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‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (translated by Helen Constantine)


Fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 418 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by Helen Constantine.

I have a problematic relationship with French fiction (it often feels too cold, too distant), and, similarly, I don’t always get on with pre-20th Century fiction either, so how would I cope with a French book first published in 1782?

There’s no doubt that Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I read it purely on the basis that it had been selected for my face-to-face book group, and while my heart sank when I was told that this was February’s read, I figured it was a good opportunity to try something I wouldn’t normally choose to read myself.

Most people will be familiar with the 1988 film starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, but, philistine that I am, I have never seen it. This meant I approached the book completely “blind”, with no preconceptions (other than, help, it’s French and help, it’s an 18th Century classic) and no knowledge whatsoever of the storyline.

I was heartened to see that this 418-page door-stopper is an epistolary novel, because I find that reading letters between characters makes any book much more, well, readable. (I wasn’t aware of this, but, according to the introduction to this book by its translator, Helen Constantine, the epistolary novel “was by far the most popular kind of fiction in the eighteenth century”.)

It can also help you see characters from other people’s points of view, and in the case of Dangerous Liaisons, it was the perfect vehicle to highlight how certain characters showed different faces, or facets of their personality, to different people.

Two French aristocrats

The novel, which is broken up into four large chunks, tells the story of two French aristocrats — the widow Marquis de Merteuil and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont — as they play a series of Machiavellian games designed to entertain themselves while quietly ruining the lives and reputation of other people. Yes, these two are a right old pair of dastardly devious schemers.

Vicomte de Valmont, who I quickly took a strong dislike to, is on a mission to seduce a highly respected and religious woman, Presidente de Tourvel, for no other reason than to cause a scandal. He woos her through a succession of purple-prosed letters (even though, at times, they are residents in the same house) until she finally succumbs to his advances. He then unceremoniously and very cruelly dumps her.

Meanwhile, the Marquis de Merteuil, a forthright, feisty woman who knows what she wants and how to get it, plots the ruin of a 15-year-old bride-to-be, Cecile Volanges (the sweetest character in the whole book, it has to be said), as a way of getting back at Cecile’s future husband, Comte de Gercourt.

The Marquis encourages Valmont to help her in this quest. Together they play match-maker, as they aid and abet a forbidden romance between Cecile and her piano teacher, Chevalier Danceny.

Somewhere along the line, the schemes between these two cunning characters go off on unexpected tangents, and Valmont, unable to help himself, seduces pretty much anything that comes his way. Similarly, even the Marquis is not immune from having her way with certain men.

Shocking and immoral

Dangerous Liaisons caused a sensation when it was first published, and I’m not surprised. Even by today’s standards, some of the scenes in this book are shocking and immoral. In fact, I have to agree with KevinfromCanada, who recently wrote a comment on this blog which said: “Dangerous Liaisons is one of the best explorations of evil that exists in literature.”

I found myself wanting to throw the book against the wall on more than one occasion and at one time I actually called Valmont an evil bastard out loud. That the story provoked such a strong reaction in me suggests that it was worth reading, even though I found much of it dragged and I thought the language terribly over-written (understandably a product of its time, not helped by my editor’s brain which lives by the motto “why use a long word when a short word will do”).

I found it helped to read the book in large chunks, including a three-hour marathon reading session on Saturday, because whenever I put it down I just did not want to pick it up again.

But the last 100-page section sped by, and I found the ending completely unexpected, way too abrupt (I had to read it over, in case I’d missed anything) and just a smidgen sad. Above all, I was relieved to have survived my first foray into French classic fiction, although I don’t plan to return any time soon.

‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which says the book, written by a lieutenant in the French Army, still manages to “shock and delight in equal measure”.

24 thoughts on “‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (translated by Helen Constantine)”

  1. I hope you are feeling better, Kim, and that we get to see you next month for some modern literature.
    I shall be posting my thoughts later this afternoon but I adored it and was completely enthralled by their evil machinations.
    Your point about displaying different faces is a very good one especially in respect to the final scene in the film adaptation. I highly recommend watching it; Valmont is actually portrayed sympathetically although he is still an evil bastard.


  2. I don’t know much about Dangerous Liaisons too but your review made it quite interesting. I haven’t had much foray into French classics but I have read half of Madame Bovary and recently finished Nana. It’s a little difficult to read but it’s so interesting to compare it to English literature written in the same era. The French is definitely all about the raunchiness and sex, sex, sex compared to the uptight Victorians.


  3. Glad you persevered, kim, even if the novel does go against type. I’d agree that French fiction writing has a kind of cold formality to it that can be off-putting. The best novelists (including de Laclos but especially Proust and Flaubert) build their sentences (often very long) but establishing the background first and leaving the dominant subject and verb to the end. The exact opposite of what we journalists would counsel. If you can get into that rhythm (and I find that is often a matter of personal mood) it is very effective — if you can’t, it is most annoying.


  4. Thanks, Claire. I took today off work and have been lying on the sofa, wrapped in my granny rug, catching up with shows I’ve missed on BBC iPlayer!
    I will drop by your blog later to see what you thought of the book.
    And yes, I must see if I can track down a DVD of the film, as I’m itching to watch it now. I can imagine John Malkovich would be ideal for the role of Valmont.


  5. You are very brave to read Flaubert and Zola! To be honest, I’ve always wanted to read Zola, but never known where to start, really. I have the Ladies Paradise in my TBR. I chose it on the basis that even though it was written in the late 19th century it sounded kind of modern — it’s about the development of a department store in Paris. Needless to say, I’ve not got around to reading it… yet.


  6. Yes, I suspect the odd sentence structure is why I find French fiction “difficult”. Mind you, the sentence structure in Irish novels can also be unusual — the verbs go before the subject/object — but I very much like the rhythm of it. I guess it depends on what you get used to.
    I’ve not read Proust of Flaubert, so can’t comment, but I do like the *idea* of reading them one day… maybe in my retirement! 😉


  7. I think the Irish comparison is quite appropriate. And I think it is worth stretching our experience to try find that rhythm. And, if you are open to advice, try Flaubert before Proust. Madame Bovary is a great novel — when you do get to Proust, you need to be able to commit to all six volumes. If a novella suits your tastes, consider Paul Morand (I thought Hecate and Her Dogs was very well done) or perhaps Theophile Gautier (The Jinx is a novel that I think would definitely suit your tastes and provide a bridge into French writers).
    Seven Types of Ambiguity arrived today — now I just have to figure out how to fit a 600+ book into the schedule. I’m definitely looking forward to it.


  8. It is interesting to read that you hadn’t seen the film either. We were the only ones not to have seen the film and the only ones not gushing about how amazing this book is. I wonder if there is a connection?
    I also struggle with French literature. I haven’t loved any French book yet, as you say they are normally cold and distant. I’m pleased that you managed to make it to the end. I am interested to see if watching the film will give me a greater appreciation for the book.


  9. Thanks for the suggestions, Kevin. I’m interested in reading Madame Bovary now… and I’ll look into the other ones too to see if anything takes my fancy.
    Hope you enjoy Perlman’s book and I haven’t hyped it up too much! I’d forgotten it was 600 odd pages. I read it back in the days when I’d only read a book a month, as opposed to the 6 to 8 I read now!


  10. I’m sure there probably is a connection, Jackie, because if you’ve see the film you understand the plot line, whereas it’s hard work to figure out what’s going on when you read the book without this knowledge. For a lot of the time I was itching to know what the purpose of each letter was!
    I’m keen to see the film, too, but I hate Glen Close, and John Malkovich gives me the creeps, so I’m not sure I’m going to like it any more than the book. I might hunt out the Korean adaptation Untold Scandal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Untold_Scandal


  11. There’s another version of the film: Valmont, with Colin Firth, which came out about the same time as the one with Malkovich, which is about the time I read the book. Malkovich is excellently evil, but I think the tone of the film Valmont overall is closer to that of the text.
    KevinfromCanada’s suggestion that you try Gautier is a good one! The prose is quite lush, in a surreal, dream-like way; his stories verge on supernatural.


  12. Isabella and Kevin, okay you’ve sold Gautier to me… I’ve just bought a Hesperus edition of “The Jinx” from Amazon Marketplace. I figure it’s only 112 pages long so I can’t really go wrong. And if it does go wrong I’ll know who to blame. LOL. 😉


  13. I’ve wanted to read this book for ages. I saw the film adaptation (with Glen Close and John Malkovich and even if you don’t care for them they are excellent in those parts–seductively evil). I suspect having those visuals in mind must help move things along when you are reading. I sometimes like reading outside my comfort zone like this and broadening my horizons and it sounds like all in all you had a good experience even if you aren’t ready to rush off and read more French classic fiction right away.


  14. Well, I might have to eat my words re: the not reading any more French classic fiction right away, because I’ve ordered another book (see my comment thread with KevinfromCanada above) and I’ve been eyeing up the Zola I have in my TBR!


  15. Kim (and everyone else)…you’ve now made me want to read the Zola in your TBR. I’ve had some exposure to French lit, but not very much. I do remember reading Les Miserables in a week once during summer break at uni. I think I liked it. I tried to read Proust at the same time, but gave up 20 pages into A Remembrance as the sentences were too, too long. Maybe one day.
    I remember watching the film of Dangerous Liasons and have to agree that J.Malkovich is suitably creepy and Glen Close does a fabulous job of making you hate her (but if you already do, then you’re half-way there…). I am now off to discover all about Gautier.


  16. Err…if you’re not adverse to teen films, the 1999 film ‘Cruel Intentions’ with Sarah Michelle Geller, Ryan Phillipe and Reese Witherspoon is based on Dangerous Liaisons and isn’t all that bad as far as teen films and Hollywood adaptations go…


  17. I flicked through my copy briefly this afternoon and it looks highly readable. It’s billed as a 19th century story about sex and shopping! That made me laugh.


  18. Hey Kim, hope you are feeling all better (and raring to go for tomorrow)? I am glad you are glad you ready just sorry it was a bit of a pinful read for you. The characters are utterly devilish and devious but I kind of liked that, am not sure what that says about me hahaha!


  19. Maybe you’ll become a French Lit convert! I read my first Zola last year–Therese Raquin–very good, but very dark and a little disturbing. I also have The Ladies Paradise, which I heard is excellent. And if you’re looking for suggestions you might try Colette, too.


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