Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Review: LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos

Original Publication Date: 1782Genre: Epistolary novelTopics: love, hatred, morals, sex, vengeance, education, Review by: Bridget/Anachronist @ portable pieces of thoughts

The first letter shows us a young, innocent Cecile de Volanges, aged 15, who, only recently brought out of a convent boarding school, is preparing herself for her incoming nuptials. Unfortunately her future husband, the Comte de Gercourt, put her in a very dangerous position – he had been a lover of Madame Marquise de Merteuil, a beautiful but immoral widow, and they didn’t part on friendly terms; to put it shortly he dared to cast her out. Madame de Merteuil doesn’t like being cast out and she is a woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. She plans a cruel revenge and asks her other ex-lover and a frequent associate in crime, the Vicomte de Valmont, for help. Meanwhile the Vicomte has set himself a more difficult task than corrupting young girls just out of school – he is determined to seduce the virtuous, very religious Madame de Tourvel. He plans it just to create a scandal and boast of another trophy in his rich collection of broken hearts and tarnished reputations. Everything seems to be in his favour: Madame de Tourvel is staying with Valmont’s elderly aunt while Monsieur de Tourvel is away for a court case. Big mistake, monsieur. 
Cécile makes involuntarily the whole revenge scheme a bit easier – she hasn’t met her future husband yet but she’s already managed to fall in love with the Chevalier Danceny, her music tutor. Madame de Merteuil and Valmont pretend that they want to help young lovers so that they can use them later in their own schemes. Chevalier Danceny has scruples about the romance with Cécile, though. Impatient Madame de Merteuil urges the Vicomte to seduce Cécile asap in order to exact her revenge on the Comte de Gercourt just in time (so before the wedding). Valmont refuses, finding the task too boring and too easy, but then he changes his mind - he overhears that Cecile's mother cautions de Tourvel that he is a dangerous predator. Poor Cecile becomes his lover - first unwilling, then more and more enthusiastic - while Merteuil seduces young Danceny.
Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof, she will spend the night with him. Apparently she values her bed skills very high. Valmont, whose vanity was badly tickled, agrees.After a really long courtship interrupted only by nights spent in the arms of no longer so innocent Cécile, Valmont finally succeeds in seducing Madame de Tourvel. Unfortunately by that time he has really fallen in love with his victim. However, he is the last to acknowledge this fact. He can fool himself but not Madame de Merteuil. Jealous Madame proves to be a lethal opponent. First she tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel by making him write her a truly outrageous letter and then she goes back on her promise of spending the night with him, knowing fully well who he would really prefer to be with. In response to that open defiance Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, and abandon Madame de Merteuil herself – something she detests the most. Merteuil declares war on Valmont and, like in any war, there will be victims.What I liked:Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (18 October 1741 – 5 September 1803), a French novelist, official and army general under Napoleon. “Les Liaisons dangereuses” will remain his most known novel, although he wrote poems and other novels as well. He also was a man who began a project of numbering Paris' streets and invented the modern artillery shell. During the French Revolution he was a diplomat and a commissar in the Ministry of War. Interesting creature. He married relatively late, in 1786, choosing a Marie-Soulange Duperré, 18 years his junior. I wonder whether he let her read his book.
The story of two individuals who use sex to manipulate and humiliate other people around them was a scandal right after the first publishing. Even by today's standards, some of the scenes are shocking and this book used to be compared with the novels of the notorious Marquis de Sade. Small wonder it had been a best-seller even before that name was coined – allegedly 1,000 copies were sold in Paris in a month, an exceptional result for the times.
I loved the fact that it is a novel composed entirely of letters written by the various characters. This way the same event could be presented from two or even three different points of view, and readers could get to know plenty about the writers of the letters themselves. The narration pace is really splendidly balanced – not too fast, not too slow, keeping you interested till the very end. The plot is scandalous but it also brings up really serious, complex questions – how to raise children so they are not lured and abused by different predators without scruple, how to lead a happy, fulfilled life, how to arrange a successful marriage. The book speaks volumes about morality without being sanctimonious – not a mean feat.
Now about the characters. The main leads are as complex and well-rounded as you would wish in any contemporary book. Madame Marquise de Merteuil has always been my favourite – you simply can’t help admiring her stamina and cunning, even if she was so openly corrupted and sometimes plainly evil. She was a woman living in a world governed by men, her range of choices was evidently limited despite the fact that she was an aristocrat – for instance she couldn’t pursue any professional career (and I don’t doubt she would make a perfect CEO or a politician, finding a more decent outlet to her energy) she had even little to say when it came to her personal wealth. Her revenge on men, although sometimes disgusting, is at least understandable. The main mistake seemed to be her fierce sense of independence. Had she been, say, a mistress of a king or a powerful duke, so still an immoral but less independent individual, she would have been judged less harshly by her contemporaries. Not to mention the fact that she wouldn’t have had financial troubles. The Vicomte is another story. He was a privileged, handsome, intelligent man from a family of means. Even though he could have made something good with his life, a career of a kind, he preferred preying on women and leading a layabout life of a libertine seducing weak or/and stupid for the heck of it. If you think about it with hindsight you really understand the reasons behind of the French Revolution. Facing such an individual I would be the first to scream “les aristocrates à la lanterne!” (aristocrats to the lamp-post) despite his obvious charms. Small wonder Valmont ended up dead in all movie versions of this novel I’ve seen so far. He was too vain about his lifestyle to change and too damaged at the end to live on.
What I didn’t like:
The fact that such a disfiguring illness attacked Madame de Merteuil right after the public disclosure of her second machiavellian nature did seem a bit over the top…like an act of God. I would prefer her 'only' disgraced. However, when it comes to Madame I am heavily biased and I don’t try to hide this fact.
The final verdict:
This book has always been one of my all time favourites. I even read it in French. I recommend it to anybody - when you read it you'll understand why it's been adapted for the screen so many times.

Download Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos at Getebook or Excelhonour. If you know French you can also download an audiobook in that language at Librivox.
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