Choderlos de Laclos “Les Liaisons Dangerouses” – book review

This was my first attempt at reading a classic French novel in the original. It took me half a year- but I finally did it! I finished reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses !

I now have the official right to be smug for at least a month or two.

I chose this novel because I knew it is first-year undergrad reading at French courses at English universities, so I optimistically assumed it can’t be that difficult to tackle.

It’s also a book that I’ve wanted to read for a long long time. I remember reading a short summary of the movie adaptation plot in TV guide when I was a child and being absolutely fascinated. Anyhow.

Les Liaisons Dangerouses is an 18th-century epistolary novel. It is full of scandal. It is blasphemous. It is wickedly good fun.

Madame de Merteuil wants to take revenge on a man who has jilted her by corrupting his betrothed, the young and innocent Cecile. She enlists the help of her former lover, Marquis de Valmont, to seduce the girl. He, however, is more interested in attracting the attention of Madame de Tourvel, a woman devoted to her absent husband. Discouraged, Madame de Merteuil decides to use the naive Danceny to deprive Cecile of her virtue.

What follows is a novel about sexual passion, intrigue and the desire for power over others. Merteuil and Valmont have no qualms about destroying the lives of those around them.  Ultimately, it is a game of intrigue – and you either win or you die…

I’ve read Richardson’s Pamela, which had a relatively scandalous reputation in 18th century England. It ain’t nothing on this.

There’s consensual and not entirely consensual sex. There’s betrayal. There is a duel. There’s deceit- as when Valmont writes to Madame de Tourvel of his everlasting love while he is in the arms of another woman.

Above all there’s a thread of hopelessness- the impossibility for reason to escape the temptation as Madame de Volanges writes at the end of the novel.

Adieu, ma chère et digne amie; j’éprouve en ce moment que notre raison, déjà si insuffisante pour prévenir nos malheurs, l’est encore davantage pour nous en consoler.

Reason can only comfort us in our misfortunes.

Overtly, the novel denounces the scandalous behaviour of its characters- and many think it was crucial in the development French revolution, generating disgust and outrage at the behaviour of the aristocracy.

It must be said, however, that the novel invites subversive reading. Its antiheroes’ tragic endings have a strangely ennobling effect. And here’s the thing. Though the unjust may be punished- the just are punished too. There is no joy to ameliorate corruption and no possibility of resisting temptation. Laclos writes a world of deceptive virtues and a nihilistic core- a world that resembles the heroes of his book,  both beautiful and ruthless.

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