A few weeks back I opened my front door, and there on the landing was a small, dog-eared, salmon-coloured paperback: the Marquis de Sade’s Les Crimes de l’amour. Diane, my neighbour downstairs, visits bibliothèques de la rue – small wooden lockers set back from the sidewalk, where people can pick up and leave second-hand books. I’ve never noticed the bibliothèques before I moved here (a quiet, northern suburb on the island of Montréal), although since I’ve started recounting this story, people tell me that they are everywhere in the city. In any case, I didn’t confess to my neighbour that I’d never heard of the bibliothèques de la rue, and I didn’t ask her what was behind the tradition. In Montréal, I’ve gotten used to figuring things out as I go along and pretending I know what I’m doing. It’s part of scraping by with the language: you make up what you don’t quite hear or don’t want to ask. In this particular instance, I figured that the book exchange scheme was probably the brain-child of some new and ambitious city councillor who saw mutual self-help as a way of gaining prominence and maybe winning votes. This at least is how I see things.
My neighbour doesn’t work. She’s waiting for her sixty-fifth birthday, which I happen to know is next March, because when it comes she’ll get more money from the government. She dreams of finally getting out of her basement apartment and starting a new life. In the meantime she walks the streets – and reads.
She’s quite respectable. She’s decently dressed and generally sociable. She’s a middle-class woman fallen on hard times with two adult children in the city and no husband in attendance. Her own preference is for historical novels – dramas or romances that take place in the châteaux and royal courts of Europe over two centuries ago, and which I assume involve intrigue and illicit sex. Her other preoccupation is complaining about the landlord who lives on the ground floor and is falling behind in repairs. She catches me on the stairs or just outside the front door, speaking always in a low, conspiratorial voice as if she’s frightened of being overheard. “Est-ce qu’il vous dérange?” she asks. “Il claque la porte quand il rentre, et si fort. J’ai dit, pas si fort, pas si fort. Je dors seulement quatre ou cinq heures par nuit à cause de lui. Et j’ai des réparations à faire. J’appelle et j’appelle!”
The landlord’s partner left him about a year ago, and he’s taken over sole responsibility for the building. He works long hours and comes in very late at night, slamming the front door and waking Diane up at 4:00 am.
I like talking to Diane. She makes me feel I have a place in the world because she’s so sure of having one herself. She lets me know what’s going on in the house, and now that the landlord is alone, we are more or less all in the same boat: four célibataires, as Diane says – myself, Diane, the landlord (Bruno) and the landlord’s young adult son who has the apartment next to mine. The son has short-term girlfriends who come and go. For the most part we all rattle around in a medium-sized, semi-detached triplex like loose change in an automatic vending machine, minding our own business and leading our own lives. I would describe relations as a step above indifference and a step below nosiness, though people are polite, and in that respect I think it helps to be Anglophone – or half-foreigner – because people do observe the decencies and still leave me a certain amount of personal space.
I knew as soon as I had it in my hands that I would like Les Crimes de l’amour. Apart from the shocking pink cover, the title is done in neat, round lettering much like the handwriting of the educated French, schooled in exclusive French lycées. The appearance of the book is unmistakably haughty and Parisian – I would say from somewhere around the Sorbonne. I see a tiny, dark bookstore on a narrow street off Boulevard St-Michel. On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of a classical painting showing a powerful, muscled and mostly naked man whipping a fleshy and mostly naked woman; the man’s right arm is drawn back, ready to strike, and in his hand is a ribbed iron chain. The corners of the photograph are curved, as in cheap Polaroid prints. The effect is tacky. The message is deadly serious.
Les Crimes de l’amour was a surprise, but not a disappointment. The book consists of four lengthy short stories in which there is not a single sex scene. The usual stuff of melodrama – alcohol, violence, physical cruelty, or cold, calculating sexual adventure – is almost entirely absent. These are all are stories of trickery and deception, and the deceivers show a remarkable constancy in their attachments: the objects of their cunning are known to them and are often chosen by them, and if they abandon their victims for a time, they later return. They are not usually motivated by money or ambition: what they seek is psychological domination and the gratification of their own desires. The death, dishonour or humiliation of a virtuous young woman – or possibly all three combined – follow as the inevitable consequence of the deceitful characters’ need to manipulate and control.
In a moral sense, the Marquis clearly knows what’s what: the schemers and manipulators are called scoundrels, thugs, bandits, rascals (malfrats, fripons, vauriens, coquins). The stories are presented as tragedies, and true to that tradition, the outcome is only hinted at; the reader must read to the end to learn exactly how much psychological pain can be inflicted and how much damage can be done. But there is no real contest between good and evil, and no sense that good will eventually be restored. Here innocence is drawn to destruction as a flower turns to the sun.
Most often, the innocents are young women and the evil-doers are men, but this is not exclusively true. A young man is killed with his lover, a mother plots against her daughter, and a daughter plans her mother’s downfall because she sees her mother as a rival. The stories take place in pre-Revolutionary France – among landowners, counts, barons, chevaliers, and their wives, widows, daughters and sisters – but there is no sense that the corruption in this society is at the root of the choices people make. The desire to harm is pure and disembodied; it is unexplained and unexcused. And although there are characters who insist on the importance of morality in any given society, their efforts are curiously inept and ineffectual. Guardians or clerics who are friends of the family make long, tedious speeches about the value of the good life, but fail to see moral danger when it appears. They are complacent and self-protective, and they take no risks for themselves.
If all there is to living is self-interest, the Marquis seems to say, then virtue isn’t an option. Evil will always win out.
The stories are best read late at night, in the stillness of a sleeping house. It’s then that you can sink into the long, elegant sentences stretching down half a page, or search around in the recesses of memory for unusual verb forms that are probably the past historic tense, or take a guess at whether a verb form could be an imperfect subjunctive. In the silence of the night, ego melts away and you no longer struggle to get things right; you concentrate on what’s there and what you can make of it. Thankfully, the vocabulary hasn’t changed very much over two centuries, and a broad understanding of the story comes through easily enough.
The unfolding of the plot is strangely satisfying. The most exciting moments are probably those where virtue seems, fleetingly, to have a sporting chance, but the suspense never lasts long. Good never breaks back, and never puts much effort into the fight. In one of the stories (“Florville et Corval ou le Fatalisme”) there isn’t even an evil-doer as such, and a woman whose only wish has been to lead a blameless life finds, at the age of thirty-seven and in the first months of a long-delayed marriage, that she is nonetheless responsible for two deaths and two acts of incest. She has been trapped, not by human malevolence but by fate – by not knowing her parentage and by being put in some very difficult circumstances. When she learns what she has done, she blows her brains out. Her new husband and his son by an earlier marriage soon retreat to a life of contemplation and prayer, where they learn “that it is only in the darkness of the tomb that man can find the tranquility that the ill-will of his fellow creatures, his unbridled passion and the iron hand of destiny will always deny him on earth.” [Author’s translation]
By the Marquis’ standards, this is a happy ending, for even if the woman was well intentioned and could not have known that she was breaking fundamental social rules, her victims did not deserve their fate. In this sense she is guilty and her suicide is just. Her husband and stepson share in her dishonour, and for them, as for her, death is the only release.
The Marquis de Sade died on December 2, 1814 at the age of seventy-four, after spending thirty years of his adult life in prisons or institutions for the insane. His family buried him but put no name on the tombstone because they were ashamed of his craziness. I learned this from the “Introduction” by Gilbert Lely. I also learned that Les Crimes de l’amour is not reckoned to be the Marquis’ best book. That would probably be Justine, published in 1791, followed perhaps by Nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu, suivie par l’Histoire de Juliette, sa soeur, published in 1797. Les Crimes de l’amour was first published in Year VIII of the French Revolutionary Calendar, 1799.
When I was halfway through the third story, Diane came once more to my door. To be exact, my doorbell rang unexpectedly, and when I went down to answer it, Diane was outside waiting to be let in. “Bruno n’est pas là,” she told me, and on the way up the stairs: “Ma porte ferme automatiquement. C’est une serrure spéciale. Ça coûte cinquante dollars pour faire une autre. J’ai oublié ma clé.” Upstairs she told me, “Je déteste Bruno. Je dors sur le sofa afin de ne pas l’entendre la nuit. Je dors presque pas. Je suis toujours fatiguée. C’est pour ça que je n’ai pas pris ma clé.”
She spent the better part of the day in my apartment, with a brief spell next door in the apartment of a tenant she is friends with. I offered tea, a sandwich, a glass of wine, a book, a video – anything to take her mind off her discomfort and to pass the time – but she accepted nothing. She clung to the bitterness and frustration of feeling hard done by. Mid-afternoon, I lent her my cell phone and she phoned Bruno at work, but he didn’t know when he was coming back. The son didn’t return either. I told her how much I had liked Les Crimes de l’amour and offered it to her to read, but she pushed it aside. I think she prefers historical romances.
At eight in the evening Bruno came home. She flew (almost literally) down the stairs and into her apartment. The next morning she was back outside my door, knocking. She spoke in her low, furtive voice: “Je quitte mon appartement en octobre. J’ai parlé à Bruno. Il m’a dit okay. Je pars pour de bon.” I felt I would miss her, but knew I couldn’t expect her to stay for me. At the end of the week I saw her outside wearing a good pant-suit and talking to a neighbour. I assumed she was going to stay with family, and I was a little hurt that she hadn’t said goodbye. I didn’t see her again for a while, although I didn’t see any moving vans either.
In late October I ran into her just outside the building. “Vous êtes toujours ici? Je pensais que vous êtes partie,” I said in surprise. “Il ne m’a pas laissé partir.” Now she was almost inaudible, and I had to lean in close to catch what she said about Bruno not letting her leave. “Il m’a dit que j’ai signé un papier en juillet. Je pars en avril. Il veut…” She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. I said, “Il a besoin d’argent puisque sa femme l’a quitté.”
I could see that she’d lost her bounce. She had the look of someone broken inside. In a whisper, she added, “Il m’a dit que j’ai un caractère bavardeux.” Obviously, the fight between them had been personal, and she had lost. I haven’t seen her since. She keeps herself to herself and rarely goes out.
I can’t help feeling sorry for Diane, although I also feel that she brought it on herself. I could’ve told her that the landlord wouldn’t have let her go just like that, and in a business relationship, who goes against their own best interests? Who can expect that they will? And maybe if Diane had read Les Crimes de l’amour, she might have known that in order to get what you want out of life, you have to be a landlord and not a basement tenant.
All the same, I judge Bruno more than Diane in this affair. From what she told me, he was too harsh with her – and too personal. He feels to me to be more of a villain, while Diane is just naïve and foolish.
In my mind, Diane has a fair amount in common with the virtuous young ladies in Les Crimes de l’amour. The mistakes these ladies make ensue mostly from their over-readiness to trust: they believe that the world is benign and supportive, and cannot see trouble coming. They continue to believe in the men (and women) who betray them right until the end. But emotionally, this perhaps is what the stories are about: you don’t pity the Marquis’ leading ladies, but you do experience their fall into the abyss – their annihilation or their disappearance from the social map. This is how the stories end – with the death or dishonour of these young women, and not with the triumph of their tormenters.
There is a deep sense of loss in the Marquis’ endings – a feeling of emptiness, the certainty that winning is always without purpose. There is also a profound sense of peace – the peace of knowing that there is a realm above individual responsibility and judgment where nothing matters and nothing can be judged. Nothing matters because good was never valued anyway, and because everything is now destroyed.
This is the message I imagine being carried via my bright pink copy of Les Crimes de l’amour, from the back streets of Paris to the quiet suburban streets of Montréal. My copy is well-thumbed; the pages are slightly yellowed. Inside the front cover is a penciled price – in Canadian dollars – and the name of a previous owner has been torn off, giving it a jagged look. I imagine the book passing through several local hands before reaching me. Before my particular edition was issued, generations of French readers must have read the same stories in other printed versions, and the stories themselves go back more than two hundred years to the dark prisons of the French monarchy and the early years of the French Revolution. The message itself is implacable, but it does carry with it the promise of release – release without forgiveness, or repentance, or obedience to a new faith.