Carmela Ciuraru in Guernica:
All three were the same woman, but for years the real name behind the incendiary work was among the best-kept secrets in the literary world. Forty years after the publication of the French novel Histoire d’O, the full truth was finally made public. Even then, some still considered it the most shocking book ever written. When the book came out, its purported author was “Pauline Réage,” widely believed to be a pseudonym. Although shocking for its graphic depictions of sadomasochism, the novel was admired for its reticent, even austere literary style. It went on to achieve worldwide success, selling millions of copies, and has never been out of print. This was no cheap potboiler. There was nothing clumsy, sloppy, or crude about it. Histoire d’O was awarded the distinguished Prix des Deux Magots, was adapted for film, and was translated into more than twenty languages.
Desclos (or, rather, Aury, as she became known in her early thirties) was obsessed with her married lover, Jean Paulhan. She wrote the book to entice him, claim him, and keep him—and she wrote it exclusively for him. It was the ultimate love letter.
Whips and chains and masks! Oh, my. When Histoire d’O appeared in France in the summer of 1954, it was so scandalous that obscenity charges (later dropped) were brought against its mysterious author. Even in the mid-twentieth century, in a European country decidedly less prudish than the United States, the book struck like a meteor.