Sunday, January 16, 2005

50 Book Challenge #3: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Continuing the French theme of the weekend, I read Choderlos De Laclos's epistolary anti-romance. The copy I had, incidentally, is quite odd. It's a cheap Signet paperback from 1962 and came with a price tag of "G8DH" and a sliver of cardboard labeled "complimentary bookmark" in Spanish and German. Where it was before I found it at a garage sale in Dupont Circle is anyone's guess. Geoffrey thinks Argentina.

But to the book: The epistolary format's one weakness is that in order to depict a character as boring, simple, and naive, we must read entire letters from that person's point of view. This could have been more than a little tiresome, but the character development undergone by most of the initially unengaging personalities saves the reader from this fate. My ability to imagine the characters themselves was severely hampered by repeated viewings of the 1988 film adaptation, but this is a weakness on my part, not the book's.

The Marquise may be one of the great Machiavellian women of literature. One can almost have no sympathy for her, but she is, as the author wishes us to know, simply a creature of her times, the most successfully adapted of all those women driven to artifice and deceit by the demands of the culture and religion. In contrast, Valmont comes across as far more self-absorbed and far less skillful. It's no surprise that he loses their war.

One note: 18th and 19th century literature (and its predecessors) all too often gives us the image of the woman who literally dies of love: she pines, falls into a swoon, perishes of a sudden fever or convulsion. This book is no exception. To whst extent can this be a real phenomenon along the lines of psychosomatic illness or "voodoo"?
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