The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History by Joel Warner
Published by Crown Publishing
Publication date: February 21, 2023
Genres: Non-fiction, History
If you’re a bibliophile, then you know the love of collecting books is highly personal. What is a treasure for some might be trash for others. This meant I was conflicted when deciding to read The Curse of the Marquis de Sade. I have no interest in erotic fiction nor did I particularly care about the life of an 18th century French aristocrat who was so debauched the term sadist is derived from his name. What did intrigue me was the fact that Sade wrote a book that has led a life of more controversy than its author.
Given his depravity and blasphemous beliefs the Marquis de Sade was not a welcome member in society. What is noteworthy is that when he was imprisoned in the Bastille for the last time, in the space of one month he wrote a novel on 4” wide scraps of paper glued together end to end that stretches almost 40’. By candlelight, with a quill, in print so tiny it’s virtually impossible to be read by the naked eye. He kept it hidden in one of his cell walls, but was unable to retrieve it before being moved to an insane asylum. When the Bastille was torn down during the French revolution, he believed it to be lost forever.
Author Joel Warner doesn’t go into great detail about Sade’s novel. The title alone says as much as anyone without any interest in violent pornography needs to know: 120 Days in Sodom. Instead, he focuses on the circuitous path this tiny scroll has taken through the centuries. It’s a fact-that-reads-like-fiction journey of bibliophiles, French aristocrats, lost wealth, and criminals. After the Revolution Sade’s manuscript was repeatedly sold from one collector of erotica to another to reside in hidden libraries, a necessity when the Victorian era arrived. The novel itself was of little interest in that its miniscule print meant few had ever even read it. Its value lay in the fact that it was one-of-a-kind—the holy grail for collectors.
In the same way, Warner’s focus in The Curse is not just the contents of the manuscript, but its existence and the existence of anything handwritten in a world being subsumed by digitization. In the 1990s Frenchman Gerald Lhéritier recognized the dilemma and decided to capitalize on it. He founded a company where investors could buy shares in an extraordinary collection of handwritten documents he and his team of experts were curating. Singular pieces of history from the world of literature, music, science, and politics, including the infamous Sade manuscript. Returns would be paid from profits made by exhibits of the documents and their increasing rarity. It all sounds wonderful, but by 2005 the government stepped in, shutting the company down and calling it the largest Ponzi scheme in French history. Warner chronicles the company’s reach, its global impact on the world of rare documents, and the behind-the-scenes of its rise and fall.
Wagner covers centuries of history, not just about Sade’s manuscript, but about many larger themes including religion, sexuality, psychiatry, and most importantly, the increasing rarity of handwritten artifacts and the fact that handwriting is becoming a lost art (cursive is no longer taught in American schools). With such an extended time span the details in The Curse of the Marquis de Sade do cause drag so this is a great choice as a book you can set down, but return to. Fascinating reading for anyone who loves books about books.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Crown Books in exchange for an honest review.*