In one of my college French classes, we were assigned Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. I don’t remember which class it was, or why we were given the English translation to read (although I’m glad I don’t have the French version or I’d never attempt a re-read now!) But I do remember being floored by the book.
The anti-heroes of this tale are the primary letter writers, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. At one time lovers, they are now friends and allies in a contest of sexual intrigue. Who is better at it? Valmont has seduced and ruined more women than can be counted; however, the Marquise de Merteuil has a more difficult task. She has managed to live a libertine’s life, taking a succession of lovers, while maintaining a spotless reputation.
As the story opens, the marquise has asked Valmont to help her with a new and worthwhile project – revenge. She wants him to seduce a young girl named Cecile Volanges, recently removed from the convent to marry the Comte de Gercourt. Gercourt was Madame de Merteuil’s lover but jilted her. She wants to see Gercourt humiliated.
Valmont, although generally willing to jump to his old mistress’s command, refuses this time because he is otherwise occupied. He has become obsessed with a young married woman whose virtue is known to be beyond reproach, Madame de Tourvel. He cannot rest until he can have her. He is determined that she fall in love and yield to him willingly.
Letters fly back and forth between the plotters as well as among their intended unfortunate victims. The innocent Cecile falls for an almost equally innocent young chevalier, Danceny, and Madame de Merteuil decides he will do just as well to ruin the girl.
Mercilessly, Valmont and Madame de Merteuil pursue their goals, ensnaring others along the way, goading each other to additional cruelties.
The letter are extremely well written. Each character has a distinctive voice that brings him alive even though we’re just seeing snippets through the letters. The plot moves quickly along. The story is shocking – not so much because of the subject matter -- we read much more graphic material today, but because of the cold-bloodedness of the protagonists. They delight in their own amorality and cruelty. The letters are witty and interesting to read, and when they tease each other you can almost get caught up in their fondness, except for the uncomfortable undercurrent of this is wrong!
I loved this book in college and I wanted to read it again for the Back to the Classics challenge, (the book to re-read) to see if it would still make such an impression on me. I’m more impressed with the writing this time around than I am swept away by the characters. I think back then I wanted to find some excuse for their behavior, something redeeming about them. Maybe their friendship? This time I just accepted them for what they were. They are horrible people, deserving of their fate. But they can sure write entertaining letters!