What Sade did next

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Back in 1901, a time when a pseudonym seemed a necessary precaution for anyone wishing to write about the Marquis de Sade, a certain Dr Jacobus X divided Sade’s works into “the oeuvre one can read” and “the oeuvre one cannot”. He was not reflecting on the problems readers faced getting hold of these books, but on the problems that might result if these works were to get hold of their readers. Even if no one seems quite as afraid of the divin marquis these days, the same rather simplistic sense has persisted among critics and aficionados of two discrete corpora, one comprising the real Sade and the other, presumably, the fake one. The former category would typically include the extremely violent pornography of Les 120 journées de Sodome (1904; The 120 Days of Sodom, 1954) and the Histoire de Juliette (1801?); Juliette, 1958–61), while the latter would feature the comparatively respectable short stories and plays, as well as the three novels that feature in Michel Delon’s new edition of La Marquise de Gange et autres romans historiques. Their appearance for the first time in a mainstream collection reflects a growing awareness that there is less that divides the Sadean oeuvre than unites it.

Since Sade’s works became more widely available in France in the 1960s, readers and critics have unsurprisingly shown more interest in the books that previous generations were told they could not, or should not, read. What, after all, is the point of Sade if not to be shocking? The kind of shock literary texts deliver, however, tends to be short-lived. And Sade’s most extreme novels are anything but: hundreds of pages long, they demand considerable stamina of their readers, and of their readers’ capacity or desire to respond to the endless horrors they describe. While some may become desensitized as they progress, others may find that the violence becomes harder, rather than easier, to bear, and may consequently grind to a halt. Either way, Sade at his most shocking is not necessarily Sade at his most interesting. A novel such as Justine (1791), which maintains a (porously thin) veneer of respectability is, for example, a much more compelling text than the no-holds-barred version of the same story that Sade later offered in his much longer – and much more explicit – Nouvelle Justine (1799?).

For the novels in this new edition the veneer was a necessity rather than a choice. All three were written in the Charenton asylum to which Sade had been condemned by Napoleon. While he had been granted permission to write, his rooms were raided in 1807 by police who seized a manuscript entitled Les Journées de Florbelle ou la nature dévoilée (The Days of Florbelle or Nature Revealed), a work of libertinage that apparently rivalled his most notorious works in its ambition. After this second great loss – the first being the scroll of Les 120 journées de Sodome, taken from his cell during the fall of the Bastille – Sade made no further attempts to write the kind of fiction that had cemented his scandalous reputation. If a “late style” can be discerned in works such as La Marquise de Gange, Adélaïde de Brunswick and Isabelle de Bavière, it was thus to a great extent imposed on him: to reach his readers he first had to get past the censor. For many of his twentieth-century devotees, he sacrificed too much in order to do so. Francine du Plessix Gray describes the trio as “terribly proper little historical novels”, while Jean-Jacques Pauvert, a pioneering editor and biographer of Sade, evinces a sense not just of disappointment but almost of betrayal when he pronounces: “The Marquise de Gange is of no interest other than for indubitably being by Sade, and for the success with which he almost entirely erased himself from it”.

Sade, it appears, fooled more than just the censors. It seems baffling now that Pauvert could find no trace of the author in La Marquise de Gange when it is arguably Sade’s most playful and self-conscious novel. His presence haunts every page, from the opening declaration that “this is no novel we are offering here” to the wink and nod to earlier works in his defence of poetic licence: “it is so painful to present crime triumphant that if we have not shown it in this light – if we have, so to speak, thwarted or corrected fate – it is to please the virtuous, who will be quite grateful to us for not having dared say everything” – tout dire being the dictum of Sade’s most extreme novels. The author even makes a cameo appearance in the novel when “a descendant of Laura, and a poet in vogue at the time” whispers some impromptu lines into the heroine’s ear – the Laura in question being Laure de Noves, Petrarch’s muse and Sade’s ancestor. Like a child playing hide and seek, Sade ultimately wants to be found.

La Marquise de Gange is also a self-consciously gothic novel, drawing on Radcliffe and “Monk” Lewis as well as its historical source, Gayot de Pitaval’s bestselling Causes célèbres (1739–50). It retells the true story of la belle Provençale, a young noblewoman murdered in 1667 by her brothers-in-law, an Abbé and a Chevalier, who offer her a choice of death: “fire, steel or poison”. The Marquise demonstrates extraordinary resistance, swallowing but then disgorging the poison, leaping from a first-floor window, withstanding blows from a sword, which then snapped in her shoulder, before being granted a brief reprieve when a pistol pressed against her chest misfires. The poison, however, takes its toll, and she dies days later while her murderers escape – one of them living happily ever after in Holland. A beautiful victim, a scheming libertine, virtue punished and vice rewarded – it is very much its author’s text. While Sade’s account of the Marquise’s early years and her death adheres closely to its historical source, the bulk of the novel comprises a series of fictional episodes in which the heroine is lured into the traps laid for her by the dastardly Abbé. While there are no graphic scenes of sexual violence, the threat of that violence looms large – particularly for the reader who knows what this author is capable of. Sade plays on our suspicions, or paranoia, throughout the novel, playfully dropping hints that he may be on the side of the perpetrators of violence, rather than the victim. It is this sense of unease that makes the novel compelling.

Adélaïde de Brunswick is very much a sister text to La Marquise de Gange. Another virtuous heroine, another jealous husband, another scheming villain and another series of unfortunate events – at one stage Adélaïde finds herself abducted from an abductor who had abducted her from a previous abductor. Sade’s eleventh-century heroine is a composite of two Adelheids mentioned briefly in a seventeenth-century historical dictionary: one of them had her husband murdered by her lover and the other was imprisoned and abused by her husband, but escaped to join a convent. There may also have been a more recent inspiration – the trials and tribulations of Caroline of Brunswick, who, like Sade’s heroine, was plagued by accusations of adultery made by her husband, George IV. In any case, as Sade admits in a note to the reader, the whole story is almost entirely his invention – necessitated, he claims, by the “odious” character of the historical Adélaïde.

Once again there are echoes of earlier Sadean landscapes, the heroine at one point finding herself trapped in a dizzying Russian doll of isolated locations within isolated locations: a dungeon in an ancient tower on an island in the middle of a lake in a clearing in a dark forest in the mountains. There are also echoes of some of the tortures depicted in Les 120 journées, as the heroine and her companion are ordered to make the rope by which they have been condemned to hang, and to dig their own graves. This is an extraordinarily strange novel – even by Sade’s standards – as Adélaïde is pursued around Germany and Italy by a husband who, disguised as a knight-errant and travelling with an unreliable squire, increasingly resembles Don Quixote.

Last, but also least in this edition, comes Isabelle de Bavière. Completed a few months before Sade’s death, it is not without interest. As scholars such as Chiara Gambacorti and Michèle Vallenthini have shown, this extended character assassination of a French queen has resonance both fictionally and historically, with Isabelle, like Adélaïde, a composite figure – part Juliette, part Marie Antoinette. However, like the annex included in this collection, which features Sade’s notes on reading Madame de Staël’s Delphine, it is perhaps one for the researcher. I shall follow the advice of the narrator of Les 120 journées, who tells the reader of the various obscene “dishes” served for Sade’s delectation: “choose, and leave the rest without declaiming against it simply because it does not have the ability to please you; remember that others shall enjoy it, and be philosophical”.

Will McMorran is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Queen Mary University of London. His translation of La Marquise de Gange was published by Oxford World’s Classics in 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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