I love Classic literature; I love books in translation; I love controversial novels with scandal and intrigue so when Polly of Novel Insights chose Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierra Choderlos de Laclos for the Riverside Readers to discuss, I was delighted.
An eighteenth century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses concerns two bored aristocrats in pre-Revolutionary France who are in dire need of the guillotine for the evil ways the employ to alleviate their ennui. The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, ex lovers, each enjoy the arts of deceit and manipulation, each wishing to excel over the other. What begin as acts of revenge and of sexual conquest evolve into intricate Machiavellian plans of diabolical proportions; Valmont and Merteuil embroil others into their salacious machinations and nobody comes off unscathed.
The structure of the novel celebrates what is now the lost art of letter writing; the letters back and forth between all the players serve to look at the deceptions from every available viewpoint and fully appreciate their well-thought-out wickedness. Despite the epistolary form, the characters each had distinct voices and the letters their own style and tone; each writer was easily identifiable and by providing the majority of the correspondence the reader gains an insight into the complex manipulations and behind-the-scenes workings that occur. The multiple ironies of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that the reader is privy to throughout make it compelling reading as did the insight into the other face and persona that each character showed depending on whom they were writing to. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is very witty and intelligent and where some readers find the Chevalier Danceny and Cécile Volanges, the piano teacher and the convent girl respectively, to be annoying, I found them exceptionally amusing in their naïveté and their hyperbolic declarations of love.
Madame de Tourvel, the sexual object of Valmont's whim, is exceptionally virtuous and pious but her letters display great intelligence and passion and Laclos's representation of women is very impressive for its time; the Marquise is a vividly-drawn alpha-female and her verbal sparring with Valmont is every bit as much about sexual politics as it is sexual attraction. A manual in seduction, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is salacious and sordid; sex sells and the novel was very ahead of its time in being very much a part of ours. The scandalous lengths that Valmont and Merteuil go to to gain revenge are quite something; the novel is enthralling (the second volume does admittedly drag in its involved scene-setting) and shocking. At the same time as attempting to seduce Madame de Tourvel -whose conquest will earn him a sexual reward from Merteuil- Valmont is playing older male tutor to Cécile Volanges, at Merteuil's request as she has a score to settle with Cécile's future husband and Valmont consents because he desires revenge on Madame Volanges, Cécile's mother, who is confidante to Madame de Tourvel; further pawns are the impressionable Chevalier Danceny, in love with Cécile and seeking advice and assistance from both Valmont and Merteuil, and Madame de Rosamonde, the matronly aunt of Vamont and friend of de Tourvel, as well as a couple of other by-standers who are caught up in the devilishly dangerous scheming.
I did not find Merteuil or Valmont at all sympathetic; they are thoroughly cruel and loathsome characters in their depravity yet they are fascinating, especially Valmont in his phallocentrism and boundless vanity. Les Liaisons Dangereuses in a study of Sadism and a play-by-play of how people deceive, seduce and manipulate others to their will; it examines the underbelly of human nature. Merteuil loves Valmont and Valmont de Tourvel love each other as much as vain, narcissistic people can love another, but they will not bend to the other and relinquish their power, which is why they can not, ultimately, co-exist; these odious characters will never submit to true feeling at the expense of their reputation and the face that they show to others.
I read the Douglas Parmée translation of the novel, which I found immensely readable; it gives a modern voice to the words, which never jarred for me but it may for some. I didn't lose any of the aristocratic language nor Laclos's deft and clever plays on language and innuendo to depict sexual liaisons. I also watched the Stephen Frear's 1988 adaptation of the novel and thought it wonderfully brought to screen; the editing that is lacking in the novel is brutal in the film but not to the detriment of the story. John Malkovich as Valmont is outstanding although I was disturbed by his sympathetic portrayal as I was vehemently opposed to the deeds he carried out -in relation to Cécile- but could not resist his charm. Frears achieved an impressive visual representation of Laclos's moral ambiguities and complexities that resonates; of the people at book group who had seen the film, none of us could separate the characters from their incarnations on-screen, that and it was far easier to refer to the Marquise de Merteuil as Glenn Close as none of us could pronounce her name.
Some key dialogue -through letters- between Valmont and Merteuil setting out their despicable plan :
Till now my thoughts were all of love; but it was soon replaced by rage. Who do you think is trying to ruin my reputation with the woman I adore? What fiend in woman's shape is evil enough to weave such an abominable plot? You know her, it's your friend and relative, Madame de Volanges. You cannot imagine the tissue of horrors that obnoxious old hag has written about me. It is she and she alone who has been disturbing my angel's peace of mind; it's her views and her pernicious advice that are forcing me to leave; in a word, it is she who has victimized me. Oh, there's no doubt about it, her daughter has got to be seduced; no, that's not enough. That woman must be smashed and since the old trout is too long in the tooth to be attacked directly, she must be made to suffer through someone she loves.
You may be a trifle annoyed at what I'm asking you to do but isn't it a very small return for all the trouble I've been taking over your affairs? Didn't I restore you to the judge's when, through your own stupidity, you'd been forced to leave her? And then wasn't it me who placed into your hands ways and means to settle your score with that mischievous old bigot Madame de Volanges? You're always moaning about the time you waste looking round for exciting things to do. Now you have a couple under your very nose. Love or hatred, take your pick; they're both sleeping under the same roof and you can live a double life, fondling with one hand and stabbing in the back with the other...
Thoughts from other Riverside Readers: