Maybe because it has been so long since I have seen the movie version of Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close and Valmont with the hunky Colin Firth I didn’t recall the story that I read in the book Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. Or maybe the movie versions alter the story so much that I didn’t recognize it in print. Whatever the case I was pleasantly surprised and a bit disconcerted by the novel.
I love that it is all written in letters. Letters are romantic and they are also a risk. Letters are very private things but they are also performance, sometimes intended for public consumption as well as private. And then sometimes private letters end up in the wrong hands and can be used against the author. And then of course there is the compromised position that not only accepting a letter but then replying to it too can put a person – woman – into. This was great fun.
The two main letter writers are Valmont, our handsome rake, and the Marquise de Merteuil who is the female counterpart to Valmont. Their letters back and forth are of their conquests and “projects.” They spur each other on in a competition over who can seduce the most difficult person in the most creative way without their own personal reputations being marred. Since Valmont is a man he has somewhat less at stake in terms of reputation than the Marquise de Merteuil and she reminds him of this from time to time. Eventually, their various projects completed successfully, they turn on each other. This was all well and good but for the collateral damage.
And what damage there is too! Reputations ruined and lives lost and in the end I was left wondering if anyone had really “won.” This is not a book with a happy ending or one in which everyone gets what they deserve. It is spectacularly over the top.
I was disturbed by the rape that occurs and the fact that the woman, more a girl really, ends up liking it and asking for more. The casual cruelty of Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are disturbing as is the inability of so many people, male and female, to protect themselves from the onslaughts of both.
Throughout the book I kept thinking of Clarissa because Valmont behaves similarly to Lovelace at times. Just as I was getting curious enough to actually go look up the publication date of Clarissa, the Présidente de Tourvel, a married woman who Valmont has been trying very hard through most of the novel to seduce, retreats to Paris. Valmont’s servant infiltrates the household and reports back that the Présidente de Tourvel has been reading only two books, the Bible and Clarissa. The Présidente de Tourvel either didn’t get very far through the novel or thought her case was different, either way she failed to learn a lesson from Clarissa Harlowe’s example.
Fo me, the book began as a delicious, wild romp and ended as a tragedy. I enjoyed it nonetheless. Once I got going and was able to keep straight who was who and who knew what and who was writing to whom, the book zipped right along. Now I have the Glenn Close movie in my Netflix queue and I hope to see it sometime between now and Christmas depending on the school workload. Then with the book still relatively fresh I will be able to compare and see just how much the movie differs and which version I like better. Stay tuned.