THE CURSE OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History, by Joel Warner
There’s a moment deep in the Marquis de Sade’s novel “120 Days of Sodom” when a libertine laments the numbness of having committed every possible debauchery. “How many times, by God, have I not longed to be able to assail the sun, snatch it out of the universe, make a general darkness or use that star to burn the world!” The most destructive binge has limits, he realizes. Just knowing that will dampen the best sadistic orgy.
Sade toiled to find his imagination’s limits. In 37 days, he wrote 157,000 words on a 40-foot scroll while imprisoned in the Bastille, creating, he bragged, “the most impure tale ever written since the world began.” “120 Days of Sodom” chronicles four months of depravity involving multiple victims in a remote castle. Sade wrote in secret, by candlelight, covering the scroll in microscopic script. When he was suddenly transferred to a mental asylum days before revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in 1789, he hid his unfinished scroll in a crevice of his cell wall.
Joel Warner’s “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” follows the scroll’s journey from the Bastille as it passed into the possession of aristocrats, scholars and thieves, and entered the world of auction houses, appraisers and tax incentives. In 2014, it became central to what was either, Warner writes, “a decade-long, continent-spanning, billion-euro con” or a conspiracy of officials and cultural elites.
Warner’s research and extensive interviews help him shuttle across centuries to depict remarkable characters. There’s Iwan Bloch, a pioneering German sexologist so captivated by the scroll’s revelations that he risked prosecution to spearhead the first publication of “120 Days of Sodom,” in 1904. There’s Marie-Laure de Noailles, an important patron of Surrealism in Paris and a direct descendant of Sade. She was shy until her ancestor’s scroll — which she acquired from a German bookseller who collaborated with Bloch to publish the book — transformed her into an artist, a writer and a political radical in an open marriage. “At what age did you become yourself?” Noailles asked people. “For her,” Warner writes, “the answer was easy: 1929, the year she obtained ‘120 Days of Sodom.’”
The scroll changed Gérard Lhéritier’s life when he paid 7 million euros for it in 2014. Lhéritier is a manuscript collector with a resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock and a penchant for self-promotion. He founded a company that sold shares in manuscripts that he insisted could only appreciate (an Albert Einstein letter, a Paul Verlaine manuscript), and promised to buy back shares at a premium — everyone would profit. Lhéritier had an institute, a museum and thousands of investors. He commuted by private jet between Paris and Nice and held court in business offices resembling a “throne room” — and this is before he won €169 million in the EuroMillions lottery.
The story’s most important figure is the marquis himself, a scion of one of France’s most powerful noble families. Warner is attentive to sadistic detail — the human bones in Sade’s garden, the dungeon beneath his castle, the horse he stabbed during a traffic dispute. Sade was 23 when he defiled and masturbated on religious objects with a horrified prostitute in order to disprove God’s existence. It was the first in a litany of recorded crimes: sodomy, poisoning, whippings, obscenity, kidnappings, rape.
He was incarcerated by Louis XV, Louis XVI, Robespierre and Napoleon — his filth transcended politics. He escaped from prison twice and survived three attempts on his life (by guillotine, by his maid’s irate father and by his mother-in-law’s henchmen). He spent his time in prison writing felonious works, and when, after several years as a free man, he was returned to the asylum in his early 60s, he finally indulged a lifelong passion: producing and starring in plays, including his own, alongside his fellow patients. Warner grasps the significance of his histrionics: Sade “sought the high drama that came from breaking all the rules.”
A journalist and editor, Warner doesn’t let infamy flatten Sade’s dimensions. His parents neglected their lonely, sensitive son, who later reported being raped by a grammar-school teacher one morning before dawn. (The boy counted the hours.) By adulthood, Sade was incapable of coping with intimacy. He fell in love with his sister-in-law, and after she left him, he attempted suicide.
“The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” is nevertheless more demure than one might expect. Warner’s narrative tracks the scroll across centuries but never really delves into its content. Squeamishness is understandable. “120 Days of Sodom” is a relentless spectacle of violence and grotesquerie. A boy is sodomized with a shotgun. Wounds are opened, defiled, burned, filled with wax. Animals (monkeys, cows, donkeys) are abused as the search for new orifices becomes desperate. Not even a goat’s nostrils are safe. So many body parts are amputated that Sade struggles to keep the depravity fresh. At one point, women are forced to wear severed breasts and buttocks as scarves.
The novel becomes tedious largely because Sade was taking a doctrine to its logical end. He was a devotee of materialism, a philosophy claiming that the universe is nothing but matter and motion. There are no souls and no gods. Nature dictates the only law, and it’s unbreakable — free will does not exist. If you’re a Sadean originalist, a woman flogging a bound man has nothing to do with domination. It’s the act of two slaves submitting to nature’s commands. “I am nothing but a machine,” one libertine announces in a revealing moment in the novel’s introduction. Machines are the orgy’s main attraction — machines that chop or stretch or crush or pierce, machines that pound bodies together like billiard balls. Each iteration helps us accept the core materialist lesson: We are all minerals in the earth’s entrails.
The absence of readings like this in Warner’s book is unfortunate because the enigma surrounding a manuscript’s value — the ballooning price of a brittle scroll bearing an infamous but rarely read novel — is his story’s major theme. As disputes over the scroll intensify in the book, readers might wonder why we value anything. The scroll has an answer: We shouldn’t. Capitalist promises of unending profits are as fantastical as the aura of handwritten documents.
And yet it’s clear that in the night hours of his dank prison tower, even the marquis was desperately trying to create something more than material. The loss of the scroll, after all, did not feel like a philosophical lesson to Sade. “I shed tears of blood!” he cried.
Kevin Birmingham is the author, most recently, of “The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece.”
THE CURSE OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History | By Joel Warner | 281 pp. | Crown | $28.99