The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are former lovers, each taking pride in their ability to carry out sexual intrigues for their own purposes. The novel follows two of their current ‘projects’, and is narrated through a series of letters exchanged between the two and a variety of other players in the story.
The Vicomte is planning the seduction of Madame de Tourvel, who is renowned for her religious faith and her happy marriage. The Marquise hopes to achieve the corruption of Cecile de Volanges, who is engaged to the Comte de Gercourt – a man who once betrayed the Marquise and on whom she desires revenge.
The interweaving of these two plots sees the development of many conflicting relationships between the characters in this social circle – and many powder kegs threatening to blow. The two protagonists become ever more vicious in their desire to win their game, and the conclusion of the novel sees a mess of death and despair – but also a surprising redemption.
Where did I get hold of the book?
I’ve owned this book in the original French since I studied it at university 27 years ago. Being as disorganised as usual, I failed to get hold of a translation – and so I decided to set myself the challenge of re-reading it in French.
I am proud to announce that I managed it 🙂
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I learned that my French is nowhere as bad as I thought it was! Although I didn’t understand every word, and I certainly couldn’t ‘skim read’ it in the same way I could an English book, I was able to read pretty quickly and figure out not only the general gist but also the nuances of most of the text. Knowing the story beforehand undoubtedly helped, but I still felt I was being led anew by the words I was actually reading, rather than my memory of the plot.
I first started learning French when I was about 10, then pursued it all through my secondary school and up to undergraduate level at university. I think the turning point came when I spent a year in France as part of my degree course, and during that time became more or less fluent. My accent wasn’t great, and I obviously wasn’t up to the standard of a native speaker, but I was totally comfortable with reading, listening, writing and speaking the language.
I’ve not really used my French since then, and it has certainly got rusty. I’d struggle to write or speak it to the same level – but reading this book has made me realise that, having once acquired fluency, it is perhaps like riding a bike: once learned, never forgotten. Many words came back to me as I read them, and I found myself even remembering and understanding idioms that make sense in French but which I’d have difficulty finding an English equivalent for.
It’s a salutary reminder of the value of education – and how much we retain even when we’re not conscious of it.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Firstly, I realised how much I enjoyed reading a book in another language. Languages were my best subject at school, and I’d forgotten what a joy it is to understand something written by someone from another country or culture, in their own words. Not only is it like solving a puzzle, but the different idioms and phrases used also give you an insight into other ways of thinking as well as speaking: the heart and soul of a nation, if you like.
Secondly, I realised how exhausting it must be to live in a world of social machinations, keeping track of lies and intrigues, relationships and pecking orders. I am an extreme introvert, and one of the ways in which my introversion manifests itself is to avoid social interaction. Just being in company – even good company – is exhausting for me; the main reason I left office work and became a freelancer was to escape from having to be with people 9-5 Monday-Friday.
These days I can (mostly) live and work according to my own schedule, and limit the time I spend with others so that I am not overwhelmed by social necessities. The office politics I had to deal with in my years of the 9-5 were nothing like the schemes we see played out in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and yet it was still all too much for me.
The book has reminded me how lucky I am to have created this life for myself where I can avoid unnecessary stresses and strains – and where (I hope!) my relationships are relatively straightforward. Perhaps appropriately for my last book of the year, it has me once again counting my blessings.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
For a while I was seized with an urge to write this blog post in French! However, I’m a bit overrun with various ‘life duties’ at the moment (lots of freelance work, pre-Christmas household arrangements, etc), so I’ve decided not to give my brain anything too productive to cope with. Perhaps I’ll try a translation in the New Year…
I have, however, renewed a promise I made to myself way back in 2014, which was to read more in French. One book on my ‘to read’ list is Oksa Pollock: The Last Hope (L’Inespérée) by Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf: a kind of French, female Harry Potter (or so I’m led to believe). Definitely my kind of book!
As this is the last Book Diaries post of 2015, I’m already looking forward to continuing my challenge in 2016, and have come up with my list of 24 books for the new year. (See my advent calendar for a day-by-day reveal of my choices.) This year I’m hoping that I will also find more time to read around my official list – and I am determined that Oksa Pollock will be one of the ‘extras’.
A final word
Yes, it’s the end of the Book Diaries 2015. I’ve read 24 books in the last year, which is more than I’ve read in a very long time. Did I meet all my challenges? Did I fulfil the objectives I had in mind when starting out? I will be writing a round-up post sometime between now and January, in which I look back over a year of reading – and look forward to where it will take me in the future.
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!