the book just about being a woman in the world? Some might say that it's the same thing, but I'd suggest that they're not, and the sex thing is just a metaphor. As my husband points out, all the best genre is built upon metaphor. 

I've read that the author wrote Story of O after her lover (and employer, who was a fan of Marquis de Sade) told her that a woman can't write a decent erotic novel. This is what she came up with. Did she come up with it because she wants these things, or did she come up with it because that's what she thought he wanted and she loved him? I'm left to ask those same questions about O. 

 

The graphic novel seems to hint a little at the relationship between what fashionable women in the "modern world" wore and what O had to wear at the chateau. Was the Crepax hinting that he noticed the metaphor, too? Or did it just look good on the page. (The art is really, really lovely.)

Anyway, we can't expect to understand everything in life, and that's totally ok. 

 

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