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THE MOST AUDACIOUS NOVEL A. E. CARTER L'epoque classique est peut-etre Ie moment ou la France est aliCe Ie plus loin dans cet approfondissement de l'homme intbieur qui est Ie but de sa litterature.- HENRI PEYRE. FOR the last few years, the bookshops of the Boulevard SaintGermain have had a volume in their windows with an alluring label: "Ie plus audacieux roman de notre litterature.'" If you pick it up, you discover that it is a new edition of Choderlos de Laclos' novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, first published in 1782. The most audacious novel! At first glance, the phrase looks like a shameless attempt to sell a book on the strength of a pornographic cover. For at least a century and a half, French literature has been periodically jolted by "audacious" novels, some of which have even got their authors into the police courts. Yet a romance contemporary with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, composed seven years before the Revolution, is now advertised as surpassing all the rest for daring. When Ladas WTote Les Liaisons dangereuses he was a middle-aged artillery officer with some dull years of garrison life to his credit and a taste for light verse. When he died twenty years later, he had produced a tract on the education of girls, mixed in the Revolution, had a narrow escape from the guillotine, and been created a general by Napoleon. A rather undistinguished life, on the whole (for in those days there was nothing unusual in a brush with the scaffold), and in the middle of it, the phenomenon of Les Liaisons dangereuses. The immediate result of the book was a scandal. It was read, but not admired; it was even described as "infamous." A number of Parisian hostesses closed their doors to the author. Critics like Grimm, even though they praised the volume, classed it with such contemporary pornography as Le PortieT des ChaTtreux. Later on, during the nineteenth century, it was sold under the counter; and while it continued to attract the attention of such clairvoyant spirits as Stendhal and Baudelaire, it did not come into its own until the present century, when its success has been very great. All of which is not easy to explain. Why a soldier of forty, who began his literary career with half a dozen insipid odes, and finished it with a treatise on the upbringing of young ladies, should have stopped midway to produce a masterpiece of eroticism, is an insoluble problem. IMonaco: Les Editions du Rocher, 1948. 46 Vol. XXIV, no. 1, Oct., 1954 THE MOST AUDACIOUS NOVEL 47 Nor was female education Laclos' only interest. After the Revolution began he wrote pamphlets designed to push the Duke of Orleans onto the throne, and spent several years studying ballistics. He even produced a number of new shells, some of which are said to have played a decisive role in the battle of Valmy. As for the scandal, we can understand without much difficulty why the book shocked the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century, as everybody knows, was easily shocked; and there is a good deal of the scandalous about Les Liaisons dangereuses. It gives a detailed account of the six months' campaign carried out by the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce the virtuous Mme de Tourvel: stratagems, attacks, temporary defeats, and final success. During the course of this siege, he pauses long enough to snap up a tempting little morsel in the sbape of Cecile de Volanges, wbo happens to be staying at the same country-house; and not content with seducing her, he initiates her into every refinement of vice. All this is highly reprehensible, of course; the more so as Valmont discusses both innocence and virtue with a peculiarly vicious relish, as condiments for the jaded palate. But, if it is easy to see why the nineteenth century was horrified, the case of the eighteenth is not so simple. For by 1782 the eighteenth century had had a long experience of the scandalous, both in literature and in life. It had Le Sopha and Therese philosophe, the Regency and the court of Louis XV. It was shortly to have the novels of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 46-55
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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