AT HOME WITH THE MARQUIS DE SADE
By Francine Du Plessix Gray
One of the big problem with literary biographies is the inherently boring nature of their subjects. Despite what we have been conditioned to believe by the cult of celebrity, a popular author is not necessarily a newsworthy or even interesting person. While it is natural to be curious about a favourite creative personality, few literary lions led lives requiring the kind of detailed analysis they regularly receive.
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was an exception to the rule. As a young man he first distinguished himself on the battlefield, and went on to become France’s most notorious libertine. A series of sensational trials led to a series of of incarcerations and daring escapes. Eventually he was sent to the Bastille, where he was removed for rowdiness just before the fireworks began. After another near escape, this time from the Terror, he became one of the chief orators of the Revolution (his name downgraded to humble Louis Sade). Yet despite losing nearly everything he was hounded by the authorities to his grave.
And, yes, he also wrote some dirty books.
At Home With the Marquis de Sade takes this material and turns it into a truly first-rate biography. Gray is totally at ease with everything about her subject, from the complex history of the period down to the terrain of Sade’s native Provence. Her research into original sources has been thorough, and in particular Sade’s correspondence (his most highly-valued writing today) has been capably mined.
If I had one objection it would be that the portrayal of Sade’s mother-in-law is not entirely fair. The fidelity of Madame de Montreuil’s rage was not without some justification. While she may have been a narrow-minded and selfish woman, she was not the Fury she is made out to be here. Despite a genuine belief in his own innocence, or at least that he was more sinned against than sinning, Sade was the author of his own misfortunes.
No one would deny Sade some place in the history of thought. After all, his name is now a part of the language. But in fact the Marquis was not that complex a psychological case. Essentially he was the spoiled little boy who never grew up: self-centered, emotionally petty, demanding of affection and impatient in his desires. And as for his books . . .
One way to judge a literary biography is to ask whether reading the life provides any incentive to re-read the work. In the case of Sade, however, this won’t do. Few readers who have slogged through The 120 Days of Sodom or Juliette will feel any inclination to repeat the experience, no matter how intriguing they find this biography.
Instead, Sade has to stand by himself, warts and all. Gray’s book gives us such a portrait, and let us see the man behind the myth.
Review first published December 26, 1998. For my further thoughts on the man, see my review of David Carter’s brief bio Marquis de Sade.