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‘Dangerous Liaisons’ by Choderlos de Laclos


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 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.

The book, which is broken up into four very 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 very 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 resident 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 very forthright, fiesty 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.

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.