“…keeps the suspense mounting and the pages turning..”
“…delicious witty and gossipy…”
Alas – any of these blurbs still would sell this novel short, for it has all the virtues of your garden variety bestseller du jour – gripping plot, memorable characters, unconventional ending – and far more.
Simply put, Les Liaisons Dangereuses raised the bar of the epistolary novel so high it no longer exists. The subtitle, “Letters gathered in a Society” indicates a collection of the correspondence has been arranged by a “fictional” editor. The distinctive styles and view presented in each letter creates a polyphonic effect, where the reader is always better informed about the relevant situation than the authors of the letters themselves. The authors are not merely reporting events, they write in order to present themselves the way they intend to appear to their correspondents.
The nature of the composition of the novel has disposed of the “normative position” of the author, Choderlos de Laclos and preempted the moral imperative. The absence of a narrator or an authoritative narrative voice makes it impossible to locate the intentions of the author. As a result, moral ambiguity is the book’s greatest charm. Its depiction of the base motives of the aristocracy was shocking, controversial and scandalous, for its authenticity in certain spots implied it was a roman a clef. The first edition sold out within days, nonetheless.
The Marquise de Merteil and Vicomte de Valmont are two letter writers who shrewdly and ruthlessly play a game where seduction is the name; psychological methods, the rules; erotic pleasure, the prize. They are the dangerous liaisons of the painfully naïve young girl, Cecile Volanges. She and the other authors, the Chevalier de Chanceny, Presidente del Tourvel, and Madam Volanges are pawns in the game of seduction. The twist is that the game backfires on the puppeteers of the drama and everyone else.
I thought the sweetest morsels were the scattered psychological insights: on people in general, the distinction between men and women and their socially appropriate relations to pleasure, the incompatibility between vanity and love. They painted a clever and cynical portrait of human nature, challenging the pretensions of society, the resonant echo of the maxims of the moralist La Rochefoucauld.
Some readers have proposed tragedy as the appropriate category for Les Liaisons, where fate is exceedingly brutal to the protagonists and shatters all possibility of redemption of life. In classic tragedies, the protagonist(s) are virtuous, yet that makes no difference as they are destroyed by external forces or by themselves. Both Marquise de Merteil and the Valmont are exceedingly vain, and this is their virtue of excellence as well as their fatal flaw. “Strong swimmers always drown.” Because of the way novel depicts human society as something permanent, there are no apocalyptic overtones. The tragic end of the characters are somewhat absolved when society continues on, surviving their destruction. It could be argued that the excessive portrayal of the vain aristocrats was a condemnation of the aristocracy itself, which was thoroughly corrupt to the bone, a decadent society in its death throes where the Revolution was right around the corner.