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Book Report: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (novel)

Well, and Your Humble Blogger will be playing the Vicomte de Valmont in a production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses put on my the local Community Theater here in Western Connecticut. It should be a lot of fun, and a lot of work, and will be taking up most of my spare time and spare thinking over the next three months, so I think I will post, now and then, some of my thinking about the play and the process. I won’t post a production diary, or anything like that, but I will post an occasional piece on my preparation to play the part, asking for the kind support of the Gentle Readers as I mull over some questions. Sadly, and problematically as we approach the beginning of rehearsals, I still don’t like the play very much, but I’m hoping to grow fonder of it as I go on.

I do, however, like the book. Where I was puzzled by what the play was meant to be about, and remain puzzled for the most part, the book is very clearly a feminist screed, or at least a screed about issues that would later be defined as feminist and I think really lie at the heart of feminism, or at least of feminism insofar as I consider myself feminist. The book is fundamentally about how society, set up by men, punishes women for men’s faults, and further how the structures set up are bolstered by certain patriarchal fictions, which, when internalized, prevent men and women from seeing each other as really human, and which make it terribly difficult for either to be really happy, but which result in far worse treatment for women.

One of these fictions is that if a man falls in love with a woman, it is her fault, or possibly her achievement, and that thereafter he can’t really be held responsible for his actions. We are still taught that, and it is still terrible and terrifying. Women, pretty or attractive or enticing in whatever ways, bring upon themselves everything from abduction and murder to social cutting, and the men are their tragic victims are bleahhhhhhhhh. And, of course, given the prevalence of that thinking, it is very easy to exploit a woman by pointing out to her that if I misbehave it is her fault, and then manipulating the shame and guilt that comes from that. This, really, is Valmont’s only weapon, other than of course personal charm. He uses that weapon in a variety of ways, but really, it’s all he’s got and it’s all he needs.

The Marquise de Merteuil, being a woman, has to find away to make that weapon cut the other way, and for the most part, she does. She is a wonderful, almost Dickensian character, whose monstrous revenge stems from a very real grievance. By refusing the few and unpleasant choices the society offers her, she chooses that she will eventually be destroyed, but in the meantime destroys others with a very French (it seems to me) combination of callousness and glee. When, in the book but not the play, she is utterly destroyed, I can’t help ... not feeling sorry for her, nor feeling that the destruction is unjust, but feeling that the destruction is a more general destruction of any woman who wants, well, anything, agency of her own. It’s a horrible, horrible world that M. Laclos describes, and of course it’s our world too, sadly.

The other thing that makes the book better than the play is that the letters which comprise the book are, somehow, more dramatic than on-stage action. Yes, I’m all for the theater in general, but somehow actually watching these people speak to each other, face to face, doesn’t have anywhere near the punch of the letters. Part of that is the fact that saying things, well, anybody can say nasty things, can lie, can manipulate in person, but there’s something very cold and deliberate about putting it on paper. There’s something about imagining Monsieur the Vicomte or Madame the Marquise quietly setting down such hurtful things, composing the worst possible outcomes, while quietly at their writing tables, that I (to me) far more chilling than watching them abuse people in the same room.

And, of course the play loses (necessarily) two of the loveliest and nastiest details of the book. When Madame the Marquise, in the play, tells Monsieur the Vicomte to leave the judge’s wife using the phrase “It’s beyond my control”, he does, ad libbing (the character, that is) through the inevitable tears and shouting, repeating his line and giving it new meaning with each repetition. Which is all dramatic and stuff, sure, but in the book, Madame the Marquise simply includes in a letter to Monsieur the Vicomte an example of the letter he should write, and he copies it out word for word and sends it on to his lover. Oh, that’s cold. That’s a betrayal of Madame de Tourvel far deeper than his sexual infidelities; that’s making of her a gift. Which, of course, is what he has been doing all along.

Then, when Monsieur the Vicomte at last delivers his ultimatum to Madame the Marquise that henceforward they will either be lovers or enemies, and that she has only to say one word, but that “a no will be regarded as a declaration of war”, she says, to his face, the word “war”. A chilling moment, and a nice blackout, although I can’t really imagine what happens in that room from that moment on; I half think that Monsieur the Vicomte rapes Madame the Marquise, there on the chaise, before leaving. That issue, of course, does not arrive in the book. Monsieur the Vicomte delivers the letter with his ultimatum, and Madame the Marquise returns it, with the word “war” written at the bottom. Ooh. I don’t know, Gentle Reader, if you have ever had a letter returned from a lover, but, well, imagine, if you will, a paper turned in to a prof you have a crush on, and returned with no other comment than a large red F. And worse. This isn’t part of an argument (as it is in the play), it’s a rejection.

All of that said, I am quite looking forward to rehearsals for the play. I already think I get the play a little better than I did before reading the book, and of course it is the director’s job to get the play for me, anyway. My job is to speak clearly, stay in the light, and not bump into furniture. That will be tricky enough.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.