"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

June 10, 2013

Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Book Review)

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) wanted to write something out of the ordinary, something that would survive him across the centuries, and he fully succeeded. Published in 1782, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a novel about sex and manipulation between protagonists without any moral scruples, was an immediate success a true Machiavelli in the bedroom.

The author Choderlos de Laclos was a military man – he took a sabbatical to write the novel – but returned to his martial duties after the novel was published, finally dying in Italy during the Napoleonic Wars. Research into ballistics led him to the invention of the artillery shell. He wrote no other fiction, making Dangerous Liaisons all the more special. The background of Choderlos de Laclos resounds in the story, for the relations between the sexes are often described in terms of military strategy: attack and defense, conquest and retreat.

Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary novel – in fact, the best novel of this type ever written, thanks to the fact that the author fully uses all the possibilities of the form. Where earlier epistolary novels would only feature one or at most a few letter writers who penned their honest feelings, here we have a large group of persons whose letters are full of lies and tricks. The writers describe the same event in different terms to different people.

Having readers peruse other people's letters, was a trick of the early novel to persuade of its truth - and what can be more factual than a collection of letters published on the presumption that they have actually circulated and are about real events?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written during the final years of French aristocratic society, only seven years before the Revolution of 1789, when high heads would start rolling. The bawdy excesses of the leisure class were infamous (this was also the age of the Marquis de Sade), and Les Liaisons Dangereuses only added oil to the fire – without the intention to criticize, by the way, De Laclos did not present a clear moral message. The novel which picked up on the popular obsession with aristocratic evils sold out in only a few days.

The main characters in the novel are the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers and now partners in crime. Valmont is a notorious rake, a man who seduces women for sport. The Marquise, however, is a wealthy aristocratic widow who has maintained an air of social respectability. But she is all the more dangerous. In their jaded existence, both derive no pleasure from sex anymore, but instead need the headier kick of destroying the lives of other people.

Valmont is set on seducing the young, virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel (her husband is a judge long-term away on official duty). The most scandalous seducer in society sees this difficult feat as the ultimate triumph. Meanwhile, the Marquise wants revenge on a man who left her, M. de Gercourt, so she pushes Valmont to seduce a young woman, the fifteen year old Cecile, who is to marry De Gercourt in a few month's time – her enemy will be covered in shame when after the marriage it is made public that he has been preemptively cuckolded. Valmont’s reward will be the rekindling of his former love affair with the Marquise. Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil are absolutely ruthless, they lie effortlessly in letters to their victims, then gleefully relate their successes in epistles to each other. The feeling ones are at the mercy of the unfeeling ones.

But things do not entirely go as planned. The Marquise is exasperated at Valmont's attention for Madame de Tourvel, a passion she does not deem worthy of him, and she is angry that he drags his feet regarding Cecile. Things are also complicated when Cecile falls in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Danceny. Valmont, meanwhile, trying to perform the perfect seduction on Madame de Tourvel, does not intend to vanquish her by force, but wants to persuade her to give herself to him of her own volition. When that finally happens, the playboy who never had any feelings, has himself for the first time fallen in love, due to the intense passion that was necessary to batter her defenses... but ridiculed by The Marquise (who barely can suppress her jealousy), he breaks off the relation. This does not prevent that a gap has grown between the two partners in crime; they finally face each other as enemies. Mutual destruction will be the outcome and so ends this scandalous web of intrigue, infidelity, corruption and lust for power.

Dangerous Liaisons is a delicious book, as fresh and engaging as when it was written.

I have read Dangerous Liaisons in the Penguin edition, translated by Helen Constantine.  
Dangerous Liaisons has been filmed several times. The versions transposed to modern times and to Korea or China, can be forgotten; there are two films that aim at historical veracity: Dangerous Liaisons (1988) by Stephen Frears and with Glenn Close, John Malkovich en Michelle Pfeiffer; and Valmont (1989) by Miloš Forman and with Annette Bening, Colin Firth en Meg Tilly. The Frears version is tight and claustrophobic, but is true to the intention of the novel, and has great performances. It is usually deemed the best one, but in fact I liked Forman's film better - it is more relaxed and even humorous and has a better "18th century feeling." The performances are as good as those of the Frears film, and I liked the fact that the actors are lesser known, which foregrounds the story and not the actors.