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!