Some Penguin Classics just never feel quite legitimate, no matter how hard they try, no matter how fervent their supporters are over the decades or centuries. This is how it will feel twenty years from now, when Kurt Vonnegut’s flyblown oeuvre is inducted into the line, and this is how it will feel thirty years from now, when the Harry Potter books make their way into the catalogue. It’s how I’d feel if Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves made the list, even though I’m personally fond of the book. And despite centuries of furtive and illicit love shown to it by a very diverse group of famous readers, this is just how it feels to see a Penguin Classic of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade.
It’s got just the kind of outrageous pedigree curriculum readers tend to expect of their classics: written by de Sade on a scroll, while he was being held prisoner in the Bastille while the French Revolution was brewing outside its walls, then discovered in its secret cubby-hole and embarked on a centuries-long career as a cult classic. When it comes to enshrining works of literature, cheap conditions don’t get much better than that.
But then you start reading, and it just evaporates into a mess of schoolboy sniggering and pointless provocation. The book is nominally the story of a quartet of hardened libertines who come together in an isolated castle and – slowly and then more and more confidently – start descending into the depths of depravity. It’s all just unutterably boring, and despite the book’s raucous reputation, it’s hard for me to believe most readers haven’t always found it that way. And in this scrupulous, energetic new Penguin translation by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, it’s a nice easy reading experience – and still every bit as boring.
Our translators do what translators have always done with de Sade – in their Introduction, they try their best to position his tedium as profundity:
By assaulting our senses and our values the 120 Days may, in fact, revive them. Sade himself makes the argument in several of his works that ‘examples of virtue in distress, offered to a corrupt soul in which there remain some decent principles, can restore that soul to goodness just as surely as if one had shown dazzling prizes and the most flattering rewards.’ As disingenuous as Sade’s defence of his methods certainly is, the reader may well find some inadvertent truth in this apparent lie – that the spectacle of the suffering victim is more likely to inspire compassion than cruelty.
But it doesn’t quite fly, even in a pretty black-spined Penguin Classic with a cover photo that’s no doubt intended to be provocative (is it a pair of ass cheeks? A pair of boobies? Oooooh!). And the induction of de Sade’s work into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade doesn’t nudge the needle at all – because the author himself, feverishly scraping away at his scroll, keeps doling out overheated scenes that he so painfully intends to shock … and the ham-handed intending drains away the shock every time, leaving you reading paragraph after paragraph and thinking there must surely be a rural nunnery kitchen girl somewhere who’ll blush at something like this:
A great connoisseur of arses and flogging summons a mother and daughter: he tells the daughter that if she does not agree to have both her hands cut off he will kill her mother; the little girl agrees and they are indeed cut off; he then separates these two creatures, stringing the girl up by the neck with her feet perched on a stool; tied around the stool is a another cord that leads into another room, where the mother is held; the mother is told to pull the cord – she does so without knowing what she is doing; she is promptly shown the fruits of her labour and as she is overcome with despair she is felled by a sabre to the back of the head.
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