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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, July 17th, 2005


 

The Crimes of Love

by Marquise De Sade

Heart of darkness

A review by Ruth Scurr

The publication of Les Crimes de L'Amour in 1800 was the Marquis de Sade's stab at social respectability. As such, it was an unusual departure in the life of history's most infamous sexual deviant. Before the French Revolution, Sade was incarcerated for many years on charges of sodomy, debauchery and attempted murder. He was released in 1790, swept up in the turbulent politics of the time, reimprisoned, and narrowly evaded the fatal invitation "to kiss Madame la Guillotine" just twenty-four hours before Maximilien Robespierre fell from power and the Reign of Terror officially ended. Free again, Sade proceeded to publish pornographic books. His scandalous novel Justine had appeared anonymously in 1791. That was followed by Aline et Valcour (1795), La Nouvelle Justine and L'Histoire de Juliette (both in 1797). But despite the expectations of Sade's publisher -- allegedly responsible for suggesting he "spice up" his fiction so it would sell -- money was a terrible problem by 1800. And so, in the new sanctimonious moral climate encouraged by Napoleon, Sade attempted to reinvent himself as a respectable homme de lettres.

In fact, the eleven short stories comprising The Crimes of Love (seven of which are translated in David Coward's excellent new edition for Oxford World's Classics) had been written much earlier, during Sade's imprisonment in the Bastille before the Revolution. With one exception ("Eugenie de Franval", from which the heroine's seduction by her father was omitted), Sade made only minor revisions for publication. Despite this, as Coward emphasizes in his introduction, these stories contain "no more physical violence than in the average adventure novel of the time, no overtly erotic acts, no hint of lewdness or bawdy humour".

Here then is Sade sanitized, but still uncensored. These are stories in which he shows "virtue crushed by vice", and thus projects an unremittingly black portrait of human nature and existence. But they are (depending on the reader's sensibility) more palatable, and definitely less downright boring, than the interminable lists of sadistic invention to be found in the longer fictions. For this reason, The Crimes of Love is a recommended introduction to the Sadean oeuvre for anyone genuinely interested in the ideas that won him enduring notoriety. "I am a philosopher", he insisted to his long-suffering wife. But it was (and remains) quite a challenge to stay focused on the intellectual dimension of his contribution.

While still in the Bastille in 1788, Sade wrote a foreword to his short stories, which was revised and expanded to become "An Essay on Novels", published as an introduction to the collection in 1800. Both texts are translated here. In the longer version, Sade sets out jauntily to answer three questions: Why is the term roman (or novel) applied to works of imaginative fiction? In which nation did such works originate? And what are the rules for perfection in the genre? Sade was the precise inverse of a rule-follower, so was being facetious in beginning like this. Nevertheless, his brief account of the history of the novel is erudite and revealing of his own influences; among them Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise, and Richardson's Clarissa, translated into French by the Abbe Prevost, stand out particularly.

Given Sade's scathing remarks on Rousseau elsewhere, it is instructive to find him warning would-be imitators: "May they understand that if they wish to match it (La Nouvelle Heloise), they will need a soul of fire like Rousseau's and a mind as philosophical as his, two things which Nature never manages to bring off successfully twice in the same century". Yet there was a deliberate echo of Rousseau in the title Sade chose for his own relentlessly obscene novel, La Nouvelle Justine. Sade shared Rousseau's determination to free human nature from the artifice of social morality, but his expectation of what would then be revealed was radically different -and arguably more realistic.

Inspired by Richardson, Sade went on to outline a coherent theory of the novel: "When a writer works in this genre, he must catch nature, he must capture the heart of man, that most singular of her creations, and not virtue, because virtue, however fine and necessary it may be, is only one of the manifestations of that astounding heart which every novelist must make his deepest study . . . ". As eighteenth-century literary theory, this has worn much better than that of Madame de Stael, or other contemporaries of Sade's. As a personal defence of the depravities with which he tirelessly filled his own fictions, it is equally robust. The Marquis de Sade spent a third of his life in prison: time enough to look long and deep into his own heart and tell us what he found there.

Ruth Scurr's biography of Robespierre will be published next year.



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