Reviewed by Ian Lipke
From the pen of highly acclaimed writer Steven Carroll comes the enigmatic story of O. Who or what is O? That is the question that haunts readers of the second half of the novel.
Carroll’s tale is slight. Therein lies his genius – he can write a story that is light on substance but so full of impact that it becomes a bestseller. It is the old idea of forming a man from a handful of dust. So, what is Carroll’s tale about?
Dominique Aury, a Frenchwoman in her twenties, is hurrying to a meeting with Jean Paulhan who has a translation task for her. Jean is sixteen years her senior. Aware of a mutual physical attraction, Dominique discovers it is possible to experience some joy in a country reeling under the boot of a conqueror. This is 1943. France, under Marshal Petain, has surrendered to the Nazis. The French feel betrayed, and the resistance movement is active. Jean and Dominique fall in love. Sex and nudity are given a prominent part, perhaps as a means of introducing Part 2.
Jean is a member of the Resistance and involves Dominique in his activities. She sees for herself the horrible penalty of being caught. The war ends but Jean and Dominique’s romance continues at various levels of involvement. A chance remark by Jean about a woman’s incapability to write salacious prose leads to Dominique’s writing The Story of O, and Jean’s delight in publishing it under the name Pauline Reáge. This is a book about surrender, submission, and shame, paralleling the feeling in France following ignominious defeat.
The story simply follows the furore raised by the book, the hunt for the author, and the eventual disintegration of interest in the hunt. Jean grows old and dies. In turn Dominique ages but in her later years is visited by a woman whom Dominique piloted through Nazi-driven France in the 1940s. Her name was Pauline Reáge.
The story is simple., but the idea that lies at the root of the original O (which created havoc when published in 1954) appears in Carroll’s novel. France under German rule was often seen by its own people as a whore who surrendered too quickly. Petain was a pimp who handed his country to the enemy. O submits without hesitation to every foul sexual deed her masters devise. Did not France do likewise? Carroll rejects this interpretation: “most readings… focused on the dynamics of the relationship between O and her masters or the story’s religious and spiritual symbolism. Nobody mentioned the war” (302).
We are given a hint that Carroll’s Story of O is the story of an individual’s psyche as a metonym for that of society at large. We might also think that Carroll’s book is an attempt to read the silences in the original version of O. When the original appeared, it was interpreted as cheap pornography or “an elegantly, even clinically written examination of the complex nature of desire and, if anything, graphically mirrored the masculine order of things and male objectification of women” (299).
Carroll’s brilliance lies not only in the depth of his thinking but also in the writing techniques he has developed over years of writing. The selection of the precise word for a particular situation “love is such a shop-soiled word” (298); “all the men formally dressed, with that air of grey eminence” (214). While much of the writing is polished, even sedate, Carroll can also write with fierceness and passion.
She wanted nothing but to fuck and be fucked, the tension of the last few days firing every thrust, their bodies smacking against each other, her juices and their sweat mingling, until an electric jolt exploded from her, running through her body, and he too shuddered into her, and they could fuck no more (111).
There is so much more to write about this beautiful book, but I must refrain. This book is in a class of its own. Highly recommended.
By Steven Carroll
HarperCollins 4th Estate
$32.99; 320 pp