Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

As wary as I am of any novel that was made into a movie (which I never bothered to see) starring Michelle Pfeiffer, I decided to check out Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. After all, it’s 18th century French literature, and I do like me some 18th century French literature. However, this one is a bit unusual for it’s time period.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Emma Donoghue.)

Let’s start with the basics, though. We start with the aristocratic but definitely treacherous pair of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil who seem to have some sort of odd relationship themselves while at the same time they make a game of sexual conquests and ruining people, women for him (Valmont) and men for her (Merteuil). Bring into this the young and highly innocent Cécile Volanges:

It’s not five o’clock yet and I’m due to see Mummy at seven so there’s lots of time if there’s anything to tell you! But nobody’s said anything yet; and apart from all the preparations I can see being made and all the dressmakers who keep coming just to for me, I wouldn’t guess they’re thinking of finding a husband for me and would think that it’s just another bit of deal old Joséphine’s nonsense. However, mummy’s told me so often that a girl ought to stay in the convent till she gets married that as they’ve taken me away Joséphine must be right.

and things start getting complicated.

You see, though no one has apparently told Cécile, she is to be married to someone upon whom Merteuil wants revenge, someone who apparently “wronged” her at some point. As such, she wants Valmont to do a certain little something:

Like me, you’ve been bored times without number by Gercourt’s inordinate concern regarding his future wife and his fatuous presumption that he alone will be spared the common fate; you know his ridiculous prejudice in favor of convent-bred girls and his even more ridiculous conviction that blondes are modest and reserved. In fact, I bet that in spite of the Volanges girl’s private income of sixty thousand a year, he’d never have agreed to marry her if she’d been a brunette and not been educated in a convent. So let’s give him proof that he’s cheating himself. He’ll be cheated on sooner or later, I’ve no worries on that score, but it would be such fun if he was cheated from the start. How wonderful it would be to hear him bragging the morning after! And brag he certainly will…What’s more, once you’ve set that little girl off on the right track, it’ll be bad luck indeed if that fellow Gercourt doesn’t become the talk of Paris, like anyone else.

Interestingly enough, Valmont isn’t keen on the idea at first. Not that he blanches at the idea, more because he has other plans afoot:

Your commands exude charm, dear lady, and the way you issue them is even more charming; you’d make a really lovable dictator. As you know, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt sorry I’m no longer your humble and obedient slave, and however much a monster I may be–your own words–I always look back with pleasure on the time when you bestowed less unfriendly names on me. Indeed, I often have the desire to earn them again, thus finally providing, with you, an example of constancy in love for all the world to see. But there are more important matters to engage our attention: we are fated to be conquerors and we must follow our destiny, perhaps at the end of our career we shall meet again, because, with all due respect, most lovely Marquise, you are following in my tracks at a pace at least equal to mine, and ever since, for the greater good of mankind, we set out on our separate paths to preach the good word each in our own way, it seems to me that as a missionary of love, you have made more converts than I. I know your proselytizing eagerness, your burning zeal, and if that particular God judged us according to our works, you would one day have risen to be the patron saint of some great city whereas your humble friend would be at best a local village saint. You find my choice of language surprising, don’t you? But it’s the only language I’ve been using and hearing for the last week and it’s because I’m anxious to hone my skills that I find myself compelled to disobey you.

Granted, this seems a lot like roles that are defined for these various players to play instead of characters, but this is both the case and not the case as I saw it. The major characters are certainly playing roles (seducers, innocent seduced, moral indignants, etc.), but they play those roles in highly individual ways.

More impressive, though, is the ambiguity in the overall moral tone that was so customary in books of the time. One would expect the bad to end bad, and hoping not to spoil anything I’d grant that is probably the case. However, what about the good? You might even understand the fall of those who get sucked in by the bad, but what of the damage to those who are innocent and only love the innocent fallen? Is it a mockery of virtue? A screed against over sheltering?

Honestly, it’s hard to say. The novel is complicated, as complicated as real life. Frankly, it’s more complicated than I expected from 18th century French literature, and that’s one of the things that makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses so intriguing. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is worth checking out, and it is a lot less challenging to read than one might expect. I’d certainly rather read it than see the Michelle Pfeiffer movie.

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Hey, everybody. Dave here again due to the fact that Halloween demands a bit more from a parent (Kim) than it does from a non parent (me). As such, I told Kim I’d take two weeks in a row and let her go the next two weeks. And, since Halloween is upon us, I thought this was a good time for giants (Gargantua and Pantagruel).

There are certain things you expect when you sit down to read a classic of French literature. Well, at least I do. Maybe you don’t have any preconceptions about classic French literature. Regardless, though I knew Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais was going to be a bit different, I wasn’t prepared that a work of 16th century France to be like this.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Fred Chappell.)

I mean, just imagine a work that describes the birth of one of the titular characters as follows:

As soon as he was born, he cried not as other babes use to do, Miez, miez, miez, miez, but with a high, sturdy, and big voice shouted about, Some drink, some drink, some drink, as inviting all the world to drink with him.

Yup, as soon as he is born he demands booze.

Frankly, this story of the giant Pantagruel and his father, the giant Gargantua, (mostly Pantagruel as Gargantua is only the primary subject of one of the five books) is far bolder than I would have expected for the 16th century. Excrement, sex, the list goes on. Though there is an awful lot of high brow historical references, language play, philosophy, and other such complex aspects, there is an awful lot of crude material as well. Considering how restrictive later works were, I’m surprised Rabelais got away with as much as he did. Just take urine and an example:

At which place, seeing so many about him, he said with a loud voice, I believe that these buzzards will have me to pay them here my welcome hither, and my Proficiat. It is but good reason. I will now give them their wine, but it shall be only in sport. Then smiling, he untied his fair braguette, and drawing out his mentul into the open air, he so bitterly all-to-bepissed them, that he drowned two hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and eighteen, besides the women and little children. Some, nevertheless, of the company escaped this piss-flood by mere speed of foot, who, when they were at the higher end of the university, sweating, coughing, spitting, and out of breath, they began to swear and curse, some in good hot earnest, and others in jest.

Yes, Gargantua peed on the good citizens of Paris. But, of course, the crude elements are a small part of the work, and really do fit into the overall essence of Pantagruelism that the book expounds.

As such, let’s move away from crudity and talk about the plot. Well…okay, that’s easier said than done. I wouldn’t say there even is one overarching plot. Things happen, Gargantua and Pantagruel are born (each in turn of course) and grow into adult giants. There are some wars (usually someone rudely trespassing on their kingdom) which they each win in an excessive and fable-like style. However, beyond that the plot has a tendency to turn and shift whenever it seems to take a fancy to.

A huge portion of the book concerns whether or not Pantagruel’s friend Panurge is going to get married despite fears that he will be cuckolded, beaten, and robbed if he does. It seems like this takes up perhaps two-thirds of the book. Panurge’s waffling about it goes on for a good portion of that, combined with the various divinations they resort to in order to try to settle the matter, which almost all bode ill (predicting cuckolding, robbing, and beating) and which Panurge for some reason interprets favorably. Still, he keeps waffling:

Do not marry then, answered Pantagruel. Yea but, quoth Panurge, considering the condition wherein I now am, out of debt and unmarried; mark what I say, free from all debt, in an ill hour, for, were I deeply on the score, my creditors would be but too careful of my paternity, but being quit, and not married, nobody will be so regardful of me, or carry towards me a love like that which is said to be in a conjugal affection. And if by some mishap I should fall sick, I would be looked to very waywardly. The wise man saith, Where there is no woman—I mean the mother of a family and wife in the union of a lawful wedlock—the crazy and diseased are in danger of being ill used and of having much brabbling and strife about them; as by clear experience hath been made apparent in the persons of popes, legates, cardinals, bishops, abbots, priors, priests, and monks; but there, assure yourself, you shall not find me. Marry then, in the name of God, answered Pantagruel. But if, quoth Panurge, being ill at ease, and possibly through that distemper made unable to discharge the matrimonial duty that is incumbent to an active husband, my wife, impatient of that drooping sickness and faint-fits of a pining languishment, should abandon and prostitute herself to the embraces of another man, and not only then not help and assist me in my extremity and need, but withal flout at and make sport of that my grievous distress and calamity; or peradventure, which is worse, embezzle my goods and steal from me, as I have seen it oftentimes befall unto the lot of many other men, it were enough to undo me utterly, to fill brimful the cup of my misfortune, and make me play the mad-pate reeks of Bedlam. Do not marry then, quoth Pantagruel. Yea but, said Panurge, I shall never by any other means come to have lawful sons and daughters, in whom I may harbour some hope of perpetuating my name and arms, and to whom also I may leave and bequeath my inheritances and purchased goods (of which latter sort you need not doubt but that in some one or other of these mornings I will make a fair and goodly show), that so I may cheer up and make merry when otherwise I should be plunged into a peevish sullen mood of pensive sullenness, as I do perceive daily by the gentle and loving carriage of your kind and gracious father towards you; as all honest folks use to do at their own homes and private dwelling-houses. For being free from debt, and yet not married, if casually I should fret and be angry, although the cause of my grief and displeasure were never so just, I am afraid, instead of consolation, that I should meet with nothing else but scoffs, frumps, gibes, and mocks at my disastrous fortune. Marry then, in the name of God, quoth Pantagruel.

They even take a break in all this for an odyssey like trip to consult one more oracle. Along the way for a good, long while, they encounter an endless series of strange and unusual lands, only to return again at the end of it to the question of whether or not Panurge will marry.

Frankly, it’s a little tough to decide what to make of it all. There are so many things jammed into the five volumes of Gargantua and Pantagruel; it’s almost impossible to get a handle on it. I’m certain I missed things. Regardless, it was fun and there was some impressive writing. Gargantua and Pantagruel was a bit of work to read, but not as must as I expected, In any event, I thought the work I did do to read was worth it. It really was an experience.

Anyway, happy Halloween!