Tuesday, August 18, 2009

186. Dangerous Liasons – Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

History: first published in four volumes from March 23, 1782. The book is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise drive the plot, with those of other characters serving as illustrations to give the story its depth.
Plot: The Vicomte de Valmont is determined to seduce the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel, who is living with Valmont's aunt while Monsieur de Tourvel is away for a court case. At the same time, the Marquise de Merteuil is determined to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges, whose mother has only recently brought her out of a convent to be married to a former lover of Merteuil. Cécile falls in love with the Chevalier Danceny (her music tutor) and Merteuil and Valmont pretend to want to help the secret lovers in order to gain their trust, so that they can use them later in their own schemes.
Merteuil suggests that the Vicomte seduce Cécile in order to exact her revenge on Cécile's future husband. Valmont refuses, finding the task too easy, and preferring to devote himself to seducing Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof, she will spend the night with him. He expects rapid success, but does not find it as easy as his many other conquests. During the course of his pursuit, he discovers that Cécile's mother has written to Madame de Tourvel about his bad reputation. He avenges himself in seducing Cécile as Merteuil had suggested. In the meantime, Merteuil takes Danceny as a lover.
By the time Valmont has succeeded in seducing Madame de Tourvel, it is suggested that he might have fallen in love with her. Jealous, Merteuil tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel — and reneges on her promise of spending the night with him. In response Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, thus abandoning Merteuil. Merteuil declares war on Valmont, as such she reveals to Danceny that Valmont seduced Cécile. Danceny and Valmont duel. Valmont is fatally wounded, but before he dies he is reconciled with Danceny, giving him the letters proving Merteuil's own involvement. Two of these letters are sufficient to ruin her health and her reputation, and she flees the country. Furthermore, her face is left permanently scarred by illness, and so she loses her greatest asset: her beauty. But the innocent still suffer: hearing of Valmont's death, Madame de Tourvel succumbs to a fever, while Cécile returns to the convent.
Review: The book becomes slow moving towards the middle, but once the three main characteristics are introduced the story takes off again. Love . . . sex . . . seduction. Of the three, only the last matters. Love is a meaningless word, and sex an ephemeral pleasure, but seduction is an amusing game in which victory means power and the ability to humiliate one’s enemies and revel with one’s friends. When Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first published in 1782, it both scandalized and titillated the aristocracy it was aimed against, who publicly denounced it and privately devoured it. Today we still recognize its relevance, for what could be more contemporary than its appalling image of everyday evil — small, selfish, manipulative, and mean.
Opening Line: “Letter 1: Cecile de Volanges to Sophie Carnay at the Ursuline Convent of. You see my dear Sophie I am keeping my word.”
Closing Line: “I am now discovering, that reason, unable in the irst place to prevent our misfortunes is even less equal to consoling us for them. Paris 14rth January.”
Quotes: “I shall have this woman. I shall carry her away from the husband who profanes her; I shall even dare to ravish her from the God she adores. What a delicious pleasure to be the cause and the conqueror of her remorse!”
Rating: Okay.

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