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Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos…

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
4,968681,371 (4.11)1 / 329
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    octopedingenue: manga adaptation of the book

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English (49)  French (9)  Dutch (4)  Spanish (2)  Portuguese (1)  German (1)  Italian (1)  Czech (1)  All languages (68)
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
In letter form, two rich bored French nobles (one female, one male) seduce and ruin whoever takes their fancy. It was very shocking for its time, especially as it was thought to be about real people. Mostly entertaining but I feel it gets very bogged down and dull in the middle section. A rare case when the movie was better. ( )
  Griffin22 | Dec 12, 2018 |
It is difficult to know where to begin with this review. A convoluted story, told in epistolary form, of sex and revenge in 18th century France. It is the story of two people's malicious games that they play and it how it affects the innocent. The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil make a bet: if the Vicomte can seduce the married Madame de Tourvel, then the Marquise will sleep with him. Along the way each sleep with numerous others by design and for the purpose of hurt. There is even the rape of a 15 year old girl; although French society doesn’t see it as such at the time. The just (?) desserts at the end, where they turn on each other, is the best part! This book is 448 pages long, about 200 pages too long! ( )
  tess_schoolmarm | Sep 9, 2018 |
Choderlos de Laclos

Dangerous Liaisons

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback, 2014.

8vo. 397 pp. Translated by Ernest Dowson (1867–1900). Introduction [7-19] and notes [395-7] by David Ellis. Illustrations by Chas Laborde. Publisher’s Note to the First Edition [23]. Editor’s Preface to the First Edition [25-8].

First published in French as Les Liaisons dangereuses, March 1782.
This translation first published, 1898.
This edition first published, 2014.


A Note on the Translation

The Characters in Epistolary Order
Publisher’s Note to the First Edition (1784)
Editor’s Preface to the First Edition (1784)

Dangerous Liaisons



When it comes to rococo decadence, naughty games of sexual innuendo, seduction and betrayal on the grand scale but in exquisite style, I don’t think it would be easy to beat, to give its most popular English title, Dangerous Liaisons. This is pure and high-quality entertainment from cover to cover. What more can you ask of fiction?

Well, in the case of classics first published well over 200 years ago, you are right to ask for some timeless substance, some insight into the human condition that never quite becomes dated. You will find it here. Don’t be fooled by the comedy of manners on the surface. Just below that, there is smouldering intensity and a good deal of relentless probing into the dark depths of human nature. Don’t be fooled by the extreme formality and long-winded verbosity of the style, either. In those days conversation and letter writing were carefully cultivated forms of art; and the aristocracy had plenty of free time for both. But you don’t need to read even between the lines. For all of their deliberate deceit, the letters are often pithy and pointed, sharp and blunt at the same time.

On this second reading in translation (but first in English), I found the novel an even greater page-turner than the first time (when I read it mostly to compare it with several movie adaptations). Not an easy read, to be sure, but a curiously engrossing experience.

The whole story is told in only 175 letters that span just a little more than five months from the “3rd August 17–” to “14th January 17–”. Laclos was anxious to make us believe it’s all real. He supplied footnotes about omitted letters “not to abuse the reader’s patience”, a Preface from an outraged publisher who couldn’t believe people with such “sorry” morals could exist “in this century of philosophy, where the light shed on all sides has rendered, as everyone knows, all men so honourable, all women so modest and reserved”, and even a Preface from the editor who is at pains to explain his editorial principles (e.g. suppression or alteration of all names) and excuse the “blemishes” he was not able or allowed to rectify. One would almost be fooled these prefaces “to the first edition” are non-fiction but for the fact that they postdate the first edition.

The opening is gripping. In the very beginning (Letter 1), we are introduced to Cécile Volanges, fifteen years old and fresh from the convent, tasting Parisian life for the first time, probably with (her mother’s) intention to be married. Two letters later, writing to the same friend from the convent, she is already a little disillusioned: “I assure you that the world is not so amusing as we imagined” (3). No time is wasted to get us introduced to the leading intrigue spinners. First we meet the Marquise de Merteuil. She declares in no uncertain terms that “the hope of vengeance soothes my soul” (2). The Vicomte de Valmont himself is no more reticent about his own designs: “It is very necessary that I should have this woman [...] for whither may not thwarted desire lead one?” (4). Indeed! Little does Valmont know where this particular “thwarted desire” would lead him. If you can swallow the ponderous style, this is your last chance to stop reading.

The novel is extremely well constructed. Laclos evidently took a lot of trouble with the arrangement. The plot is very tightly organised, logical almost to the point of a mathematical equation, and entirely believable. It is not terribly fast-paced, but it works inexorably towards a bold, intense and, if you are sufficiently moved, tragic conclusion. It is very much like Ravel’s Boléro. It grows gradually from a quiet beginning to a massive climax and coda, never straying far from its main theme. There are hardly any digressions. The famous triple seduction of Prévan (79) and his “affair” with Merteuil (85) are the only irrelevancies I can think of. My only quibble is some rushing and pushing towards the end. But this is to be expected. Without the Vicomte, the very existence of the Marquise makes no sense at all. And neither does the novel.

If this novel is anything to go by, the great advantages of the epistolary form are verisimilitude, variety and vividness. One cannot but admire Laclos for his nearly perfect “keeping in character”. There are at least four persons who play crucial roles in the story, and they all write remarkably different letters. You are not likely to confuse even the Vicomte de Valmont with the Marquise de Merteuil, by far the most prominent correspondents, much less either of them with Cécile Volanges or Madame de Tourvel. The stylistic diversity is exhilarating; it keeps at bay the monotony that sooner or later settles in the correspondence even of the two wittiest human beings. The illusion that you are the addressee is for most of the time perfect. This adds a special kind of intimacy not so often achieved in fiction. It draws you inside the minds of the characters with a vengeance.

And what characters these are! Merteuil and Valmont are truly some of the literary immortals. They are no more likely to be forgotten than Hamlet, Heathcliff or Captain Ahab. Both are extremely complex and contradictory creatures. Both, however, consist mostly of incessant debauchery and meddling. Both are masters of manipulation and deception unparalleled in my reading experience except for Shakespeare’s Iago and Cleopatra. Both are sadists genuinely enjoying the pain of others, especially the pain they have caused themselves. Both, however, prove in the end to be more vulnerable than they, or we, suspect. Both have the seed, if not the flower, of tragic characters. Both are full of epigrammatic wisdom which is foolish to dismiss only because it is cynical:

[Merteuil, 10 and 104:]

One must not permit oneself excesses, except with persons whom one wishes soon to leave.

I quite agree that money does not make happiness, but it must be admitted, also, that it greatly facilitates it.

[Valmont, 21 and 66:]

I am astonished at the pleasure one experiences in doing good; and I should be tempted to believe that we call virtuous people have not so much merit as they lead us to suppose.

That is so like men! all equally rascally in their designs, the weakness they display in the execution they christen probity.

You would think they are perfect for each other, would you? Well, yes and no. Yes, as correspondents and confidantes they are. No, as a couple of lovers they are not. Both are searching for love, simple as that, but not the tepid companionship or frenzied lust that usually passes for love. They’re after the real thing, the complete surrender, that “natural candour, grown almost insurmountable by force of habit, which would not permit her to dissimulate the least sentiment of her heart”, as Valmont puts it (133).

Now, that is even simpler, and also, alas, rarer. Merteuil and Valmont had once been lovers, but they are smart enough, and frank enough, to know this was not it. Their love affair, in Merteuil’s apt words, only sealed their “eternal rupture” (10). So they try with others. This half-conscious search for love, trite and foolish as it may sound, is the first reason for their promiscuity. It is fascinating to observe how this yearning occasionally breaks through the flippant banter of their correspondence, for instance when Valmont, before he knows what he is writing, compares his predicament to Danceny’s (57):

...in fact, between Danceny’s behaviour towards the little Volanges, and my own towards the more prudish Madame Tourvel, there is a but shade of difference of degree.

One great difference between the Vicomte and the Marquise is that Valmont finds the real thing with Madame de Tourvel (125, 133), however much he pretends to deny it (138). Tracing the evolution of Valmont’s letters to her is like watching the proverbial train wreck. It is a far cry from early witticisms like “...but who can stop a woman, when she praises the man whom, without knowing it, she loves?” (23) or “virtuous as she is, she has her little ruses like another” (25) to late confessions like “I am amazed at the unknown charm I have experienced” and “Shall I be dominated at my age, like a schoolboy, by an unknown and involuntary sentiment?” (125). This from the most successful seducer in fiction! To quote Polonius: “he is far gone, far gone.”

In the end, Valmont does lose it all, like a perfect fool, out of sheer vanity when his precious reputation is threatened. This is his tragedy as well as Merteuil’s greatest triumph. The Vicomte is quite intelligent enough to recognise both. Nevertheless, both are brought home by the Marquise with complete cruelty (145):

Yes, Vicomte, you loved Madame de Tourvel much, and you love her still; you are madly in love with her; but, because I amused myself by making you ashamed of it, you bravely sacrificed her. You would have sacrificed a thousand of her, rather than submit to raillery. To what lengths will not vanity carry us! The wise man was right, indeed, when he said that it was the enemy of happiness.

Merteuil would love to discover the real thing with her “Chevaliers”, Belleroche (10) and Danceny (146), both ostensibly kept to annoy the Vicomte. But she never does. And she knows it. That is her tragedy; or, at least, half of her tragedy. The other half, arguably the more important one, is her public disgrace (173), financial ruin (175) and facial disfigurement. This bitter cup she lives to drink complete. She is probably not spared even the knowledge that the revenge that “soothed her soul” in the beginning did not materialise in the end. (Gercourt’s marriage is broken, but he is not the laughing stock of Paris at all.) Her only consolation, such as it is, is her outlasting Valmont in their mutually destructive relationship. But there is another great difference, the author seems to imply, between these two fantastic creatures. Merteuil is beyond redemption. Valmont is not.

The Vicomte and the Marquise differ also in their social position. Merteuil is a female Iago. Everybody is convinced she is as honest, virtuous and sympathetic as in fact she is not. Valmont, on the other hand, is widely known for the impudent seducer which in fact he is. Why is he invited everywhere then? Madame de Volanges, of all people, gives the best answer to this question (32):

No doubt I receive M. de Valmont, and he is received everywhere: it is one inconsistency the more to add to the thousand others which rule society. You know, as well as I do, how one passes one’s life in remarking them, bemoaning them, and submitting to them. M. de Valmont, with a great name, a great fortune, many amiable qualities, early recognised that, to obtain an empire over society, it was sufficient to employ, with equal skill, praise and ridicule. None possesses as he does this double talent: he seduces with the one, and makes himself feared with the other. People do not esteem him; but they flatter him. Such is his existence in the midst of a world which, more prudent than courageous, would rather humour than combat him.

This is a remarkable analysis of both Valmont and the society which has produced him. Madame de Volanges deserves some credit, also, for her advanced ideas to marry her daughter for love because the traditional marriages of convenience “are in fact convenient in all save taste and character – are they not the most fertile source of those scandalous outbreaks which become every day more frequent?” (98). In this she is way ahead of her times, if not necessarily more reasonable (marriage only for love is just as stupid as – indeed, more than – marriage for the convenience of a third party).

The novel must not be underestimated as a social critique. Valmont and Merteuil are often easily dismissed as depraved, wicked, evil or other such intellectually feeble and emotionally immature epithets. If they were nothing more than that, they never would have survived for more than two centuries. They are really less victims of nature than of the sick society they live in.

Only a society as perverse as pre-revolutionary France, suffering from (among other things) grossly unequal distribution of wealth, opportunity and leisure and the illusion that polite hypocrisy is the best form of “civilised” communication, could produce a master of deceitfulness like the Vicomte. And, certainly, only a brutally misogynistic society could have produced the Marquise. In one of her longest and most autobiographical letters (81), she describes to Valmont in entrancing detail how she trained herself “to avenge my sex and to dominate yours”. It’s quite a confession and quite an achievement. Leaving aside “delusions of morality” (to borrow a phrase from one classic horror film), Merteuil’s life is a work of art.

Whatever one’s opinion of Valmont and Merteuil, they are compelling and unforgettable, even educational. The single most important lesson to learn from them is simple yet timeless. Do not play with people’s feelings, including your own.

Danceny and Madame de Volanges are somewhat dim and dense creatures, but Cécile and Madame de Tourvel are fascinating studies of women in love. A blood sample from either of them would break all records for sex hormone levels. Madame de Tourvel is married and presumably more experienced in the ways of the world, but in fact she is only seven years older than Cécile and just as naive. She is the character with the strongest tragic overtones. It is hard to read her last letter (161), ingeniously “addressed” to several people in her delirium, without being affected.

Significantly, in one of her last lucid moments, Madame de Tourvel, always a dévote, asks God to forgive Valmont (165). The only other character who retains any affection whatsoever for the Vicomte is Madame Rosemond. But she is his aunt. She may be expected to be prejudiced in favour of her nephew. Madame de Tourvel, having been treated abominably, has every reason to be prejudiced against him, indeed to hate him. And yet she prays for him. This is a remarkable piece of evidence, as is Valmont’s conduct after the duel (163), that there is more to him than just debauchery and deceit. If only he had been able to handle his wounded vanity with more humour and more common sense (153):

Long phrases were not required to establish the fact that, when each of us possesses all that is necessary to ruin the other, we have a like interest in mutual consideration: there is no question, therefore, of that. But, between the violent course of destroying one another, and that, doubtless the better, remaining united as we have been, of becoming even more so by resuming our old liaison, between these two courses, I say, there are a thousand others to adopt. It was not ridiculous, therefore, to tell you, nor is it to repeat, that from this day forward I will be either your lover or your enemy.

Dangerous Liaisons is one the very few cases when a literary classic has been done full justice on the screen. The 1988 adaptation with Glenn Close and John Malkovich – based, incidentally, not on the novel itself but on Christopher Hampton’s play (1985) derived from it – is as close to perfection as possible in this rivetingly imperfect world. But the novel is a brilliant, audacious work, more readable and more worth reading than many a classic from the eighteenth century. The surface is as dated as the depths are not. Or as the French wisely say:

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.

Note on the Edition

The Introduction by Mr Ellis contains a useful biographical sketch of Laclos and some literary criticism that must be read only after the novel. You see, spoilers do matter – in both directions. Spoilers about the plot are beneficial: they do increase your appreciation of the author’s craftsmanship. Spoilers about the characters are detrimental: this is an intimate communication between reader and writer; threesomes are not encouraged. Remember, critics need books, not the other way round. Books need readers, not critics.

I read the introduction with much interest but not much profit. Mr Ellis says little besides plot retelling, and that little is either obvious or unconvincing to this particular reader. He spots a “lesbian episode” between Merteuil and Cécile which, I am sorry to say, I missed. The editor has also supplied 27 endnotes to the whole novel, all of them worth checking out for some obscure references or obsolete words, none of them essential.

The Note on the Translation is the most interesting editorial contribution. Mr Ellis does find “some lapses of attention” in Ernest Dowson’s late Victorian translation (e.g. “foster-sister” is “hardly a satisfactory” rendering of “une soeur de lait”; same deal with “a facile woman” for “une femme facile”), but on the whole he claims that the “somewhat formal vocabulary [...] gives an appropriate ‘period’ flavour”. Also, Mr Dowson being a friend of Mr Wilde, “he is particularly good at rendering the elegant, epigrammatic terseness of the best eighteenth-century French prose and, as a poet, he has a fine ear which makes him able to write English that reads naturally and well.” All the same, I envy anybody able to read Laclos in French. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Mar 24, 2018 |
It had a very slow start, but the psychopath-ness of Merteuil and Valmont is still shocking and horrible (though the rest of the book hasn't aged as well). The footnotes of this edition were either unneeded or not present, plus if it's a translation why not just use the footnote version? ( )
  Bodagirl | Dec 10, 2017 |
Deliciously decadent novel of intrigue and bad influence, in a sparkling new translation. Thoroughly enjoyable. ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Dec 8, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
Les Liaisons dangereuses is not only a terrifying portrayal of high society, of a ruling class who have ceased to rule, it is one of the world's finest novels, as well as a dramatic presentation of a mature and analytic philosophy of the nature of evil and the interactions of human motivations. After this one book, a pivot in the history of the novel, things could never be the same again, not at least for any novelist who read and understood it...

It is all so elegant. Even the priests and nuns are elegant, but of course the devils are the most elegant of all. In the end they have nothing else, and then that is destroyed. What destroys them is their rivalry in evil. Unlike Milton's Hell, there is hierarchy in this human one, Lucifer and Beelzebub, male and female, ex-lovers who have already violated each other's pride, are enemies, each hiding hate from the other. The instrument of their destruction is their reason. They are Socrates' or Diderot's fully rational human beings. They use their reason to destroy others and are at last destroyed by their own irrationality—something they did not beheve existed.
added by SnootyBaronet | editSaturday Review, Kenneth Rexroth

» Add other authors (102 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Laclos, Pierre Choderlos deprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aldington, RichardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Beretta Anguissola, AlbertoIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bigliosi Franck, CinziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coward, DavidIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Delon, MichelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fehr, A.J.A.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Malraux, AndréIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morriën, AdriaanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Papadopoulos, JoëlNotessecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Praquin, PierreCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ruata, AdolfoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stone, P. W. K.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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J'ai vu les moeurs de mon temps, et j'ai publié ces Lettres - J.J. Rousseau, Preface to 'Héloïse'
First words
Well, Sophie dear, as you see, I'm keeping my word and not spending all my time on bonnets and bows, I'll always have some to spare for you!
I was amazed at the pleasure a good deed can produce and I'm tempted to think that those so-called virtuous people don't deserve quite as much credit as we are invited to believe.
I perceive that it is three o'clock in the morning, and that I have written a volume, with the intention but to write a word. Such is the charm of confident friendship: 'tis on account of that, that you are always he whom I love the best; but, in truth, the Chevalier pleases me more.
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Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published under the title Valmont to tie-in with the Milos Forman film. It is the same book and should not be separated.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140441166, Paperback)

An epistolary novel chronicles the cruel seduction of a young girl by two ruthless, 18th-century aristocrats.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:16 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Depicting decadence and moral corruption in pre-revolutionary France, Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most scandalous and controversial novels in European literature. Two aristocrats embark on a sophisticated game of seduction and manipulation to bring amusement to their jaded existences. While the Marquise de Merteuil challenges the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce an innocent convent girl, the Vicomte is also occupied with the conquest of a virtuous married woman.… (more)

» see all 9 descriptions

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