Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Les Liasons Dangereuses and Cousin Bette (thoughts)

Sorry this review has taken so long-sometimes it's difficult to figure out how to approach a book. For me, Les Liasons dangereuses presented many challenges; not least of which the title! I've used both the English and French versions variously when I talk about it. I'll probably continue to do so throughout this entry! At a deeper level, this book presented still more complexities. I went into it knowing the basic story; I've seen the film version with Glenn Close (and five hundred other stars!) and the modern adaptation Cruel Intentions. However, I haven't seen either movie in a long time, so the various actors weren't stuck in my mind in the roles. My first thought when I opened up the book? "Oh God, it's going to be all letters." I'm not a big fan of the epistolatory novel; I don't mind a few letters scattered throughout a book, but for some reason I don't usually get into books written in such a format. That being said, for the first half of the book, I quite enjoyed reading the different styles. However, it eventually grew old; furthermore, all of the action (considerably racy and exciting) takes place off scene. I expected the book to get my blood going; in reality, the letters kept me comfortably removed from any passion. So, while I'm glad that I read Dangerous Liasons, it failed to meet my expectations.

I think that its most interesting to compare this book to Balzac's Cousin Bette. There are enough similarities to make such an analysis worthwhile: both are set in France, although one is pre-Revolutionary, the other post, both deal with sex and intrigue and revenge, both have a variety of characters that feel sometimes one-dimensional, both have tidy endings wherein the good are rewarded and the bad punished. However, in Cousin Bette the blood pulses. Its plot is far-reaching and organic, but it's centered around Baron Hulst's family and everyone connected to the family members. Balzac draws on all levels of society to people the novel: from the rich merchant friend, to the cheap whores, to the artists, to the cheating gentlewomen, the reader has plenty of scope for imagination. And, of course, there's Cousin Bette, who spends her time manipulating things behind the scenes to bring Hulst's wife and daughter to ruin.

Balzac provided me all of the passion I searched for in vain in Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since de Laclos tells the story through letters, his characters all have time to reflect on their actions. They present themselves in their personal 'ideal light,' and they often have ulterior motives for what they choose to discuss in their letters. In one sense, this is quite fun: it allows the reader to engage a fair amount of psychological analysis. And yet, all of the letters retained a certain 'look at me quality:' even the passion expressed has a plastic wuality. I never 'became' the characters, the way that I inhabited Balzac's creations. I craved revenge with Bette, I fell for the artist with Hortense, I charmed my gentlemen callers with Madame Marneffe. I didn't want to stop reading Balzac, because I wanted to know what happened to everyone; Dangerous Liasons I read more leisurely, since the plot, while compelling in principle, was not presented in a compelling manner. Compare the following passages:

Then I knew love. But how far was I from complaining! Determined to bury it in eternal silence, I abandoned myself without fear, as without reserve, to this delicious sentiment. Each day augmented its sway. Soon the pleasure of seeing you changed to a need. Were you absent for a moment? my heart was sore with sadness; at the sound which announced your return, it palpitated with joy. I only existed for you and through you. (82)

When Hortense had read the letter, and re-read it, she could see only the white paper barred with black lines; only the paper existed in the universe, everything else was darkness. The glare of the conflagration that was consuming the edifice of her happiness lit up the paper, while utter darkness surrounded her. Her little boy's cries as he played came to her ear as if he were in a deep valley and she on a high mountain. To be so insulted, at twenty-four years of age, in the full splendour of her beauty, adorned with a pure and devoted love: it was not a mere dagger-thrust, it was death. (254)

In both of these, the emotions expressed are a little histronic. However, in the first one, the speaker never really loses control; while reading of an 'abandonment to passion,' the reader can't feel the abandonment, the total loss of composure. In the second one, the reader (well, at least me as the reader), immediately begins to sympathise with Hortense. Like her, the reader sees the world blacken around her, barely hears the little boy, feels mortally offended. Look at Balzac's mastery of language, how quickly he evokes Hortense's inner thoughts. Reading such a master is a pleasure!

In the end, for me, it comes down to if I can step into the role of characters in a novel. Balzac deftly brings me into their world, while de Laclos (more through his choice of presentation than any defects of language) leaves me outside the window, looking in. I'd rather be with Balzac every time. :)

Favourite Passages from Cousin Bette

Virginity, like all abnormal states, has its characterisitc qualities, its fascinating greatness. (118)

with lace. She was like one of those luscious fruits, arranged enticingly on a fine plate, which make the very metal of the knife-blade ache to bite them. (183)

To think, to dream, to conceive fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is dreaming cigar-smoke dreams, or living a courtesan's self-indlufent life. THe work of art to be created is envisaged in the exhilaration of conception, with its infant grace, and the scented colour of its flower and the bursting juices of its fruit. These are the pleasures in the imagination of a work of art's conception. (214-5)

"I?" said the Lorraine peassant. "I have seen vengeance exacted everywhere throughout creation. Even insects die to satisfy their need to avenge themselves when they are attacked! And these gentlement," she said, with a gesture towards the priest, "don't they tell us that God avenges himself, and that his vengeance is eternal?" (423)


litlove said...

Wonderful review, Eva, and I'm so glad you liked Cousine Bette. I'm a big fan of that novel myself and love it for all the reasons you set out so well above.

Bybee said...

There's a Korean film version of "Dangerous Liasons" called "Untold Scandal".