Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Premature Book Review: The 120 Days of Sodom

This is a new "translation" of the Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Licentiousness (Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou l'École du libertinage). The original was written in 1785, but never published until 1904. In fact, Sade thought it had been lost during the storming of the Bastille, where he had been imprisoned.

The translator of this edition, James Havoc, explains in the introduction that this is not a literal translation of the work. He mentions, without naming them, the more famous English translation by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. Their translation is literal, and according to Havoc, poorly suited for a modern audience. He hopes to bring Sade into the 21st century. The book is significantly shorter, and the section I have finished is highly appended.

Just a bit more background on the original. Sade's book was meant to be a few things; it is an indictment of the aristocracy, the judiciary, and the nouveau riche, also a catalogue of perversions, and a libertine manifesto. The book is highly sexual, but hardly erotic. It deals with coprophilia quite a bit, and can at times turn one's stomach.

Regarding this translation, the view I am getting thus far is that Mr. Havoc is more interested in the shock and perversion, rather than the other traits. In the original, Sade takes pains (through the narrator) to point out the foulness of the "Lords of Sillingy" (as Havoc calls them). Prior to their reaching Château Sillingy, Sade goes through a biography of each of the four lords. This is designed to prepare you for what is to come. There is no doubt in the readers mind that these are the foulest men alive. Havoc's retelling gives us this impression, but only hints at the acts as Sade describes them—you do not get the same feeling of revulsion from Havoc. While Havoc cuts from the original, he also adds. His description of the château's furnishings are more elaborate than Sade's, and description of Sillingy's location seems more exact.

So far, I am afraid much of this books importance will be lost. The 120 Days of Sodom was ahead of its time from a psychological standpoint, and does a great deal to explain Sade's materialist philosophy at that time in his life. The point is not sex, the point is to horrify the reader and demonize Sade's enemies. If Havoc's book turns out to be just murder, rape, and scat-munching, he has missed the point.

Last little note: if you have not read the Marquis de Sade, and are interested, Sodom is not the place to start. Try out The Misfortunes of Virtue, which is short and nicely translated by David Coward (also, the first telling of Justine); or Oxtiern, The Misfortunes of Libertinage, which is included, I believe, with the Seaver/Wainhouse Sodom. These are good introductions to Sade, and are more accessible to the uninitiated. Many of Sade's later works become long diatribes and political manifestos. After the French Revolution, his work becomes more violent and harder to swallow.

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