At Home With the Marquis De Sade

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9780756783761: At Home With the Marquis De Sade
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In this groundbreaking account of the scandalous life and the violent times of the Marquis de Sade, novelist, essayist, and biographer Francine du Plessix Gray brilliantly resurrects this legendary man's relationship with his family -- his devoted wife, his iron-willed mother-in-law, and his three children. Gray draws on thousands of pages of letters exchanged by the two spouses, few of which have been published in English, to explore in the fullest historical and psychological detail what it was like to be the Marquise de Sade, a decorous, upright woman married throughout the decades preceding the French Revolution to one of the most maverick spirits of recent times.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), the flamboyant aristocrat whose name has come to connote sexual cruelty, has been called "the freest spirit who ever lived," "the most lucid hero of Western thought," and "a Professor Emeritus of crime." Yet in the vast literature inspired by the marquis's fictional and real-life libertinism, relatively little attention has been given the two women who were closest to him: Renée-Pélagie de Sade, his adoring wife for more than a quarter of a century, and his powerful mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil. Gray brings to life these two remarkable women and their complex relationship with Sade as they dedicated themselves, each in her own way, to protecting him from the law, curbing his excesses, and ultimately confining him.

After years of indulging a variety of sexual aberrations, experiences he used in novels such as Justine, Philosophy in the Boudoir, and The 120 Days of Sodom, Sade was imprisoned on the basis of an arrest warrant issued by Louis XVI at his mother-in-law's instigation. Throughout his thirteen years in jail, Madame de Sade was her husband's principal solace and his only lifeline to reality. Few spouses seemed more ill-matched than the profligate nobleman and his homespun wife, but the two enjoyed intimate bonds of affection and conspiracy. Madame de Sade remained passionately in love with her husband throughout the first twenty-six years of their marriage; she accepted his many liaisons with actresses, courtesans, and whores of all varieties; hid her husband's traces from the police; and may even have participated in his orgies. It was only upon the onset of the French Revolution, when Sade was finally freed from the Bastille, that Pélagie made a sudden about-face from her decades of abject devotion.

In the course of telling this remarkable story, Gray vividly re-creates the extravagant hedonism of late eighteenth-century France; the ensuing terror of the French Revolution, when her protagonists lived in fear of imminent destruction; and the oppression of the Napoleonic regime under which Sade spent his last decade. The seventy-four-year span of the Marquis de Sade's life, the entire panorama of his milieu and of his times, are brought to life in these pages with immediacy, irony, and verve.

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Review:

Lending his name to the term sadism, and synonymous with pornography and sexual perversion, the infamous Marquis de Sade was inarguably mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But the very qualities that were repellent in the man make for fascinating reading in Francine du Plessix Gray's biography, At Home with the Marquis de Sade. The pitfalls of writing about such a scandalous subject are obvious: Sade is so completely associated in the modern mind with extremely degrading sexual escapades that any book about him risks being tarred with the same prurient brush--how does one discuss the Marquis without mentioning such loaded topics as whipping, sodomy, masturbation, blasphemy, or orgies, for example? The answer is, one doesn't; but Gray's focus in this biography is less on Sade's sexuality than on his relationship with the two most influential women in his life: his wife, Pélagie, and his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil.

It seems even a sadist can love, and in his own way, the Marquis de Sade loved his wife. Even more remarkable is that Pélagie apparently returned his affection devotedly for many years, despite frequent scandals, jailings, and even an affair with her own sister. Gray draws extensively on letters written by Sade, his wife, and his mother-in-law to paint a vibrant picture of an unorthodox marriage, a period of great political upheaval, and a complicated bond between mother and daughter. Gray also places the Marquis's writing in a context that, while forthrightly characterizing it as "the crudest, most repellent fictional dystopia ever limned, the creation of a borderline psychotic whose scatological fantasies have grown all the more deranged in the solitude and rage of his jail cell," also acknowledges its "recklessness and daring" as well as its influence on later writers from Swinburne and Baudelaire to Octavio Paz and Luis Buñuel. Sex, art, religion, and politics--At Home with the Marquis de Sade addresses them all with the intelligence and insight one has come to expect from Francine du Plessix Gray.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Despite his manic promiscuities and a conspicuous gift for generating catastrophe, the Marquis de Sade was, according to Gray, a happily married man. In 1990 the monstrous Sade's literary stock rose inestimably. Gallimard, the famous French publishing house, issued a two-volume set of his works in its prestigious series of classics, Bibliothque de la Pliade. Now a very fine biographer has turned her attentions to Donatien Alphonse Franois, Marquis de Sade (17401814). Gray is a woman of already substantial reputation as a novelist and journalist who established her credentials as a biographer with her excellent study of Flaubert's lover, Louise Colet (Rage and Fire, 1990). Of course, many scholars have worked assiduously at Sade's biography over the years, and Gray doesnt claim to offer fresh discoveries. However, she can claim to offer fresh insight. The angle of vision she develops in her version of his life is that of Sade's relationship with his devoted and loving and interestingly ordinary wife, Plagie, and their family. For his part, Sade seems also to have been devoted to Plagie, in his own odd way. Often prosecuted and publicly vilified for his sexual excesses (which are not nearly so bad as those he depicts in his fiction, but which remain sufficiently disgusting), Sade could always count on the support of his Plagie. The people who knew ``Donatien'' well, his biographer suggests, ``detected a secret gentleness in him, something like a hidden stream of sweetness flowing through the heart of his being, which may well have been the secret of his terrible charm.'' Plagie's energetic husband will not win many admirers, but his life makes quite a story. Gray's sharp and vivid prose, together with her skills as a storyteller, give this biography its edge over the scholars whose works have preceded it. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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