In continuing rare book & manuscript news, the Bibliothèque Nationale wants to repatriate the manuscript for De Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom, surely one of the filthiest and most depraved works ever written. Below is Elaine Sciolino’s article on the fracas. Of interest to us is Ms. Sciolino’s assertion that “There is nothing erotic about it.” Is that true? Probably not, even as a general claim; but certainly not for those who are turned on by filth and depravity – a topic on which I remain more or less agnostic (I mean, at my age, I’m willing to be turned on by whatever works; but, somehow….). Read on:
PARIS — “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 Bibliothèque 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. And 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 under a royal order initiated against him by his mother-in-law. (In his youth he had been repeatedly arrested for acts of sexual mistreatment, sodomy and violence.) 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. “I remember the handwriting was so small, and that there were no corrections. It gave you the impression that paper was very scarce and precious for him, and that he had to fill up every space.”
Ms. de Noailles eventually entrusted both that manuscript and the manuscript of Stravinsky’s ballet “Les Noces” to a friend, the publisher Jean Grouet.
Mr. Grouet turned out to be a swindler. In 1982 he smuggled the Sade manuscript into Switzerland and sold it to Gérard Nordmann, a Swiss collector of erotica, for about $60,000.
Ms. de Noailles sued. After a long legal case, France’s highest court ruled in 1990 that the work had been stolen and must be returned. (The family was able to retrieve the Stravinsky manuscript, which had remained in France.)
Since Switzerland had not yet signed the Unesco convention requiring the restitution of stolen cultural objects, Ms. de Noailles was forced to sue again in that country. In 1998 the Swiss federal court ruled in Mr. Nordmann’s favor, saying that he had bought the manuscript in good faith.
Afterward, the manuscript was kept at a cultural foundation in Switzerland.
Then, last January, Mr. Nordmann’s heirs offered to sell the manuscript to a French collector. Mr. Perrone intervened.
“Anyone who wants to buy the manuscript in France needs my consent,” he said in the interview. “My mother had a very strong wish that one day the manuscript would be given to the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is my wish as well. It’s an important historical document, a piece of French history.”
Enter Mr. Racine. Since taking over as director of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2007, he has sought to have important manuscripts classified as “national treasures” in order to acquire them for the library.
Among other purchases, he has bought Casanova’s memoirs with $9.6 million from an anonymous donor; the archives of the French philosopher Michel Foucault; and the archives of the French Marxist theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord (preventing them from leaving the country and going to Yale).
“I don’t know of any director of a world-class library today who is making the kind of brilliant strategic acquisitions that Bruno Racine is making at the Bibliothèque Nationale,” said Paul Le Clerc, the former head of the New York Public Library and the director of Columbia University’s programs in Europe.
Now Mr. Racine is negotiating with Mr. Perrone and the heirs of Mr. Nordmann to buy the Sade manuscript and give each party a cut. The estimated sale price — more than $5 million — would be raised from private donors.
Mr. Racine’s goal is to put the manuscript on display, along with other Sade works in the library’s collection, for the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death next year.
“It is a unique, exceptional work, and a miracle that it survived,” he said. “It is part of our cultural heritage. Whether we like it or not, it belongs in the Bibliothèque Nationale.”