Customer Reviews: Les Liaisons dangereuses (Oxford World's Classics)
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on February 28, 2004
Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel has been made into at least three film versions, but none of them come nearly up to the real thing. Laclos' story of evil and depravity, starring a pair of jaded aristocrats so satanic we wonder if they have a human bone in their bodies, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, novels of the 18th century. In a nutshell, it revolves around the cynical plot to seduce and destroy the reputation of a young girl fresh out of her convent, which they plan and achieve with the icy calm and cynical detachment of a pair of mathematicians solving a calculus problem.

The anti-hero and anti-heroine of this book, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquis de Merteuil, fascinate and repel us at once by their sheer wickedness. Valmont is a depraved Casanova, lay-em-and-leave-em, who has lost count of all the broken hearts and destroyed characters he has left in his wake. The Marquise de Merteuil, married and widowed too young, has combined shrewd intelligence with appalling powers of deception to engage a string of lovers whom she uses and casts off at random. Somehow these two find each other and form an unholy partnership. When the book opens, their affair is already spent, but they have remained friends; and the Marquise is infuriated when she learns she is about to be dumped by her current lover, a rich aristocrat named Gercourt, who is about to marry Cecile de Volanges, the most naive teenager who ever emerged from the protective cocoon of convent education. Her main attraction, for him, is her virginity, and it is this the Marquise wants Valmont to do away with so that Gercourt will find out on his wedding night that he didn't get the innocent virgin he was expecting, but an already corrupted young woman, and will become the laughing stock of Paris.

Seducing and abandoning an innocent girl is an old story to Valmont, but he has more pressing concerns; he is hopelessly in love with a young married woman, Madame de Tourvel, whose virtue seems impregnable. And here he appears as more sympathetic and human than the Marquise; even if he's trying to seduce a married woman, he, at least, is capable of love; something which is beyond the Marquise, who sees other people as nothing more or less than objects to be used or cast aside. It's only when he finds out that Cecile's mother has been telling Madame de Tourvel his scandalous life history that he decides to seduce Cecile, to pay back the mother for messing in his business. At the same time, he perseveres in his pursuit of Madame de Tourvel. But just at the point of victory, the Marquise turns his very strength, his ability to love, into a weakness; she uses it as a weapon against him to make him think his love for Madame de Tourvel is contempible. At this point, we see the real conflict in the book, Valmont against the Marquise. But Valmont, as cynical and jaded as he is, is no match for this lady; her very emotional detachment makes her unassailable. Valmont doesn't have a chance. He's not only destroyed the Madame de Tourvel, he's also destroyed himself. It looks like the Marquise is the sole victor in this combat. But is she? Fatally, the Marquise has forgotten that letters can be dangerous weapons, and she's written a few too many. What goes around comes around.

Laclos's book caused a sensation in its own time that reverberated for decades afterward; 40 years after its publication it was condemned by a criminal court and publicly incinerated in a mass book-burning ceremony. If Laclos had still been alive then, they might have wanted to toss him on top of the pyre. Whatever feelings the book may have aroused when it was written, it has endured for two hundred years since as a masterpiece of literature in any language. Any book that has been the basis of three different films, each unique from the other, has to be saying something to modern readers. Laclos' book says a great deal and says it magnificently.

Judy Lind
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on August 31, 2007
I purchased the Oxford Classic edition of Les Liasons, translated by Douglas Parmee, and much to my chagrin, found the text to be riddled with poor writing and literary anachronisms.

Parmee may be accurately transliterating the French original; I of course cannot read it. But the book he has produced borders on the unreadable. Cecile, an aristocratic French girl of 15, speaks like a besotted 60-year old English gentleman. "Fortunately Mummy's feeling much better today and Madame de Marteuil is coming with the Chevalier Danceny and somebody else but she never comes until late and when you're all alone for such a long time, it gets jolly boring." (pg. 32) Yes, you read that right, "jolly boring." In Parmee's translation, Cecile uses "jolly" quite often, but somehow I cannot imagine a beautiful if naive French girl ever saying "jolly" anything.

Also gone is the tense sophistication of the Vicomte and the Marquise's dialogs in the movie--in its stead it seems that Parmee has elected to give them the voices of two American High School students, void of all intelligence, charm and wit, leaving them with just enough arrogant cunning to move the plot. Throughout all the letters, there are a great deal of run-on sentences which require a great deal of effort to understand, a characteristic of bad writing.

I've read a few pages of the Lièvre translation and can plainly see that it is much improved. I recommend you purchase that version and leave this one well alone, as I plan to do.
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on March 16, 1997
Many people have seen one of several movie productions of this book and assumed that it is a modern story that has taken the 18th century as its setting. In fact, the book was written at that time, and it provides a shocking, thrilling, sexy window into the lives of the french aristocracy.
It is a thing of beauty. The exploits of the central characters make your average daytime soap opera look tame, and it is all done with a cunning and an evil grace that went out of style with the french revolution. Language is used as an aphrodesiac, a lever, and occasionally a cudgel, and since the book takes the form of the published letters of the main characters we hear it straight from the pens of those involved.
"Les Liasons Dangereuses" will make you mourn the invention of the telephone. Such skill with the written word! The double meaning was king, with muddied intentions as its queen.
Read this book: you really must. If you love language it will become a favorite of yours, just as it did for me.
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on April 9, 2003
When I read Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (which retains its French title in the 1961 English translation by P W K Stone), I found myself amazed and thrilled by its absolute excellence of execution. Its energy and spirit, and the seductive and machiavellian - perhaps even diabolical - undertones which whisper throughout the work, urge the reader ever onwards in the best page-turning tradition. It is possibly not for nothing that the book itself was eventually decreed 'dangerous' by French officials a full 42 years after it first appeared, long after it might have been expected to have lost its ability to shock. Even if you have seen the films "Dangerous Liaisons" (dir. Steven Frears) or "Valmont" (dir. Milos Forman) based on the book - and whether or not you liked them - this is an outstandingly good novel which is beautifully served by the precise and graceful prose of its translator, whose subtle range of diction manages to convey the tones and tempers of the characters most convincingly. The written story's chief virtues - a compelling narrative drive, and a skill in characterisation which permit some superbly-observed insights - easily withstand comparison with the screen versions; even today, when we are so fully exposed to the diverse secrets of the psychiatrist's confessional and the details of all the world's vicissitudes and miseries, it would be hard to improve on their portrayal here in print.
The book succeeds so well for many reasons. Some of its appeal to a sophisticated (or at least blasé) modern audience is, I believe, the multi-layered cynicism of its vainglorious but not unattractive main characters and rivals, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte (viscount) de Valmont, a reminder that profound deceit is not the sole prerogative of the post-industrial era. Part of the reader's amusement is to observe how their egotism - by far the most easily-wounded of their sensibilities - is also an exercise in the deception of themselves as well as of all those with whom they have dealings. Equally, their wily scheming and duplicity simultaneously appal the reader while also appealing to any secret desire he might himself harbour to exercise his or her own will with equal freedom and with equal heedlessness of conscience or consequences, thus planting a distinct ambivalence in his breast. This effect is augmented by the shifting first-person narrative, a device which gives the voices of its protagonists an intimate (and often touching) immediacy and multiplies the scope for irony by giving the reader a consistently better view than the characters, to which the skilful interweaving of the sub-plots also contributes. I should mention that the novel is written entirely as a sequence of letters. This format was common in the 18th century when the book was written, but its relative rarity in modern fiction makes its appearance today refreshing. That it is overtly concerned with the sexual seduction of the weak by the strong partially disguises the fact that it is also a philosophical novel whose themes would easily form the subject of more general discussion. As a depiction of the relations between individual human beings, it is, to be sure, a study of calculating spiritual emptiness, but one which does not shy from laying bare the catastrophic consequences of the conspirators on their victims, just as the report of a war correspondent might describe in detail the horror of a bomb explosion in a hospital. "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" not only contains plenty of anguish on the part of its characters and an affecting deathbed scene, but the reader's own emotions are made to oscillate intensely throughout from amusement to arousal, from curiosity to incredulity, from admiration to dismay... all thanks to the superb manipulation of Laclos, whose mastery of both narrative and reader is absolute and, perhaps, somewhat unsettling. (But how I wish he had written more!)
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on September 19, 2005
This is probably my favourite classic novel of all time and deserves more than 5 stars. When I read it I was totaly blown away by it's genius. The Christoper Hampton play is excellent and the film based on it "Dangerous Liasons" is also very good, but the novel is even better. Which is unusual since it's when a film version is made that the story really comes alive for the reader not the other way round. The way it is written as a collection of what seems like real life letters revealing a scandal, that have been passed around members of society and finaly published makes you feel almost a part of the story. Being about a page and half long each, they are as if designed to read on the bus or tube despite being written in 1792!. It is very easy to pick up and put down again without losing the thread of the story. Laclos seems to know exactly how to pace and order the letters to maintain maximum interest and suspense from the beginning right through to the very end allowing the story to unfold at exactly the right moment. And even though I was very familiar with the plot I still never knew quite was going to happen next. The plot is remarkable and very famous so I wont go into it, but if you like it the novel is a must.
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on March 29, 2000
Along with L'Assommoir by Zola and Journey to the End of the Night by Celine, Choderlos de Laclos's masterpiece ranks as one of my favorite books of all time. To fully appreciate the genius of the letter writing form,one must understand that the libertine novels of the 18th century all utilized this format. Laclos admittedly set out to write a book that would depart from other works of the century to leave a dramatic imprint on the world, and he succeeded. While written in the same lingusitic and seductive style of a libertine novel, Laclos transforms the limited and mundane scope of the libertine world into a riveting classic. Each character reflects a different conception of "love" and how the libertine world can go awry when true sentiment is confused with lust. La Marquise de Merteuil reflects the purest degree of libertinage. In perhaps the most spellbinding of all the letters, she explains to Valmont her duplictious conduct after her husband's death to obtain her reputation among men and place herself at the forefront of society's attention. In contrast, Mlle. de Tourvel is the epitome of sentimental love, to the point that she can become physically ill if it is not reciprocated. Clearly what separates this work from other romance novels of the 18th century, elevating it to the level of other world masterpieces, is the character of Valmont. He is the heart and soul of this novel in every way possible. One one hand, Valmont is extremely self-assured in his ways, when describing his calculating, rational strategy in courting naive young ladies. On the other hand, he refuses to accept the reality evidenced by his relationship with Mme. de Tourvel that he is not the manipulative libertine that he, and society, consider him to be. The deep struggle within Valmont between his true feelings and his vanity in preserving his reputation of libertinage is perhaps the most compelling storyline in the novel- because it is physcological and under the surface. At this level, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is often compared to "Crime and Punishment". les Liaisons is more subtle in its physcological dimension in that the reader must form her own conclusions about Valmont's physchosis whereas Raskelnikov's mental state is at the heart of the prose. If I have not convinved everyone yet to go ahead and experience the magic of Laclos (who fortuneatley survived the Terror), then I have failed in my task...
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VINE VOICEon September 28, 2006
What I love about this book, aside from the fact that it maintains a voyeuristic appeal through its epistolary form, is that it is cerebrally sexual.
Laclos' language is gorgeous and his subtlety is sublime. The book is wildly sexual but never crass or disgusting.
Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont are the absolute paragons of villainy you will love to hate.
The book is at its simplest level a study of the total destruction of naivete and innocence, but you can be sure that just desserts will be served all around.
A fantastic novel...if only de Laclos had written more!
Also, the movie version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich is wonderful as well--but of course, I recommend reading the novel first.
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on August 21, 1999
I'm 13 and the reason I bought the book was that I LOVED the movie. I was worried by the fact that it was written in letters but after the first few pages I was completely taken in by it. Dracula was written similarly in letters - but the letters were more descriptive than personal. In the bookwe get in a very close insight into the characters. The true emotions of the characters are conveyed. The conflict of the Presidente's emotions and the tragedy and irony of the Marquise are put across beautifully. A work of art- buy it.
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on June 18, 2010
Any translation is going to be less than the original if the writer of the original had any skill with words. Laclos wrote extremely well, so it is inevitable that an English translation runs the risk of being heavy-handed in comparison with the original text. Alas, this translation is indeed a lesser production. But, despite that fact, it's worth reading unless you can come by a better version. Two hundred years ago the epistolary novel was all the rage (in English, Richardon's Pamela was the non plus ultra of the genre, though many including myself far prefer Fielding). Laclos' work stands head and shoulders above all other epistolary novels in any European language. Not only is the device, in his hands, quite believable but the human observation is far more acute and true to life than anything else being written at that time. Far from echoing the conventions of plot and character typical of his era, Laclos writes what he knows to be true. And this is the novel's enduring appeal.

The heart of the story is essentially an emotional chess game played by two well-matched adversaries who formerly were, briefly, lovers. The Marquise de Merteuil, an older woman, is playing against the Vicomte de Valmont, a dashing younger rake. Laclos brilliantly enables us to see the intrinsic egoism of both protagonists and at the same time their emptiness and frailty. Even as Valmont seems to be moving smoothly from one conquest to another, Merteuil is playing his own ego against him, exploiting a weakness he simply doesn't see until too late. Merteuil exhorts Valmont to seduce the most faithful woman in France, telling him that it will be his ultimate triumph. And Valmont, like a proud and vain little boy, does just that - but in the process comes to a vague awareness that this woman (the Madame de Tourvel) can offer him something far greater than a living sheath for his rampant organ. He glimpses an adumbration of true love. Merteuil detects this from his letters and of course is threatened to her core. She gave Valmont only her skills as a seductress; Tourvel could give him so much more. So Merteuil plays her finest move: she plays on Valmont's enormous ego to persuade him to break Tourvel's heart and thus prove himself to be the ultimate rake. Valmont, lacking sufficient emotional resources to be his own man at this crucial point, does as he is bid - and then realizes that he's thrown away the only thing that really mattered in his entire life.

The sub-plots are satisfying and the characters are finely drawn. There are moments of cruel humor and even bawdy pathos, though such a thing sounds improbable in the abstract. The denouement is as awful as it is inevitable, and Merteuil is left the meaningless victor of a game in which all the pieces have been smashed beyond redemption.

This is not a book to appeal to those who want fantasies about human nature, or who require happy endings. But for anyone interested in a surgical examination of human foibles and the degree to which self-deception can go, this is a must-read. And for anyone who can read French, of course it's so much better to go to the original than to have to wade through a fairly insipid translation.
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on December 27, 2004
This novel was one of the most witty and cynical that I have ever read. De Laclos has a gift for capturing the voices of his depraved characters. His voice was especially strong with the Marquise De Merteuil.

The basic story-line was a pair of depraved aristocrats plot against a young innocent convent girl and a righteous woman and find that their plot has deadly consequences. It is like nothing I had never read before, since it was completely in letter format. I must admit that I normally use to the typical prose format that most novels are in. But reading the letters was wonderful and it made it feel intimate; as if you were really getting into the minds of the characters. Valmont and Merteil were both so vicious but strangely charming and your heart does go out to Tourvel and Danceny; the only figures in the book that truly do believe in love.

Overall, this book was such a pleasure to read and I highly recommend reading it with dark chocolates around.
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