Thursday, 11 May 2000

Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

Translation: P.W.K. Stone, 1961
Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 499

Long one of the most notorious of all French novels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses seems to have exerted quite a fascination in recent years, with three film versions (the updated Cruel Intentions, Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons). The idea of cynical manipulation at the heart of the novel perhaps resonates with Westerners in this age of distrusted mass media, making the interest of Hollywood studios somewhat ironic.

The plot of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is simple. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are debauched late eighteenth century French aristocrats, and for their amusement Valmont seeks to corrupt the virtuous and devout Presidente de Tourvel (her title derived from her husband's appointment in French provincial government).

The reason that the book was considered immoral is because it was felt that the bad are insufficiently punished (less was said about the good going unrewarded) and that the avowed intent of the author (to teach others to avoid the snares set by those like Merteuil and Valmont) is really a joke. Neither of these criticisms are likely to pose much of a barrier to the modern reader, and the brittle cynicism of many of the letters (it is an extremely well constructed epistolary novel) is more likely to sadden than to shock.

Of all the well known epistolary novels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is probably the one which pays most attention to the ways in which real people actually write. The temptation when writing in this form is to get carried away by the story, and write letters which are far too long or too concentrated on one subject, that which advances the plot. The letters here are of a variety of lenghs, none too long to be written in a hour or so, and touch on other subjects (though all are relevant to the main plot).

The translation is eminently readable and enjoyable.

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