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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

De Sade's Valet

Nikolaj Frobenius

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To purchase De Sade's Valet

Title: De Sade's Valet
Author: Nikolaj Frobenius
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 239 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: De Sade's Valet - US
De Sade's Valet - UK
De Sade's Valet - Canada
Le valet de Sade - France
Der Anatom - Deutschland
Il valletto di de Sade - Italia
La lista de Latour - España
  • Norwegian title: Latour's Catalog
  • Translated by Tom Geddes

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Our Assessment:

B : promising premises and beginnings, but falters some in the follow-through

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 30/4/1998 Ingeborg Harms
The Guardian . 26/10/2002 Isobel Montgomery
London Rev. of Books . 9/8/2001 R.Davenport-Hines
El País . 5/2/1998 Amelia Castilla
The Times . 2/11/2002 .

  Review Consensus:

  Not overly impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Doch wer dieselbe spöttische Verwegenheit und überdrehte Lust erwartet, womit der Franzose literarisch den Gesetzesbruch begeht, den wird Der Anatom enttäuschen. Der emotionslose Ton des teils in der ersten, teils in der dritten Person erzählten Buches mag eine Funktion der Behinderung des Helden sein. (...) Der Romancier macht sich den Sadismus als demokratisierendes Projekt zu eigen. Gewissenhaft legt er die allgemeine Unansehnlichkeit des Menschenlebens frei." - Ingeborg Harms, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Unfortunately for Frobenius, the absence of sensation comes across as not dissimilar to an overly developed one. His 18th-century France and the peculiar torment felt by his hero are reminiscent of Patrick Süskind's novel, Perfume. The notion that this is an original subject is also dissipated by Andrew Miller's Ingenious Pain, which deals with similar material." - Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian

  • "Nikolaj Frobeniusís novel De Sadeís Valet is a literary equivalent of Ďaviní it large in Romford. It is banal and successfully commercialised (having sold 150,000 copies in Scandinavia, Germany and France), but a spark from the Sadiansí brazier of unmeaning. (...) These incidents are described in prose that manages to seem both stale and over-written, although they are superior to later passages when Latour has become Sadeís valet and procurer. Film rights have been sold, and certainly the Honfleur scenes and serial killings have cinematic possibilities. Frobeniusís musings on cruelty are sufficiently unchallenging for Hollywood." - Richard Davenport-Hines, London Review of Books

  • "La lista de Latour, la primera de las obras de Frobenius que se publica en España, retrata tres tipos de sadismo: el sexual, personalizado en el marqués de Sade; el científico, identificado en Latour, que utiliza sus investigaciones para infligir dolor, y el del policía que acaba moviéndose por impulsos sádicos y que utiliza la tortura para que los detenidos confiesen." - Amelia Castilla, El País

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The translations of Nikolaj Frobenius' novel featuring a character named Latour-Martin Quiros shift expectations for the reader with their different choices of title: only the Spanish ('Latour's list') almost reflects the original ('Latour's catalogue'), while the English, French, and Italian translations went with the catchier name and connotation by choosing one of Latour's roles (as de Sade's valet), while the de-personalized German ('The anatomist') centers on a different role the character assumes. The infamous Marquis de Sade did indeed have a valet called Latour (but apparently actually named d'Armand), who was involved in the notorious 1772 'Spanish fly' incident in Marseilles, for which both were tried and sentenced to death in absentia, and executed (in effigy), and which does feature in the novel, but Frobenius imagines a far more complete character with his otherwise entirely invented Latour -- and, yes, both a catalogue and a list of names feature prominently in the novel as driving forces for this character.
       De Sade's Valet is divided into seven parts, alternating between third-person omniscient narrator and Latour's own account; it proceeds simply chronologically, from before his birth, and if at the beginning and towards the end other characters are the focus, it is nevertheless all about Latour, whether in describing his mother and her circumstances leading up to his birth or then in following the investigations of an inspector on the trail of what has by then become his very criminal activity.
       Latour is born to an incredibly unattractive woman -- "a masterpiece of ugliness" --, Bou-Bou Quiros, in Honfleur, in Normandy. After some years in an orphanage, Bou-Bou was adopted and actually enjoyed a very happy childhood, very much loved by her parents, but she lost them in a fire when she was just fourteen. Already adult in appearance, she moved into a secluded cottage and eventually used her inheritance to bankroll a very successful money-lending business, together with a local lawyer, Goupils. She was widely hated for that, even as the locals relied on her, and lived a mostly isolated life -- but eventually did get pregnant, giving birth to Latour.
       The child was also very ugly, but was even more remarkable for another reason: his inability to feel any pain, as he suffered from a form of congenital analgesia. Soon, the young boy wonders what he is missing, and he spends a lifetime in pursuit of some understanding, wondering all the while what it means that he lacks this otherwise practically universal feature: "He felt nothing himself, and sometimes wondered whether he was truly alive".
       While Bou-Bou and her child are deeply devoted to one another, the mother does occasionally see a need to discipline him, but already when he was very young she realized it serves no purpose to punish him corporeally, since it has no effect. She does, however, figure out what is effective: simply ignoring him, pretending he doesn't exist. It worked well:

Only when his mother forgave him and they were reconciled did he feel himself once more a whole person.
       The quest for understanding pain is one of the things that drives Latour, as he obsessively pursues it. He is frequently exposed to others inflicting pain -- and it's certainly one of the things that draws him into de Sade's orbit -- but it remains beyond his ken. Helping out a local man "with rather idiosyncratic interests" when he is still a boy, Latour is exposed to taxidermy, and through it the dissection of bodies; in Paris he studies under a leading anatomist, Rouchefoucault, and masters the craft -- including the dissection of brains, a ... hobby he keeps up even after he has to go it on his own.
       It's part of his obsession -- his always futile obsession:
I wanted to complete a comprehensive catalogue of the parts of the human brain. I wanted to be a great anatomist.
     I could not find the organ for pain.
     I came to the conclusion that I would not find it until I had mapped and catalogued the whole brain.
       Latour had fled his hometown after the death of his mother, when he was still quite young. She succumbed to purple (presumably: scarlet) fever, but Latour convinces himself that the eight people named on a list he finds among her clothes after her death, people she had lent money to on her last trip to Paris, were responsible for her death; the list becomes a hit-list for him, of people to hunt down and kill (conveniently then also making test-subjects for his further anatomical studies).
       These obsessive overlapping pursuits -- of exhaustive anatomical cataloguing and of getting revenge by knocking off the eight people on the list -- make for a solid plot-foundation and outline -- but Frobenius doesn't really satisfactorily follow through. Much as he doesn't do nearly enough with Latour's physical condition -- it's easy to forget he isn't actually capable of feeling physical pain over the course of the story, unless Frobenius points it out yet again -- so too Latour's drive seems to sputter out, even after initially going so strong (and the novel is very good when Latour is single-minded in his pursuits). At one point the novel also shifts into mystery-procedural mode, an inspector coming on the scene to investigate some unusual murders, piecing together the clues that point him towards the guilty party (complicated by de Sade and Latour's use of other names in their various pursuits), but even this approach sputters.
       The connection to de Sade -- as valet and then as copier of the master's writings -- has a lot of obvious potential, and Frobenius does use the historical figure and the facts from his life quite well, including in allowing Latour the realization, in transcribing the then-imprisoned de Sade's endless variations on the outrageous:
I began to perceive that it was not the pleasure in these activities that the Marquis was trying to describe: it was loneliness. The desert of isolation. The emptiness of his prison. The stories were about pain: the body's pain was the only proof that his isolation was not total. Was that why I could feel no pain ?
       Much of De Sade's Valet impresses, with the colorful characters and action well-presented. It is a novel filled with obsessives -- even Bou-Bou is obsessive, about her beloved child and about making money --, including a variety of obsessive seekers completely dedicated to their work whom Latour comes under the sway of: the taxidermist Monsieur Léopold, anatomist Rouchefoucault, and of course de Sade. Working in brothels, and then accompanying de Sade, Latour is also exposed to sexual obsessions, which are quite well tied into Latour's quest; thankfully, Latour's own obsession only touches on and doesn't fully manifest itself in sexual excess (à la de Sade) -- though that does also have Frobenius move right beyond it, into even more basic territory, as he makes Latour someone who has no difficulty taking the lives of others, whether out of convenience, revenge, or in the hopes of finding higher truths; De Sade's Valet is, among (too many) other things almost incidentally a serial-killer novel.
       It's all rather promising, and, for stretches, these many ideas are quite well-utilized, but ultimately Frobenius just doesn't seem to get a handle on what he wants the novel to be. The title-confusion among the foreign editions is telling, as Frobenius can't even settle on what should be the guiding motivational record of record for his protagonist -- the catalogue Latour wishes to compile ("I wanted to complete a comprehensive catalogue of the parts of the human brain") or the list of eight names he finds and works through to revenge himself on. (It's amusing to see the Spanish edition opted for the list, while the Norwegian original points to the catalogue .....) And for all his eagerness to find some truth, Latour rather often and lamely pulls back, whether from completing his would-be catalogue or exacting revenge by going down his list. Disappointingly, too, Latour's quest for understanding -- specifically of the nature of pain, but of course beyond that as well -- proceeds only in inconclusive spurts; he repeatedly is presented as really wanting nothing else but to get on with that (and that is when the novel is at its strongest) but then drifts or is pulled away from it. Typically, too, the turn to murder-mystery shows some potential but is ultimately too much unrealized.
       It all makes for an often gripping novel that nevertheless falls a bit flat -- worthwhile but not entirely satisfying.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 October 2019

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De Sade's Valet: Reviews: Books by the Marquis de Sade under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Nikolaj Frobenius was born in 1965.

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