Sobriety in excess

At Home with the Marquis de Sade
May 28, 1999

Those of us who never managed to win New Statesman competitions to submit putative titles for the shortest book ever written will be cursing ourselves for not having thought of this one. Those of us who read Francine Du Plessix Gray's substantial biography of the Marquis de Sade may well feel perplexed as to why she chose it.

De Sade's life was anything but domestic: born into ancient Provencal nobility in 1740, and counting Petrarch's Laura among his ancestors, his early maturity was dominated by a series of episodes that combined an encyclopaedic sexual repertoire with equally ingenious acts of blasphemy. Male and female servants were involved, often against their will, in communal permutations of sodomy and fellatio, accompanied by specified violations of the Blessed Sacrament, considered of themselves as erotic stimuli. Much of de Sade's life thereafter was spent in prison, initially in the Duchy of Savoy, from which he managed to escape, then in Vincennes and finally in the Bastille itself, before he was transferred in his last years to the asylum at Charenton, where he directed the inmates in theatrical productions.

The dominant figures in the account are those of de Sade's wife, Pélagie, and her mother, the Presidente de Montreuil, and the decline of the initially supportive but progressively more conflictual relationship between the three protagonists affords a major emphasis of the biography. The other consistent dimension is de Sade's preoccupation with money, food and dress, and Gray charts his decline from designer of the furnishings, gardens and park of his ancestral castle of La Coste to penury in a hospital at Versailles.

Given the nature of her subject, Gray is, most of the time, relatively unvoyeuristic. The crucial episodes responsible for Sade's incarcerations are approached with frankness and efficiency, although there are several chapters whose tantalising epigraphs, taken from the more lurid pages of his fiction, suggest an erotic content that then turns out to be lacking. Gray is also commendably restrained in her reluctance to fill lacunae in the biography by novelistic episodes transposed into the life by nothing more than wishful thinking. But in another respect, a failure to engage with the sheer excess of de Sade is to miss a fundamental aspect of his significance, all the more so in that it is accompanied in his writing by both stylistic artistry and Cartesian precision. A dominant theme (and image) of the study is afforded, on the other hand, by de Sade's love of the theatre, as (largely unperformed) playwright and actor, but also as metteur en scène of his own sexual fantasies.

The historical background is efficiently incorporated into the story, in particular with respect to the importance of the thinking of the philosophes , notably in terms of materialism and atheism, and to the Enlightenment desire for categorisation and extremes of sensual experience. De Sade was born in the reign of Louis XV, and his lifetime saw the demise of the ancien régime , the revolution, the Terror, the Directory and the Consulate. He died in 1814, at the end of the First Empire, having shown a chameleon-like capacity to adapt his identity to the prevailing political ethos. The majority of his copious published output dates from his later years, before his manuscripts were seized in 1807. De Sade's intellectual consistency is underscored, as is the fascination he held for writers as diverse as Flaubert, Apollinaire and Roland Barthes; but Gray is also aware of extraordinary areas of paradox, nowhere more tellingly apparent than in Sade's emphasis on protocol, in the contents of his extensive library, including as it did many volumes of devotional literature, in his highly developed artistic awareness, or his hatred of bloodshed and violence.

Gray uses as her principal source text the extensive correspondence between de Sade and his wife and family and, later in particular, with his intellectual partner, Milli de Rousset, his companion in old age, Constance Quesnet, and his faithful lawyer, Gaufridy. The greater part of this material exists in published form, although she does unearth a few additional manuscripts, as well as consulting the originals of published items, enabling her to describe the physical appearance of a letter, a stylistic curiosity or a trait of handwriting. Nonetheless it is not really good enough to claim to be working in "virgin territory", where such a statement is true only for monoglot anglophones. Consistent with this, almost no French texts are provided, other than the odd rather lame poem.

The difficulty with this book, reflected in the unsatisfactory title, lies in its uncertain focus. There could have been a book, taking perhaps a more assertively feminist line, that examined the role of the women in de Sade's life (which is what this comes closest to doing); or which interpreted the personality from a more thorough-going psychoanalytical perspective (there is just a single section that explores the phenomenon from this angle, largely at second-hand, stressing narcissism, delusional identities, infantile anality and exhibitionism - the rest of the time there are just snippets of armchair analysis). There again, Gray could have taken the acting metaphor she fruitfully inaugurates in the early chapters and developed it more fully; or, above all, explored the creative writing in the context of the biography. This is the greatest lost opportunity, since in those brief sections that Gray devotes to the analysis of de Sade's novels, she writes insightfully and freshly, evoking both his "icy sobriety" of style and his "metaphysical underpinnings", but not developing these. Any biography of Sade cannot help but be compelling and bizarre, as is this one; but Gray does not make clear enough in what more enduring ways this historically astonishing life is also intellectually significant.

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

At Home with the Marquis de Sade

Author - Francine Du Plessix Gray
ISBN - 1 85619 607 0
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 495

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