Flora's Reviews > Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre-Ambroise Choderlos d...
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Jul 14, 2011

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I am always drawn to epistolary novels, but conveying a story at the distance of characters reporting on scenes and events can easily take the edge off of the action, making the story dull. Perhaps because the action is so titillating, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is far more successful than most epistolary novels at preventing that. The distance seems necessary to keep the focus on the characters and not just what they do in the bedroom.

Tragedy is a tricky animal. One can reach the end of the story and wonder at the pointlessness of it, and that was the response of some of novel's contemporary reviewers. But there is a greatness in these characters that makes watching their fall worthwhile.

The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont (isn't the alliteration beautiful?) have love (and, therefore, redemption) within their grasp. Both taste it. Both are tempted by it. And both fail to embrace it because of fear and pride.

With the exception of the Presidente, whose piety is clear (if tiresome), I would argue that the Marquise and Vicomte are the most moral characters in the novel. Theirs is a corrupt moral code, but they are actually true to it, unlike the many aristocrats who surround them.

Laclos' unreliable and strangely post-modern narrator is a fascinating character unto himself. His moralizing preface and "editor's notes" provide a foil of hypocrisy that highlights the Marquise and Vicomte's surreal honesty with each other, and deceptive honesty toward their victims. (Think of they way Valmont admits to writing a letter on the back of the woman in his bed while couching this fact in terms that ensure the letter's recipient won't dream that he's given the literal truth.)

While the narrator is busy passing judgment, these two tell the truth but tell it slant.

M and V could be great, especially together. They're both high ranking, both available; their match would be socially acceptable. United, nothing could stop them. But but neither is willing to be first to set down their pride and risk true connection. Fear makes them defensive, unwilling to admit love. It drives them to their destruction.

I'll endure tragedy when it reveals lost greatness, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses does that. Merteuil and Valmont each have the makings of greatness, and fight (albeit for selfish reasons) against real and destructive hypocrisy. None of their victims are wholly innocent; each is implicated to a greater or lesser extent. Each wants to have their cake and eat it too. That's not to excuse M and V. Their victims *are* victims, and the Marquise and Vicomte are perpetrators who pay dearly for their crimes.

Still, I would rather sit beside either of them at dinner than the small-minded and morally correct Madame de Volanges anytime.

(I have yet to figure out how to make diacritical marks here; please forgive the mangled French.)
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