A Must-Have 'Depraved' Tale ; French Library Seeks Marquis De Sade's Story as a National Treasure

By Sciolino, Elaine | International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Must-Have 'Depraved' Tale ; French Library Seeks Marquis De Sade's Story as a National Treasure


Sciolino, Elaine, International Herald Tribune


Bruno Racine, director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, wants to pay $5 million the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade's "The 120 Days of Sodom."

"The 120 Days of Sodom," by the Marquis de Sade, is one of the most perverse works of 18th-century literature.

It tells the story of four rich "libertines" who lock themselves in a remote medieval castle with 46 victims (including eight boys and eight girls, ages 12 to 15). The men are assisted by four female brothel keepers who arouse their hosts by recounting their outlandish (and embellished) experiences.

The work describes orgies and acts of abuse -- sexual and otherwise-- including pedophilia, necrophilia, incest, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, bestiality, violent anal and oral sex acts and the use of urination and defecation to humiliate and punish.

Sade called it "the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began."

There is nothing erotic about it.

Even Bruno Racine, director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the National Library, calls it "depraved."

But that hasn't stopped him from negotiating long and hard to buy Sade's manuscript. He has convinced the Foreign and Culture Ministries of its importance. He has argued in front of the Commission of National Treasures to declare it provisionally a "national treasure" that needs to be preserved in the library. He is ready to pay more than $5 million to get it.

"The document is Sade's most atrocious, extreme, radical work," Mr. Racine said. "But we make no moral judgment about it." A rambling, unfinished draft, "120 Days" has been praised and vilified. Simone de Beauvoir defended it as an important contribution to the dark side of humanity in her essay "Must We Burn Sade?"

The American feminist writer Andrea Dworkin branded it a "vile" story written by a woman-hating pornographer. In a 1975 film Pier Paolo Pasolini set the story in an imaginary Italian republic as a condemnation of Mussolini's Fascist regime.

Sade wrote the draft in 37 days in 1785 in the Bastille, where he had been imprisoned for assaulting women and girls. He wrote in tiny script on both sides of a sheaf of narrow paper, whose sheets he attached into a single 39-foot-long roll. Fearing that his work would be confiscated, he hid the roll in a crevice in a stone wall of his cell.

Days before the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Sade was transferred at night to a prison for the insane. He wrote that he "wept tears of blood" over the manuscript's loss, and he went to his grave in 1814 without knowing its fate. But it was recovered, sold, resold and then published for the first time by a German doctor in an error-filled version in 1904.

In 1929 Viscount Charles de Noailles, whose wife, Marie-Laure, was a direct descendant of Sade's, bought the manuscript. The couple, wealthy and passionate patrons of the arts, handed it down to their daughter, Natalie, who kept it in a drawer at the family's estate in Fontainebleau. She would sometimes unroll it and show it to guests; the Italian writer Italo Calvino was one of them.

"My mother showed me the manuscript when I was a boy," Carlo Perrone, an Italian newspaper publisher who is Natalie de Noailles's son, said in a telephone interview from Rome. …

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