Monday, July 12, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 159 (7/12) -- The Story of O by Guido Crepax

Note: See my recent review of First Time for something like a disclaimer, and the other half of what I'd originally planned -- over a year ago, when I first got these books and the earth was young -- to be a single paired review.

Pauline Reage's The Story of O is the great smutty novel of the Me Generation, as Lady Chatterly's Lover was of the interwar period -- and, if that indicates a general lowering of literary standards (I'm not going to touch the question of other standards with a bargepole), from a giant of world literature to a steamy French novel about a young woman who becomes the ultimate doormat, I can only shrug and say that the great smutty novel of my generation is probably something even more hideous, like The Fermata.

As all erotica has a tropism towards pure pornography -- those old hormones at work again -- before long Story of O became a graphic novel, in this '70s adaptation by Guido Crepax. (It's become plenty of other things in the past fifty years, of course, several of them much more pornographic -- which only proves my point.) Turning O into a graphic novel inevitably makes it more of an exercise in voyeurism than in submission -- the reader sees O, rather than reading her thoughts and inhabiting her often-abused body. And Crepax is a man, which gives him a somewhat different view of O and her sufferings than Reage had. (Crepax's O is pre-feminist -- perhaps deliberately so, since he's set this story in the 1920s, thirty years before it was written -- while Reage's O had a much more complicated relationship with female power and feminism.)

But Crepax's spidery line, almost grotesque faces, lush scenery and imaginative layouts -- often turning into tiers or rows of tiny panels, each focusing on one action, or on a changing facial expression -- pull his Story of O away from porn and towards actual art, while his avoidance of narration (except for a few instances, to establish O's mood and thoughts) keeps the action coldly present, without descending into flowery or violent descriptions of what we can clearly see happening. It's still exceptionally smutty, of course -- this is a nearly-two-hundred-page comic all about a woman giving herself up sexually in every possible way, to a succession of men (and women) in the name of love -- but it manages to stay on this side of pornography, which is an accomplishment.

Perhaps I should say something about the story of O: O is a young professional woman taken by her boyfriend, Rene, to the house of Roissy in the French countryside, where she's trained to be the sexual slave of Rene, the other men of the secret society that runs the house, and anyone else wandering by, through the usual whips and chains and collars and special clothes and such. (This was not nearly the S&M cliche then that it became in the days since then; I'd bet there are entire megabyte archives of "girl taken to the French castle to be trained" text files by this point, not to mention the pictoral representations.) O eventually returns to Paris, where her previous life can't hold a candle to being used and beaten by the callous, bland, and uninterested Rene. (Though Rene does soon hand her over to the somewhat more interesting Sir Stephen, who at least is a father figure.) There's really no plot -- at no time does O rebel or even momentarily waver in her devotion to doing anything these men demand of her, so Crepax's The Story of O is a succession of scenes (tastefully and tactfully drawn) in which O is pleasured and pained for the amusement of others.

Again, this is all seen from outside, making Crepax's Story of O something the reader watches, while Reage's Story of O, for all of its flaws, was something that reader experienced. If a reader doesn't have any sympathy for O's bizarre conception of "love" to begin with -- and this one certainly didn't -- Crepax won't do anything to explain or make that more plausible. His Story of O is probably a fine book for masochistic women and sadistic men, but is substantially more opaque for the rest of us.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Orion Experience - Like Sexy Dynamite
via FoxyTunes

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