Putting aside for a moment what deliciously wicked fun it is to read Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—putting aside as well its surprisingly thoughtful politics, its oddly affecting final tragedy, and the glorious character it offers in the Marquise de Merteuil—to me the most fascinating aspect of this 1782 novel of scheming French aristocrats is its pitch-perfect use of the epistolary form. I have read quite a few epistolary novels, and the letter-centric format has usually struck me as a daring, but slightly awkward, choice. It's a cute trick, I find myself thinking, but one that usually adds little if anything to the novel as a whole; I can often imagine that the story would flow more naturally with a traditional third- or first-person narrator. In the case of Les liaisons dangereuses, however, the epistolary frame is absolutely perfect. I wouldn't wish this story to be told any other way.
This is true for a couple of reasons. Primary among them is the deceitfulness of the main characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, whose sexually-charged duplicity is the driving force behind the novel's events. Their myriad plots and schemes create a vast amount of dramatic irony. Merteuil, for example, could be narrating the same series of events in three letters to three separate people: she will undoubtedly give said events a completely different interpretation in each case, so as to manipulate her correspondents' actions and opinions of her. The epistolary format enables the reader to experience this at first-hand, reading Merteuil's three letters back-to-back and understanding vastly more about the situation (and Merteuil's character, and her opinions of each correspondent) than any one of the three recipients.
One of the chief devilish joys of this book lies the word play and double-meanings Valmont and Merteuil work into their letters. In one famous case, Valmont writes a letter to a virtuous woman he's attempting to seduce, using another lover's body as his desk. The entire missive can be interpreted either as a love-sick paean, or as a narration of the Vicomte's debauchery:
C'est après une nuit orageuse, et pendant laquelle je n'ai pas fermé l'oeil; c'est après avoir été sans cesse ou dans l'agitation d'une ardeur dévorante, ou dans l'entier anéantisement de toutes les facultés de mon âme, que je viens chercher auprès de vous, Madame, une calme dont j'ai besoin, et dont pourant je n'espère pas jouir encore. En effet, la situation où je suis en vous écrivant me fait connaître, plus que jamais, la puissance irrésistible de l'amour; j'ai peine à conserver assez d'empire sur moi pour mettre quelque ordre dans mes idées; et déjà je prévois que je ne finirai pas cette Lettre, sans être obligé de l'interrompre.
After a tumultuous night, during which I never shut an eye; after having been ceaselessly either in the agitation of a devouring passion, or in the entire obliteration of all the faculties of my soul; I come searching from you, Madame, the calm of which I have need, and which I nevertheless don't yet hope to enjoy. ["Jouir" means both "enjoy" and "orgasm."] Indeed, the position in which I am writing to you reminds me, more than ever, of the irresistible power of love; I am at pains to retain enough control over myself to put my thoughts in order; and I can already predict that I shall not finish this Letter, without being obliged to interrupt myself.
And what audience is there for such clever lingual tricks? The question brings up another reason the epistolary format works so well for Laclos, which is that the actual letters themselves, as objects, are of the utmost importance in furthering the plot. Far from a transparent device through which the reader merely watches the plot unfold, the physical letter-artifacts are constantly obtruding themselves on the narrative. Characters stow them in secret hiding places, agonize about whether they should be producing them at all, transfer them to different envelopes to throw their recipients off the scent, request those they sent to be returned to them, and strategically reveal those they received to third parties as incriminating evidence. Valmont and Merteuil often enclose copies of their letters to other people along with their letters to each other, so that they can glory in, and compete with, each others' cleverness. With this in mind, Valmont's letter quoted above actually has three separate audiences: the lover on whose body he is composing it, who is amused at the double-entendres; Mme. de Tourvel, the ostensible recipient, who reads it as a declaration of tortured love for herself; and the Marquise de Merteuil, who reads in it not only Valmont's manipulation of Mme. de Tourvel, but his desire to demonstrate to her (the Marquise) his skill at artifice, his lack of real affection for Mme. de Tourvel, and, since he's sharing the letter with her, the strength of his attachment to Merteuil herself. Because she is an excellent reader, Merteuil is also able to distinguish between the things Valmont intended to show her in the letter, and the things she showed her against his will.
Indeed, the recipients of these letters are not passive readers: they all critique one anothers' content, and the truly sophisticated critique each others' style. And it's here that the Marquise de Merteuil demonstrates her subtlety and sophistication; she has a level of textual savvy that would distinguish her as either a politician or a literary critic. She is a close reader: focusing upon the individual words and phrases used by her correspondents, she analyzes the places where their narratives come apart, where they are betrayed despite their own intentions. In one instance, when Valmont is attempting to disguise his growing attachment to Mme. de Tourvel, the Marquise laughs at him for simply removing one set of descriptors and substituting another, as if she would not notice that the substance of his commentary remained the same. Another time, she dissects the language used by the young Cecile Volanges in referring to Cecile's two lovers, and uses internal evidence to prove which of the men Cecile actually loves. In many other instances Merteuil uses a correspondent's own words and phrases in her responses to them, either in order to manipulate them without their explicit knowledge, or to demonstrate to them the fallacies of their logic. On a number of occasions, she also corrects a correspondent's style: to a young man who is not yet her lover, she objects to the use of the cloying language of courtship; whereas to a young woman she is attempting to train in her own image, she complains:
Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'où cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez, et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas. Cela peut passer ansi de vous à moi, qui devons n'avoir rien de caché l'une pour l'autre: mais avec tout le monde! avec votre Amant surtout! vous auriez toujours l'air d'une petite sotte. Vous voyez bien que, quand vous écrivez à quelqu'un, c'est pour lui et non pas pour vous: vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plaît davantage.
You always write like a child. I see perfectly the source of this problem: it's that you say everything you think, and nothing you don't think. That would be fine between you and me, who have nothing to hide from one another, but with the world at large! with your Lover especially! You would seem forever a little idiot. You must see that, when you write to someone, it's for them and not for you; you should therefore seek less to say what you think, than what will please your correspondent.
What's more, the Marquise writes often, not just about the content of individual letters or even their style, but on the mechanics of letter-writing in general—its strengths and weaknesses, the dangers it holds for composer and recipient, and how to protect oneself from those dangers, especially as a woman.
Because although Merteuil is undeniably a nasty, cruel manipulator, her machinations are not without reason. She is playing the same game Valmont plays, but because of her gender she must play it doubly. In order to trick and manipulate people into and out of her bed, she must also organize the circumstances so that none of her lovers can speak about it afterward and be believed; she must safeguard her own reputation as a respectable woman.
Quant a Prévan, je veux l'avoir et je l'aurai; il veut le dire, et il ne le dira pas: en deux mots, voilà notre Roman.
As to Prévan, I want him and I will have him; he wants to speak of it, and he will not speak of it: in two words, there is our Novel.
At the same time, she must also protect against compromising her independence: she does not wish to remarry after the death of her husband, she says, because she hates the idea of anyone having the right to tell her what to do. Coming from a sheltered convent education, she has painstakingly crafted herself into the person she has become: "Je puis dire que je suis mon ouvrage (I can say that I am my own work)" is a claim not many women of the Marquise's acquaintance can honestly make. She writes "ouvrage," but she could just as easily have written "chef-d'oeuvre": I am my own masterpiece.
Like Chaucer's Wife of Bath or Thackeray's Becky Sharp, the Marquise de Merteuil is an oft-unlikeable character in a satirical work; not a heroine, but a character who nonetheless steals the show in a way hard to deny. It's problematic to call her a "sympathetic" character, and I don't want to downplay just how cruel she is, yet I can't help but love her—for the hard, uncompromising liveliness of her mind, for her jealous independence, and for her sensitivity to textual nuance. As a modern reader, it's tempting to make the argument that Merteuil's twisted manipulations are a necessary result of her limited options and the oppressive culture in which she must operate. Had she the option of exercising her talents as an international diplomat, for example, she may have ended up less twisted and more fulfilled. Or at least more fulfilled. Possibly. Depending on your opinion of international diplomacy.
But why argue that, in any case? Marteuil is a snake, and I love her as a snake. Les liaisons dangereuses is wicked fun, and I love it that way too. Like a good mafia movie, it somehow manages to remain seductive even as it simultaneously exposes the ugly underpinnings of the very process of seduction: a contradiction of which Merteuil and Valmont would heartily approve.
All translations are mine, and inadequate things they are, too. This book is available in English as Dangerous Liaisons, and I'm sure a professional translator would do a better job than I did, but if you can read it in French there's a lot of fantastic word-play that I can't imagine being 100% preserved in translation. There's undoubtedly even more than I realized, given my imperfect French.