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.