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Aline and Valcour
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B : an intriguing and ambitious but oddly-formed novel
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The complete review's Review:
Though originally published in 1795, Aline and Valcour is the last of de Sade's major works to appear in English -- in part, no doubt, because it is not as obsessively and excessively sexually graphic as much of his fiction.
So also the 'philosophy' of "the Philosophical Novel" -- so its subtitle -- is not limited to the bedroom-sort.
True, a pair of (typically Sadean) depraved libertines figure prominently from early on, but Sade does not describe their debaucheries anywhere near as explicitly as he does in his more notorious and better-known works.
Eventually, he can't completely hold back -- Inquisition-torture apparently demands meticulous description, and there are the occasional outrageous acts he feels compelled to at least tersely report ("He ravished the honor of the woman he had just shorn of life", as the blunt conclusion of one tragedy has it) -- but most of the presentation is certainly more restrained (though he apparently can't help himself, as his tendency towards the clinical-expository, and heaping on of lascivious and cruel variations increasingly bubbles to the fore as the book proceeds).
This tiny man had huge feet, grotesquely crammed into high heels, supporting two oversized legs. Looking for a waist you'd find a paunch. Seeking a glimpse of his face ? Only a wig, cravat, and, from time to time, the eruption of a discordant falsetto that made you wonder if the gullet belonged to a human or a parakeet.They're quite the pair: de Sade holds off from describing Blamont for a while -- not finding an appropriate place in the correspondence to do so -- but eventually can't help himself and fills in some of the details in an authorial footnote, revealing that Blamont is fifteen years his wife's senior (and married her when she was fifteen), and physically no prize either:
[T]here are few faces more ugly. His eyes are frightening, he has an ugly mouth, an extremely long nose and upturned chin, a low forehead and pate so barren that he wore a wig from the time he was a child.Blamont's explanation for insisting Valcour no longer be allowed to court his daughter might seem harsh but at least seems to have some rational foundation: "I do not wish to give my daughter to a penniless man" (even though that is not the real reason). His wife protests that Valcour is a good match -- he has a fine title, after all -- but that doesn't sway Blamont:
Do you want to subject my daughter, with her Valcour, to the same experience I've had with you ? Marry a title ? I ask you: What's the use of the one you gave me ? I would have preferred twenty-five thousand francs a year.The first stab at uniting Dolbourg and Aline isn't a success, but Blamont is determined; still, he agrees to bide his time for a few months, while Aline summers at Château Vertfeuille on the Loire with her mother, along with newly-married Déterville and his bride, Eugénie. Déterville suggests looking into the "depraved morals of this financier", Dolbourg, but there's some concern about what might be unearthed, given his close relationship with Blamont -- and, of course, the danger that Madame de Blamont might be tarred by anything that comes to light. Conveniently, however, they stumble across a damsel in distress -- a teenager named Sophie, who has just given birth, right out in the wilderness -- who holds part of the two men's secret. She was a kept woman, along with another girl about her age, used and abused by two men who went under different names but are soon revealed to be Blamont and Dolbourg, a depraved scheme -- of the more familiar Sadean sort, if not as explicitly described in its particulars.
Yet even when confronted with Sophie, proof of his and his friend's outrageous activities, Blamont is not cowed. Annoyed -- "she raises my hackles" -- but little more. After all:
Respect and reputation, position, money, and influence, position -- it's all we need in order to do as we like. A position, I say, that provides cover if need be because, for people like ourselves, it's not about demanding that we behave well, but only about obliging others to do so. As much as we might magistrately condemn half-a-dozen unfortunates to be broken on the wheel, we might merit the same ourselves twenty times over, yet without risk; and for this I love France madly.The true identity of Sophie -- first thought to be one thing, then another -- adds yet more complication, especially for Madame de Blamont, but at least the girl is kept out of Blamont's clutches for the time being, and then hidden in a cloister while investigations into family history continue.
It's at this point that the novel takes a turn of sorts. Once again, strangers pass by Vertfeuille, and are invited to spend the night. They are a young couple -- he, Sainville, about 27; she, Léonore, 17 or 18 -- and if their initial story, of where they're coming from and where they are headed, seems a bit dubious, they soon reveal that they've been on the run, and through quite a few ordeals.
Here de Sade struggles some with the constraints of the epistolary form. Until this point, the story unfolded well enough in the back and forth -- mainly between Valcour and the various figures at Vertfeuille -- but Sainville and Léonore have quite the sagas to recount, and these don't lend themselves to repeated interruption, so Déterville passes these on to Valcour in big chunks, all at once. So, while the first thirty-four letters -- filling the first volume of the Contra Mundum edition -- cover less than two hundred pages, the thirty-fifth letter, consisting almost entirely of Sainville's account, takes up the entire second volume, and more than two hundred pages ..... It is, for all practical purposes, a novel within the novel -- though the occasional mention of how those assembled at Vertfeuille react to some of the turns in the story help serve as a reminder that he is addressing an audience involved in their own complicated drama. And just as the tale reaches its happy climax, the present-day reality and the complications surrounding the Blamont family intrude again, Déterville dramatically interrupting:
Great God ! How can I possibly go on ? What sudden thunder has just shaken the whole house to its foundations ? O Valcour ! Is heaven dead set against us ? The doors -- they're breaking down the doors -- the windows are rattling.It's a decent little cliffhanger, with the danger from Blamont that had for so long receded into the background as Sainville told his story bursting full force onto the scene again -- not in the form of Blamont himself but the authorities -- "police, spies, and soldiers" -- entering the house and demanding to take Sainville and: "a young woman whom he had abducted and made to pass for his wife" into custody. The clever twist to this order shows Blamont's hand and influence behind it -- but fortunately a Count Beaulé is on hand and understands that there is deceit behind the order; he promises the Parisian authorities to watch over the prisoners and hand them over as required three days later, certain that matters will be sorted by then. Blamont, meanwhile, believes that his scheme will lead to the long-desired outcome, and continues to plot to see that everyone gets what he believes they deserve .....
The interlude is brief and inconclusive -- and the next letter then returns to the adventures of Sainville and Léonore, with Léonore now recounting her half of that couple's tale: letter thirty-eight is again a book-length missive -- indeed, the longest of the lot --, chronicling Léonore's experiences. Only when she is done does the action -- or rather, do the letters -- return to the complicated present-day situation in which they all find themselves embroiled. Léonore, too, proves to be a lost daughter of sorts, and part of the problem is in getting her situation properly settled: money and marriage do go hand in hand even in the Sadean world, and control over wealth always remain a significant consideration.
Blamont will not stop his scheming, even as he occasionally lulls the other into a false sense of security. He doesn't forget, either, continuing to work to regain Sophie into his clutches (and, when he does, she mourns: "he subjected me to every irregularity his mind could imagine and every perversity his heart could suggest"), and also continuing to be aware of the threat posed by Valcour, leading him to try to ensure that this rival to Dolbourg is more permanently removed from the scene.
Blamont is at his creepiest when he insinuates himself back in the family home, and actually pays attention to the wife he had long been ignoring -- to her embarrassed chagrin. As Aline reports:
She was dying to laugh and tell me about it but did not know how. It had been more than five years. She wanted to escape such things that, for her, hold so little attraction. A man who has never been anything but a tyrant and a libertine can only be an indelicate husband. She nonetheless had to submit -- submit, my friend. Is that not the word ? To share would not do, and if I used that word you'd cross it out.Blamont even confronts Valcour directly, setting out his position regarding the disposition of his daughter clearly. He insists that she can only be Dolbourg's wife:
He will marry her and that's an end on it. Leave aside this grotesque display of chivalry. One marries a woman for her social position, for her wealth, to make use of her as needed. Willingly or not, a woman owes obedience to her husband and must blindly submit; whether she loves him or not, whether it makes her happy or not, whether it is legitimate or not. So long as we get what we want, what does happiness have to do with it ? You people with your noble sentiments locate felicity among the metaphysical chimeras that exist only in your empty brains. Analyze it all and the results come to naught. Provided one takes pleasure in a woman, what good is her love ? At the moment we take our pleasure, what does love add to the physical sensation ?Blamont is, of course, the villain here -- but de Sade not only repeatedly allows him to make his case but also seems to suggest there's something to it. Though framed as a traditional romantic tale, de Sade does not follow through with traditional romantic happiness for his main (or at least title) characters. Blamont's wife tussles back and forth with her husband, hoping to find some means of escape for her daughter, but even her best-laid plans fall apart when she is removed from the picture. Aline still imagines escape is possible in the last instances -- but Blamont backs her into a corner where ultimately the only options left are the most desperate. No, Aline and Valcour is no happy romance ending with the lovers finally reunited to live happily everafter. Instead, most of the main characters come to miserable ends -- with it small consolation that de Sade sees to it that Blamont gets his as well. There are happy couples, but Déterville and Eugénie's happiness barely rates a mention throughout, while the one couple who do triumph over hardship are the realists, whereby hard-nosed Léonore -- whom Madame de Blamont never really took to, because of her cold and independent streak, and lack of religious fervor -- is the one strong character who sees to it that she gets what she wants.
De Sade's lack of interest in happy endings of the traditional romantic sort is nicely demonstrated in how fed up he gets with keeping up his romance-tale. He manages to arrange a meeting between his star-crossed lovers, but can only put so much heart into it. More amusingly, he even tires of Valcour's fawning over his beloved, and can't be bothered with some of his letters, at one point noting:
There exists Valcour's response to the preceding letter but we suppress it here, not wishing to offer the public what could only lengthen the thread of the narrative without disentangling it and put of the denouement without adding further interest.That's pretty rich in an eight-hundred-page novel ..... (And soon later two additional letters from Valcour are similarly dispensed with.)
Blamont's elaborate scheme, and the lengths he'll go to, and the efforts of Madame de Blamont and those around her to try to keep the noose from tightening around Aline, make for a decent if over-complicated plot. The conclusion does have some appeal, de Sade tossing in some happy-ending dregs so as not too completely to disappoint an audience which expects lovers in romances to find happiness but it's quite admirable that his title-characters do not, in fact, end up happily together. Where he falls short here is in never really having managed to convince with this would-be couple: kept apart for almost the entire novel, they can only tell of and profess their love in their letters, and that really only gets them so far. Aline and Valcour are no Romeo and Juliet, and sad though their fate may be, it falls short of the movingly tragic.
Of course, the whole to-do surrounding Aline, Valcour, and dastardly Blamont's plans for his daughter only make up half the novel. The other half, the adventures of Sainville and Léonore, take it considerably further -- geographically and otherwise. These two long adventures recounted by Sainville and Léonore -- novels within the novel, practically -- allow de Sade to move beyond the rather constrained circumstances he has set his central story, of Aline and Valcour, in (and the epistolary presentation thereof). True, he allows Valcour a similar sort of adventurous pre-story, as Valcour explains in one of his letters to his beloved how he came to lose his own fortune, and why he still moves so cautiously, still worried about the possible consequences of a duel in which he was involved -- as he had, in fact, already once, been passionately in love with a woman, Adélaïde, whose father refused to allow her to marry him -- but this is a quickly recounted tale, and beyond that Valcour, for the most part, can do little more than wait on the sidelines and learn, via the letters he receives, of what his future might hold. Sainville and Léonore, on the other hand, have real adventures to relate, separate odysseys covering years as they lost and then finally found each other again, and de Sade has them regale their audience with all the twists and turns along the way.
The two narratives represent, to some extent, theory and practice. While both Sainville and Léonore are involved in actual adventure, where their actions determine what happens to them, Sainville's role is, for considerable stretches, more passive. He is lectured about philosophy and shown local forms of government, and for much of the time he is an observer. Léonore finds herself more in the thick of things, and while she too gets her fill of philosophical exposition and lessons, she's also exposed to much of this in practice -- more convincingly first-hand, rather than simply in the abstract and for show.
The couple fell in love but their families had other ideas: as Sainville explains: "Léonore's parents were arranging a union for her whilst at the same time mine were about to impose a marriage of convenience". Breaking Léonore out of a convent to which her parents consign her when she refuses to agree to the arranged marriage -- in comically elaborate fashion, complete with Sainville disguising himself as a nun to infiltrate the convent and then involving a ruse with a statue -- the lovers happily elope and flee to Venice. But rather than the start of their life together, they almost immediately find themselves torn apart, Léonore kidnapped and Sainville following whatever trails he believes might lead him back to her.
In somewhat comic fashion, Sainville in fact more than once finds himself in closest proximity to Léonore -- including once shortly after she was kidnapped -- but fails to realize who the nearby woman is and misses the opportunity at hand to save and be reunited with her. It's a clever enough idea, but also reveals de Sade as still somewhat of an amateur in exposition and presentation: he could and should have made much more of these missed opportunities -- not least in being able to describe them from first his and then her perspectives, as the two in turn recount what they had been through. (Still, it is amusing to see de Sade embrace some popular-fiction standards as far as plot-twists go, even as what he's obviously really itching to get to is pure philosophical exposition.)
Sainville's quest soon finds him on the open seas -- and, of course, soon enough shipwrecked, off the coast of Africa. Soon enough, he finds he's: "entered the kingdom of Butua, home to man-eaters whose habits and cruelties surpass, in their depravity, anything said or written about this most ferocious people". The king, Ben Mâacoro, spares his life: there is one other European at the court, an old Portuguese man named Sarmiento, and Sainville is to be eased into the role Sarmiento has long played here, inspecting the women captured for the king's pleasure. Sarmiento introduces him into the brutal ways of this people, and the governing philosophies -- suggesting to the initially shocked Sainville:
After you've spent time here discovering the customs of our country, perhaps you'll become more the philosopher.Butua is a place where Blamont's philosophy has blossomed, and the powerful can do as they will. They live in the here and now -- as, for example:
Completely ignorant concerning the transmission of facts, whether through written language or hieroglyphics, the people preserve no memorial that might advance their knowledge of genealogy or history.This is a society that lives in great misery, the strong dominating the weak, and one that literally feeds on other human beings. Procreation is not seen as a positive, while what bodies are needed -- for food, or to satisfy lust -- can be taken by force from nearby nations. It is a land where the powerful can indulge in whatever vice they want, and where there morality hardly plays a role.
Sainville eventually makes good his escape from these horrifying conditions and again sets out on the high seas. He heads to the South Seas, and, after a storm, finds safety on a small island. This, too, is practically undiscovered country, the island-nation of Tamoé, and Sainville learns about this idyllic state from its chief, Zamé.
Sent abroad by his father, Zamé spent many years studying the ways of the world -- including France -- and took what lessons he could home (along with, for example, 50,000 books, for the little public libraries he had set up all across the island). Finding that vice, and its punishment, is what breeds wrong-doing, the locals essentially disregard its very possibility -- and so, for example: "the state constitution has totally abolished thievery, rape, and incest". Transgressions occur, but punishment is light -- notably, forms of shaming. And religion is stripped down to the essence -- after all:
Do you believe your absurd dogmas and unintelligible mysteries ? Do your idolatrous ceremonies make for happier or better citizens ? Do you imagine that incense burning upon marble altars is worth as much as the offerings of these good hearts ? By distorting the cult of the Eternal One, your religions of Europe destroyed Him.Zamé also recognizes what is coming back in Europe: among his parting words are the observation:
O Sainville ! A great revolution is coming to your country. The people are fed up with the crimes of your sovereigns, their cruel exactions, their debauchery and ineptitude. Infuriated by despotism, the nations is ready to cast off its fetters.Aline and Valcour may have been a pre-Revolutionary work, but the French Revolution was certainly already in the air, and de Sade's observations about the use and abuse of power, both in the France of his main story and the more exotic locales of the side-trips he takes readers on, and his philosophical discursions more generally were certainly very much a product of those tumultuous times (and his own situation and position).
Leaving Tamoé, Sainville does then also fall into the hands of the Inquisition, but makes good his escape before suffering too much under it. Indeed, it is Léonore who has to deal with Father Don Crispe Brutaldi Barbaribos of Torturentia, the Grand Inquisitor, at considerably greater length when she too winds up in his hands -- but that's near the conclusion of her own long odyssey. From the first kidnapping, Léonore repeatedly finds herself in hot water, arousing great passion in some of her would-be helpers and narrowly escaping various unpleasant scenarios. She, too, encounters Ben Mâacoro -- though she doesn't learn quite as much about his kingdom --, but misses out on Tamoé. Much of her time is spent with a group of Bohemians, a troupe of thieves with their own moral code, and she experiences a great deal, including quite a few close calls. She is, however, the one character who actually grows over the course of the novel, learning from experience; if she is somewhat sidelined once her story has been told, and the action again focuses on Aline and her father's plans, there's still enough about her continuing efforts to suggest a woman who is clear about what she thinks she deserves, and what she is willing to do to get it (relying, however, on the letter of the law, rather personal whim, as, for example, Blamont's does).
Aline and Valcour is an odd mix of a novel, de Sade fitting three main stories somewhat awkwardly together. The discussion of philosophy, especially of right and wrong, of the use and abuse of power, of relations between the sexes, and of personal pleasure, is prominent throughout, making for a somewhat cohesive work, but story-wise it is a bit all over the place. De Sade actually does action well: Léonore's tale, heavy on incident, is much more entertaining that Sainville's lecture-filled account. But he doesn't seem to have had full confidence in his own story-telling powers -- unable, for example, to make the most of Sainville's repeated missed encounters with Léonore along their ways. And the digressions -- major digressions -- of these two long accounts leave the supposed central story, of Aline and Valcour flapping a bit loosely for too long; that story certainly needed a much sharper, focused approach.
But much of the fun and appeal of the novel is, of course, in the different approaches to morality on display, from the traditional ones of the France of the time to the debauched excess of Blamont and his partner in crime Dolbourg, to more theoretical exotic examples, in Africa and the South Seas. Blamont is representative for a class that is bringing the French Revolution upon itself -- but admirably de Sade does not allow his victims the simple role of those finding justice: the Sadean world is realistic enough to recognize that many innocents go under, even when they deserve better. The idyll that is Tamoé is a rare suggestion of a possible alternate world -- but it is almost too good, too different, too far to be true. So also, tellingly, Léonore does experience much that Sainville encountered, including dystopian Butua and the Inquisition, but the one place she does not see is the paradise of Tamoé. (Of course, Léonore turns out to be the one person perfectly capable of holding her own in contemporary French society -- though her inheritance(s) certainly help in that regard.)
Aline and Valcour is an uneven work of fiction, de Sade a bit torn in his stories and ambitions, but there's certainly enough here that is of interest, and some inspired scenes and scenarios. The philosophical discussion only goes so far, but that might be for the best; the balance between showing and telling is hard to strike, and de Sade doesn't always get it right here -- but then he heaps so much of it on here that there is at least considerable and very varied food for thought.
Of more than historic interest, Aline and Valcour is an unusual work by a talented author (yes, de Sade had his talents, odd (and unpleasant) though some of them were) trying a (too) wide range of story-telling and philosophizing, with very mixed success.
- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2019
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Notorious French author Donatien Alphonse François de Sade lived 1740 to 1814.
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