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The 120 Days of Sodom
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-- : hors catétegorie, in every respect -- but a bizarrely fascinating work
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
Among the many books that are widely known but little read, the notorious The 120 Days of Sodom surely ranks among the least read; arguably. it even is -- or should be considered -- unreadable, a large part of it essentially little more than a list of abominations, almost three-quarters of the fiction -- mercifully ? -- sketch and outline rather than fleshed-out narrative.
has a passion for binding two pregnant women together in the shape of a ball, and then firing them from a mortar.Indeed, much in the novel seems conceived mainly for shock value rather than any possible sexual excitation. And, as is generally the case with violative sex, it's not really very much about sex at all but rather all about the exercise of power -- and the abuse of it (the ultimate exercise of power, knowing that normal rules and standards do not apply). Shooting pregnant women out of a cannon (and similar outrages) is the exercise of unfettered power taken to its last extremes -- an orgasmic splutter almost entirely removed from anything resembling actual sex.
The novel begins with a fifty-page Introduction presenting the characters and their grand plan. The main characters are a quartet of men who have great power and wealth -- enough wealth to get away with pretty much anything. They are libertines who have lived lives of perverted excess -- and now look for the ultimate experience. What they decide to do is cloister themselves in a remote castle where they will live out their wildest fantasies, while being entertained by the stories four past-their-prime women who have experienced all there is to experience as far as debauchery goes will recount -- 150 episodes each.
Each woman is to be a story-teller for a month, and from month to month the tales are to get progressively more scandalous:
limited themselves to 32 subjects in all, including the storytellers, thus making four of this rank, eight young girls, eight young boys, eight men endowed with monstrous members for the pleasures of passive sodomy, and four servants.The girls and boys are between twelve and fifteen, all innocent, and all from fine homes. They are to serve as sexual objects and slaves -- though the masters pledge to wait with their defloration for a considerable time:
to allow a burgeoning desire, endlessly inflamed but never sated, to excite the senses -- a situation that must inevitably lead to the kind of lubricious frenzy the fiends are endeavouring to provoke as one of the most delectable states of lubricity.The Introduction describes the libertines making the arrangements -- and how they obtain the young flesh --, as well as the castle to which they retreat -- deep in the woods, truly (indeed, ridiculously) inaccessible: they will be in a world unto their own. The isolated setting is, of course, a necessity for de Sade's vision:
One cannot imagine how well sensuality is served by these measures, and the things one undertakes when one can say to oneself, 'I am alone here, I am at the end of the earth, hidden from all eyes, and with no creature able to reach me -- no more constraints, no more limits.' From that moment, desires soar forth with a recklessness that knows no bounds, emboldened by an impunity that heightens this giddiness most delectablySade is precise in his descriptions, like setting up a game. A dramatis personæ, a 'Cast of the Novel of the School of Libertinage', helpfully summarizes the thirty-odd main characters -- and, of course, the foursome agree on a set of rules, detailed regulations Sade spells out over another eight pages.
The four libertines -- "Inveterate and infamous scoundrels with no God other than their own lubricity, no laws other than their own depravity, no limit other than their own debauchery" -- are:
After so carefully setting the stage, de Sade gives a final warning -- or makes a grand promise:
The time has come, friendly reader, for you to prepare your heart and mind for the most impure tale ever written since the world began, for no such book may be found among either the ancients or the modernsThe novel proper then is divided into four parts, each covering one month, each including roughly 150 episodes narrated by the storytellers -- reminiscences from their bawdy days, where they witnessed, facilitated, or participated in all manner of sordid activity -- presented as entertainments for the libertine-audience. The stories are often interrupted, as the libertines find themselves aroused or curious and eager to imitate what they've just heard. Beyond that, the libertines demand constant attention, day and night, and there's endless coming and going between those who serve them. Among the rules that are enforced is that the underlings can only relieve themselves at prescribed times (in the chapel, by the way -- the room that has been transformed into the elaborate outhouse). And the underlings are punished for their transgressions -- real or imagined. As the months go by, the activities and punishments are also increasingly violent and cruel.
Some of the children's despair at their situation is presented -- largely then to show how heartless the libertines are. Prayer is forbidden in this godless place and also punished.
Only the first of the four parts is written out in full; it covers some two hundred and fifty pages here. The remaining three are only in outline -- basic for the middle two, of twenty pages each, and slightly more elaborated for the cruelest final one, extending to about forty pages.
A nice touch is that some of the characters in the stories the storytellers relate recur in later ones, revealing their sealed fates (inevitably: death). Sade's novel is carefully constructed and mapped out throughout -- as is particularly obvious in the final three parts, which are in fact largely presented as blueprints rather than finished.
Helpfully, the translators of this new edition have translated de Sade's manuscript as is, including with the notes the author made for himself. This includes lists of 'Mistakes I have made', or omissions, presumably to be fixed in the (never completed) clean final version. Among the most amusing is when Sade reaches the final story -- perplexed that he is numbering it '148', leading to the parenthetical observation: "Check why there are two missing -- they were all there in the drafts"; the editors clear it up by noting he used the same number twice on one occasion and forgot to number one of the passions.
Only the first month, with the 'simple passions', is written in full and more or less final form, the stories that the storyteller relates truly little stories; the other activity at the castle is recounted in full here as well. The sadist-reader will be disappointed -- there's little brutal violence here -- and the stories tend to involves bodily excretions, from burps and farts to vast amounts (yes, even barrels-full -- and you don't want to know ...) of excrement; even the necrophilia here is coprophilic (yeah, not a great combination ...). There are many contenders for most disturbing image in the novel -- especially considering some of the later violence -- but I suggest: "It can never be too mouldy for me" ranks among them. (Again: you don't want to know .....)
The storyteller in this first month, Duclos, is experienced from earliest childhood, spending much of her youth and adult life in essentially a bordello, catering to all such tastes. Curiously, as noted, many of the patrons she describes essentially satisfy themselves, sometimes requiring some exertion but more usually just excretions from those tasked with the helping them realize their perverted lusts: typically, simply: "the libertine would spill his come when his imagination was utterly ablaze". At the same time, much of the activity at the castle is also limited -- in part because of the rules (the youngsters are not to be deflowered until later in the show), in part because the youngsters are still being taught how to properly pleasure their masters (yes, there are daily masturbation lessons), but also because de Sade actually shies away from closer examination: so, for example, on an evening when various parties plan to stay up all night, they do so behind closed doors, so that de Sade leaves it at: "though what they got up to in terms of obscenities and abominations in each room is unimaginable". For all of de Sade's envelope-pushing, he knows enough about novel-writing to hold back at times as well. (Presumably, it also partially reflects his own situation, and the true nature of the book: he was in prison when he wrote it, left to his own devices; the book is entirely the work of the imagination, a masturbatory fantasy rather than any sort of depiction of real-life sex.)
The 'passions' of the first month are relatively harmless, the personal injury and affronts to nature limited. After that, things take a darker -- and, for contemporary readers, decidedly more unsettling -- turn. The second narrator is Madame Champville was herself deflowered at age five, the third, Madame Martaine, sodomized at age four ("Four women held Martaine down while he buggered her. His ejaculation lasts six minutes"); even in brief-summary form, much here is beyond the pale, readable only because it is simply a list of horrors, rather than describing any of them in closer detail.
At times, de Sade over-elaborates in imagining yet new depravities:
He fucks a turkey whose head has been slipped between the thighs of a girl lying on her belly, so that it looks as if he is buggering the girl; he is buggered throughout and the moment he comes the girl slits the turkey's throat.Some are unlikely -- the time it would take ! -- yet strikingly vivid:
Inserts one or two thousand little pins into her breasts and comes when her bosom is covered with them.(As these and many of the other examples show: there continues to be little actual fucking going on. This is a sex-novel that is not enamored of ('plain') sex, and seems to seek release almost anywhere else.)
At some points, the novel devolves almost entirely into list-form, de Sade unable to begin to imagine bits of story or detail around it:
132. He cuts off an arm.At times, the sexual element is even harder to discern, the pleasure even more removed from the action:
A prodigious bugger enjoys hosting balls, but the floor is specially prepared to collapse when the room is full, and almost everyone perishes. If he were to always remain in the same town he would be discovered, but he changes towns very often; he is only discovered on the fiftieth occasion.(Once can imagine a decent (if admittedly unlikely) story could be fashioned out of this, and the sexual element introduced, but as is it merely adds to the comic oddness of what has largely become a list-novel by this (near end-)point.)
Things get almost perfunctory by the rushed end: "Horrors were committed throughout", de Sade mentions (as if anything else were imaginable ...), as he tries to keep up with the final goings-on in the castle, as the libertine quartet cleans up and finishes up.
A final tally of the forty-six people who arrived at the castle -- including four old women, kept around for a while to guide the youngsters, as well as some kitchen staff who aren't meant to be included in the sex-play -- finds: "30 have been sacrificed while 16 return to Paris" An anti-climactic end to a novel that focuses on nothing but climax ? Yet fitting, too -- perversion is taken as far as it can, yet deflates, as it must, in the end, and life goes on (for the living ...).
The 120 Days of Sodom would survive on its aura alone: de Sade wrote it while in prison, in 1785 -- on both sides of a huge scroll of paper -- over the course of just 37 days, and it was first published only in 1904; the notoriety attached to the title remains as strong as ever. But what of it as a novel -- as literature ?
It is, (easily) arguably, unreadable. It is, in its bulk, more catalogue than fiction -- and what fiction there is, in that whole first completed part, is largely a wallow in literal filth -- not even what de Sade is known for ..... The long stage-setting introduction, and many of the stories in that first part, and especially the way de Sade moves easily back and forth between the castle goings-on and the storyteller's stories, do show de Sade as a writer of some quality. The variations on a theme, both in the stories themselves and in the castle-tales, can be tiresome in their almost mathematical organization, but de Sade does generate considerable interest in his larger concept: the set-up holds some (perverse) promise, while Duclos' tales are connected by the larger one of her own life, making for welcome continuity. The remaining three parts are fragmentary -- completely mapped out, in all their horrifying basics, but with no flesh and hence no soul to them. They impress almost only as lists, with their what-else-can-this-guy-come-up-with? fascination
There's also no getting around that The 120 Days of Sodom is an ugly tale, reveling in human depravity. Goodness (and godliness) are crushed wherever they are perceived. Indeed, de Sade even realizes he was too soft in parts: among the 'Mistakes I have made' listed after the first part is:
I was wrong to make Duclos sensitive to her sister's death -- it does not match the rest of her character -- change that.Characterization is, unsurprisingly, also weak, though at least in outline even the minor characters are quite nicely suggested. A shame, however, that he did not do more with the characters -- especially those who are fundamentally virtuous (and hence doomed).
De Sade's vision does come through -- not of depravity and debauchery, but of structure. This is a novel from which you could almost remove the content and leave only the carefully planned blueprint, and it would impress in its perfection. There are flaws -- the editors pick up on several in the footnotes -- but for such a rush-job it is an incredible structure. No wonder de Sade also wrote to remind himself at the conclusion:
Do not deviate in the slightest from the plan, everything within it has been worked out several times and with the greatest precision.This is not great literature in any usual sense, and it is hard to believe anyone could find it, in its totality, to be a 'good read' (though parts -- such as much of the introduction -- are excellent). Yet it is a fascinating work, and it is a considerable work of art. And it is, undeniably, 'great' in some ways. But you probably won't like it.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 September 2017
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Notorious French author Donatien Alphonse François de Sade lived 1740 to 1814.
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