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Poe, Poetry, And The Marquis De Sade

The 1795 novel Aline and Valcour has long suffered from the Marquis de Sade’s reputation as the author, among other works, of the scabrous classic 120 Days of Sodom (which didn’t stop the French government from recently paying 7 million euros to repatriate the famous manuscript) and the violent, erotic, and philosophical Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice. These and other of Sade’s works came into English in the 1960s but Aline and Valcour — a long, complex, original and challenging novel — remained neglected. It includes sexual themes but is not sexually explicit, which in the past made it not Sadean enough for some, too Sadean for others.

At first appearance a novel in letters, Aline and Valcour in fact evinces a tremendous narrative range. It demonstrates, as Steven Moore notes, that Sade was “thoroughly familiar with the long history of the novel…and [he] pays homage to its various permutations.” Sade makes extreme use “of the adventure and the philosophical novel alike,” writes the French critic Annie Le Brun; “he cheerfully confuses the two, exploiting the qualities of one to overcome the limitations of the other, and vice versa.” Written while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, with his genre-mingling Aline and Valcour Sade forged a sprawling contribution to globalized literature two centuries before the fact.

Aline and Valcour, or the Philosophical NovelBy the Marquis de Sade

I Presaging Poe

For American readers, one surprising aspect of Aline and Valcour will be that part of the novel foretokens the detective story, predating Edgar Allen Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” — often said to be the first — by half a century. In the following excerpt the title character, Valcour — a devout, honest, and proper young man in romantic love with a woman he’s forbidden to see — seeks the truth about an infant daughter believed to be dead but in fact alive, grown,  and brought up to serve the evil’s designs of her libertine father.

ExcerptOn the 15th [writes Valcour to a friend] I went to the village you mentioned and, stopping at an inn, asked straightaway whether the local priest was an honest man, if his parishioners were fond of him and if he was a sociable person. 

“He is an honest man,” I was assured. “Old and in charge of his parish for twenty-five years. If you have dealings with him, you’ll come away satisfied.”

“Indeed,” I told my interlocutor. “I have certain things to communicate to this priest; and as you’ve so kindly told me about him, also be good enough, if you please, to ask him if an honest bourgeois from Paris might request an audience.”

The fellow left and returned with an invitation to the presbytery. There I found an ecclesiastic more than sixty years old. Sweet and obliging by appearance, he asked how he might be so fortunate as to assist me in any way. When I explained my mission, we went on to search the records and we found the death certificate we sought, authenticating it as best as might be hoped with proof of a funeral service held in the parish on August 15, 1762, for Claire de Blamont, the legitimate daughter of Monsieur and Madame Presidente de Blamont, residing on Rue Saint Louis in the Marais. 

“Well, Monsieur,” said I, fixing my gaze upon the priest in order to miss nothing of his facial expression, “this Claire de Blamont, whom you buried on August 15, 1762, is today, on September 15, 1778, alive and in better health than you or I.”

At these words our man trembled and stepped back. Briefly I thought him guilty — but further developments quickly convinced me I was wrong.

“What you’ve just said is very hard to believe, Monsieur,” he replied. “We must investigate — and all of it quite worth the trouble but first let me ask you: To whom have I the privilege of speaking?”

“An honest man, Monsieur,” I replied gently.  “When it comes to shining light on foul play, will that title not suffice?”[…]

Sitting down, the fellow began to think. I let him do so for a moment, then inquired as to his decision.                                                           

“Open the tomb, Monsieur,” he said and stood up, “to search for first proof of deceit before taking further action.”

“Well said — close up here. On this expedition we’ll need only a grave-digger. Again I say: secrecy is essential.”

The grave-digger arrived, we shut the church and set to work. The site was given in the records; there was also an inscription on the coffin, and no mistaking it. We lifted out the small leaden casket in which Claire’s corpse was supposed to reside. The thorough examination of the bones, which we conducted with extreme exactitude, revealed the skeleton of a dog, the head of which was still well preserved and attested to incontestable fraud. The priest shuddered but immediately regained his composure with the imperturbability of an honest man who has been duped but is incapable of having taken part in such a ruse. He suggested we get rid of the animal’s remains but I disagreed and after having convinced him of the necessity of putting everything back just as we found it because we were acting in secrecy, we immediately did so. We returned the casket to its resting place, he swore his man to secrecy, and we returned to the presbytery.


II: Poetic Flights

Famous letters that Sade wrote from prison include poetic passages that scholars have compared to Shakespearean monologues. To cite just one example, there is his 1772 letter to his friend Mademoiselle de Rousset, written from “my country house” (his prison cell), which begins: “The eagle, Madame, is sometimes obliged to leave the seventh region of the air to swoop down and light upon the summit of Mount Olympus, upon the ancient pines of the Caucasus, upon the cold larch trees of the Jura, upon the snow-bedecked brow of Taurus and, even, upon occasion, near the quarries of Montmartre.”  

Though infrequently in his explicit works, Sade engages in similar flights of fancy in Aline and Valcour. He introduces a Bohemian gypsy, named Brigandos, who encounters a knight (shades of Don Quixote) and engages him in a poetically autobiographical conversation while preparing to rob him:


“You should know [says Brigandos], my friend, that I hold a master’s degree, obtained after five years’ study in Salamanca. And were it not for some youthful escapades that brought me face-to-face with the law, I might today be rector of the University of Compostela.”

“So you’re from Galicia?”

“In truth, Cavalier, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you from what land I hail. All I know is that my mother was the great granddaughter of a bastard born to the mistress of a foundling discovered in Barcelona. So there’s reason to think I’m from Catalonia. If my days end badly at least I’ll have the decided satisfaction and consolation to be treated by the executioner as a first-class noble.” 

“But still, you must have been born someplace?”

“Atop the crow’s nest, Commander, in which my mother, returning from Lima, took shelter so as to cause less scandal in bringing into the world a child quite clearly the fruit of indiscretion with a common sailor. No matter, for my father confessed to me and married her. I was made to study and can tell you I would be at the very least a Holy Canon were it not for dreadful inclinations.”


III Sade Himself

Although Aline and Valcour is not “pornographic,” Sade employs sexual incidents and themes throughout, revealing the full range of his mature voice with a welter of social and political implications that retain powerful resonance today. This final passage is the voice of the novel’s antagonist and even shows Sade re-purposing his own imprisonment — he was jailed under a lettre de cachet, an infamous royal instrument for arbitrary detention from which there was no appeal — to fictional ends. This from the libertine magistrate Monsieur de Blamont:


Sophie is ours [writes Judge Blamont to his friend and co-conspirator]. The business was carried out with nimblest dispatch.  The Abbess clamored for Madame de Blamont but there was a lettre de cachet and she was forced to give way. Now that I think about it, such injunctions can be quite convenient. What a variety of passions they serve — love, hate, vengeance, ambition, cruelty, jealousy, avarice, tyranny, adultery, libertinage, incest! These charming missives satisfy them all. Rid yourself of an annoying spouse, feared rival, mistress no longer desired, or inconvenient relation. I'll never finish if I detail all the uses to which they might be put. I don’t understand how my colleagues can possibly complain about them or dare assert that they contravene the laws of the State, as if the State ought to have any more sacred concern than the happiness of its lords and masters, as if there existed anything sweeter for them than the Asiatic method of strangulation. I know, to be sure, that those who oppose such fine use of it and treat it like a tyrannical abuse of power, in order to bolster their case, claim that the power of the sovereign is weakened by division, shrunk by expanding despotism, and debased by promoting crime. For isn’t it a dangerous tool that plucks the right fruit only once or twice a century but shakes the tree five hundred times by hacking off its branches? Yet all that’s sophistry from those who suffer or have suffered from it in the past. The weak complain from time immemorial — that’s their lot in life, just as ours is to not to listen to them. I ask you: Where would authority be if its beneficent beams did not shine support upon the throne? Only tyrants hold their own swords; just and good kings share out the weight. Why carry one at all if you're not going to use it from time to time?

Much more could be said about Aline and Valcour, whose pages include utopian and dystopian excursus with a vegetarian king and a cannibal chief, respectively, a road tale that resembles nothing so much as Huckleberry Finn with female principals, and even a strikingly contemporary defense of homosexuality.  British critic Geoffrey Gorer praised its style and substance, writing that Aline and Valcour "could stand against any other product of its country and century.”  Gilbert Lely admiringly wrote that the novel “on many a page adumbrates the sensibility of our age….Were it not that the notoriety of the author’s four-letter name… this novel…would long since have been listed among those works of imagination of universal significance which, like Don Quixote, the Decameron, and Gulliver’s Travels, have opened new realms to man’s imagination.”

Novelist and nonfiction author John Galbraith Simmons is currently completing, in collaboration with his wife, Jocelyne Geneviève Barque, the first-ever English translation of Aline et Valcour, ou le roman philosophique. In 2011 their translation-in-progress was recipient of a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.

If you would like to write to him: jgsimmons@jps.net

My French Library is a space for translators, writers and French aficionados to tell us about books they loved in French, but which have not been translated (yet). To be continued, hopefully one day in translation: American publishers, the floor is yours!