Book: Les liaisons dangereuses - Livre d'Or — LiveJournal

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Book: Les liaisons dangereuses
Thursday, 23 March 2006 at 08:18 pm

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Author: Choderlos de Laclos

Details: Originally published 1782; Pub Gallimard 1972; online text

Verdict: Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous liaisons) is well-written but rather disturbing.

Reasons for reading it: It's one of those keystones of European culture, really.

How it came into my hands: rysmiel reminded me that I'd been meaning to read it, when I happened to be in Montreal near lots of Francophone bookshops, so I could easily get hold of a copy. Yay.

I enjoyed the first two thirds of Les liaisons dangereuses, although I did not find it entirely comfortable. It's witty, and sexy, and the characterization is good and the story is exciting, but the humour is rather dark. And there's this undercurrent of the threat of rape running right through it. After the point where the threat becomes actual (and rather explicit, too), I wasn't able to enjoy the book any more. I am not capable of finding rape funny, and I couldn't stomach the delightful wordplays and double entendres and lightly ironic comedy of manners / social satire in that context.

That said, the more serious aspects of the book are by no means badly done, and frankly no-one would read it if it were just didactic and preachy, without the comic aspects to leaven it. I don't know. One of the ways lLD succeeds really well is that although it is primarily the portrait of two thoroughly evil people, they were just sympathetic enough that I half wanted things to work out ok for them, which is a pretty impressive feat of characterization. But then again, finding myself even slightly sympathetic towards rapists is not a pleasant outcome. I found the ending heavy-handed, though the narrative does include the comment je vois bien dans tout cela les méchants punis; mais je n'y trouve nulle consolation pour leurs malheureuses victimes [I can very well see the punishment of the wicked in all this, but I don't see how that is any comfort to their unfortunate victims], which is a fair assessment.

It's also quite frightening how much the mores portrayed in lLD ring true even today. The major difference is that we don't have an explicit principle that any woman who is sexually open (or even behaves in a way that might be interpreted as such) is a social pariah. But a lot of the rest of it, the ingrained inequalities that lead to a lot of women having sex they're not really keen on (even if it doesn't go as far as actual rape) reminds me way too closely of far too many contemporary stories.

I feel like I should add to this comment the note that my own romantic history has been entirely happy, and the kind of nastiness I'm talking about is nastiness that I'm only aware of second hand. But it's there in a lot of supposedly romantic novels and films too, only quite often presented as a positive thing where it is a source of real misery when it happens in real life. I'm not in the least bit saying that all men are bastards, far from it! Just that the ones who are bastards live in a social context where they can massively get away with it and even be rewarded for treating women extremely badly. It would be nice to think that society has moved on a bit more than that in over two hundred years, especially when in many ways women are a lot better off than they were in Laclos' time. (It's possibly interesting to note that lLD concerns a female as well as a male villain, and while he ends up dead, her fate is rather worse.)

It's definitely a powerfully written book, and I think it's probably meant to be upsetting. Oh, and I suspect that reading all those elaborate 18th century sentences has done horrible things to my own writing style, sorry about that!

Whereaboooots: 18th century France
Moooood: uncomfortableuncomfortable
Tuuuuune: Metallica: Nothing else matters
Discussion: 4 contributions | Contribute something

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rysmiel: vacant and in pensive mood
Date:March 23rd, 2006 09:06 pm (UTC)
47 minutes after journal entry, 05:06 pm (rysmiel's time)
It is incredibly powerful, and very edgy, and I can quite see why it was ferociously controversial in its time; I do not think it would have the deeply disturbing impact it does were it not so polishedly witty and ironic.

I also think it's really clever technically in what it does with the structure of the epistolary novel; can't recall another example of the form in which it actually mattered so much that what we see actually exists as letters, and their delivery became such an integral part of the plot.
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livredor: livre d'or
Date:March 24th, 2006 03:11 pm (UTC)
18 hours after journal entry, 04:11 pm (livredor's time)
I think it's pretty edgy even by modern standards, actually. It talks about things that just aren't normally discussed, including pretty explicit sex but also the sexual violence that mostly just passes under the radar.

But yeah, if it weren't witty and polished, it would have sunk without trace, just one more polemic about how sex is evil and society is going to the dogs. I don't want to imply that I regret reading it, it was worth reading, most certainly, it's just upset me quite a bit.

You're right, it's cool the way the letters are actually part of the plot and not just a framing device.
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angeyja: default
Date:March 23rd, 2006 11:13 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry
rape scenes of any sort are one of the things I struggle with. I am afraid I have evn read around them when I know they are there.

I did know two people in college both men who, while not to the extent I saw in the movies and your post, did similar things in college. The fact that they were men is most like a factor of my friendships not that only men did this type of thing. I was aware periphally that some women would collect men for the sake of that with who knows what result. The culture of the times.. it was not always positive, and I think I've come to feel that while I wouldn't use the word rape there are different types of abuse that could be pretty damaging.

I am not sure what became of the one man who I felt was just ill inside. The second, oddly, I had good memories of in part because he carried me home quite drunk one night from a frat party all the way across campus, and carefully put me to bed. Even more oddly, I ran across him years later, and his life was substantially different; he quite changed.
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livredor: portrait
Date:March 24th, 2006 03:27 pm (UTC)
19 hours after journal entry, 04:27 pm (livredor's time)
I will read rape scenes only if they're absolutely necessary to the story. And if they're not I might skim over them or I might give up on the book altogether, depending. I really hate it when rape is just an excuse to make the story more dramatic or exciting or sympathetic or whatever. That's not the case with Les liaisons dangereuses, but the explicit rape just made it very hard for me to enjoy the rest of the book.

I get the impression that most people know somebody who has a pretty cavalier attitude to consent, or (or as well) makes it a matter of pride to "collect" as many partners as possible. Of course, people might be more or less aware that there are people like that in their circle. Obviously, Les liaisons dangereuses is exaggerated. But I think that's better than refusing to confront the issue at all. Thanks for your story.
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