Friday, February 23, 2018

Book Review - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Published by: Doubleday Books
Publication Date: March 23rd, 1782
Format: Hardcover, 497 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont were once lovers. Yet their rupture wasn't acrimonious, in fact they are now perhaps closer than ever before. They have a voluminous correspondence telling each other of past, present, and future conquests. Salacious details pepper their letters that they know only the other will appreciate. Though the Marquise is already tiring on Valmont's most recent project. He has sequestered himself out in the country with his aunt because he is trying to bed his aunt's houseguest, Madame de Tourvel. Only he doesn't just want this devout young wife's body, he wants her body and soul. To speed up his conquest the Marquise de Merteuil offers a night back in her bed if he were to quickly accomplish the task and return to her in Paris because she has a job for him. The Marquise's former lover, the only one to ever jilt her, is to be married to the virginal Cécile de Volanges. She thinks it would be just if this young girl just out of the convent weren't so innocent when she reaches her wedding bed and for that she needs Valmont. Yet Valmont stalls and drags his heels, could this cad, this supreme seducer be falling for a little church mouse? Luckily the Chevalier Danceny comes on the scene as Cécile's music tutor. The two young ones fall madly in love and yet neither knows what to do! It will take all the cunning of the Marquise de Merteuil to pull this off, but when Valmont learns that Cécile's mother has been writing vitriol against him to Madame de Tourvel he instantly joins in the plan to take the virtue of young Cécile. Passion, love, seduction, the lives of this small and scheming group are about to change forever with Valmont joining the fray and not all will survive.

If you are a fan of Colin Firth who is a completest, one day, after you've worked your way past such oddities as Femme Fatale, where he stars opposite Billy Zane and Billy's sister Lisa, you will stumble upon Valmont. In fact I would go so far as to say that only those attempting to watch Colin Firth's entire back catalog have seen this misfire of a film. Needless to say this addlepated film was overshadowed by the big screen version of Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation the year before starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. A film that spent so much money on miscasting that their budget was stretched so thin that all those closeups that were thought artistic were really to hide the fact that they didn't have money for anything beyond a few nice costumes. Combined, these two adaptations left me scratching my head because I could not for the life of me understand why Les Liaisons Dangereuses was a classic, with or without Keanu Reeves. But then I saw a broadcast of the National Theatre Live production of Christopher Hampton's stage adaption starring Janet McTeer, Dominic West, and Elaine Cassidy and everything changed. I finally connected to these characters in the intimate setting of the Donmar Warehouse. I would even go so far as to say of all the "live" theater broadcasts I have seen over the years this one was hands down my favorite. This inspired me to finally read the book and all I am left with is the knowledge that Christopher Hampton is a genius given proper casting, and these characters need to be brought to life by talented actors in order to illicit any kind of emotional response.

The problem is this book is one of the most famous epistolary novels that wasn't written by Samuel Richardson. It's not the fame that's the problem it's the form. Epistolary novels over the centuries have expanded to not just be diaries or letters but here we're limited to the letter and Laclos likes to leave a little bit of a mystery. So instead of being extremely intimate, which is what a successful epistolary novel does, letting us into the character's innermost thoughts, the letters purposefully muddy the waters. Characters say one thing to one person and the exact opposite to another but they are both written in the same voice so there is no way to tell what the truth is even if there is a truth. This means you take the characters at face value, what they say is who they are, there are no lines to be read between and you're only sure of one thing, they all come across as dicks. On top of that these characters are interacting with each other between their correspondences and we never really hear what happens except in passing. This leads to the reader being distanced from the characters because of the elliptical way their story is being told. So if you weren't alienated by the characters being assholes, you're alienated by an author who thinks he's being clever. That is why this book works better adapted into another format. Taking the best of the material at hand and making it into conversations instead of having characters sitting in chairs on stage or screen and just reading and writing letters. Giving the story definition and having actors that are able to sell it. Because a good actor can make you root for a bad character any day.

The transference into another medium also helps in eliminating the book's other problem, it's overwritten. Seriously, send an editor in STAT. Again and again the characters go back to the same things, the same arguments, the same platitudes of love, on and on and on and if I read the word chimerical one more time I will scream. If you've read one letter from Valmont to Madame de Tourvel you've literally read them all. Valmont: I love you! Madame de Tourvel: Please don't say that. Over and over and over. The forward progress of the narrative is so infinitesimal that after a time you think nothing is going to happen. I mean, I knew that Valmont was to seduce naive young Cécile and it took FOREVER to get to that point. I'm not joking when I say that took HALF the book to happen. All told there are 175 letters over five months and almost all the action happens at the very end. In fact the big moments are almost swept under the carpet! Valmont's death is just, and he's dead! The Marquise de Merteuil's fate is basically a postscript! This book needed someone like Christopher Hampton to come along and slap it into shape, because Miloš Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière sure made a hatchet job with Valmont. Oddly enough the only forward momentum is not momentum at all but reminiscences. The stories of past conquests and bizarre take-downs that the Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont share are the only lucid and succinct storytelling in all 500 pages of this book. And those stories don't exactly make for the best reading, as it's the destruction of lives and the stealing of virtue.

And virtue is indeed stolen. That is my biggest hangup with Les Liaisons Dangereuses, does consent mean nothing? Again, this is why seeing it on stage or screen works, because the actors can give a look, perform an action, that changes what is being said. Yet here the correspondence is in black and white, there is no middle ground, and to me Cécile is forced into a sexual relationship with Valmont, both from his actions and the Marquise de Merteuil's peer pressure. While Laclos is again elliptical, what you gather is that Valmont rapes Cécile and then she enters into a relationship with him against her will and her heart's desire. This isn't cool people. This isn't right. While I said that an adaptation can create a middle ground to what is happening I want to make it VERY clear that in life there is no middle ground when it comes to consent. I think this was the most shocking discovery to me in reading this book, I knew the lead characters were not likable people, but I thought that their liaisons were based more on seduction than blunt force. The number of times that poor Madame de Tourvel says no and is ignored? What I took to be the central love story that reformed Valmont is nothing more than a man not realizing that no means no and his target becoming so worn down she gives up. And while reading this book at any time would have made me point these problems out, in this day and age with the Time's Up movement and #MeToo, I was struck by how this book revels in the very worst in humanity. Consent should be enthusiastic and no should always, ALWAYS, mean no.

But I wonder if perhaps that's why it was so controversial at the time. Did people behave like this or were they scandalized to think people could behave like this? Or was this just showcasing the lax morals of the previous generation that was about to be overthrown through revolution? That notion actually playing into the recent revival by the National Theatre. While this book is still very scandalous, I don't think that is the reason why it is a classic. The reason why Les Liaisons Dangereuses has lasted is that it's humor, underneath all the horrors, is wry and arch. The book has a humorous self-deprecating style wherein the characters actually comment on Danceny being the hero of the tale, and oh, such a dud of a hero. Like Thackeray's Vanity Fair it's a book where the anti heroine and hero are the compelling characters. You get a vicarious thrill to think of someone destroying another for sport, but in the end you get the added thrill that the assholes get their due. Because THAT is the key when you have unlikeable characters. If these reprehensible examples of human life don't get what's coming to them it's just glorifying their existence. Because they pay for their sins the scales balance in the end. Which makes me really want to sit down with Laclos and ask him what his personal opinions were on issues of consent because you have to wonder, what with Valmont dying and the Marquise de Merteuil getting smallpox, losing an eye, and being shunted off to Amsterdam where something too horrid to mention happens, if he was actually just wanting to write something salacious that would sell and in the end it rather ambiguously states his real opinions through death and disfigurement.


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