On 3 July 1789, in the middle of the night, the Marquis de Sade was dragged from his cell in the ironically named Liberty tower of the Bastille. Earlier that day he had been caught shouting to the crowd gathered outside the prison walls that the inmates’ throats were being cut. He was transferred to an asylum outside Paris, and forced to leave many of his most precious possessions behind, including a copper cylinder kept hidden in a crevice in the wall. When his wife set off for the Bastille to fetch his belongings on 14 July, it was already too late: the Revolution had beaten her to it, and she had to turn back empty-handed.
Sade wept “tears of blood” over the loss. Inside the cylinder was a scroll, 12m long and 11cm wide, covered in minute handwriting: the manuscript of an unfinished novel called The 120 Days of Sodom, or The School of Libertinage.
Though Sade never saw his scroll again, its story was far from over. Somehow it escaped the storming of the Bastille in the hands of a young man called Arnoux de Saint-Maximin, who then sold it to a Provençal aristocrat, the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans. His family held on to it for more than a 100 years before eventually selling it to a German collector, who allowed the pioneering sexologist Iwan Bloch to publish the novel for the first time in 1904. Sade’s descendants, the Nouailles family, bought the scroll back in 1929 and kept it until 1982, when they entrusted the publisher, Jean Grouet, with its valuation. But he smuggled it over the border to Switzerland, and sold it to a leading collector of erotica, Gérard Nordmann. Decades of legal wrangling ensued between the Nouailles and the Nordmanns, only resolved in 2014 when a private foundation acquired the scroll for €7m and placed it on display in Paris. The exhibition was cut short when the director of the foundation was charged with fraud. The scroll, which started its life in prison, is thus under lock and key once again, waiting for the courts to decide its future.
The story of the scroll, complete with Provençal noblemen, prison-breaks, and shadowy booksellers, reads rather like the life of the man who created it. By the time Sade wrote The 120 Days he had spent eight years in prison, first in Vincennes then the Bastille. He had also been shot at, burnt in effigy and forced to live on the run – on one occasion escaping to Italy with his sister-in-law, and lover, Anne-Prospère. Though the Surrealists would eventually cast him as a martyr to freedom, Sade was in prison not for his words but for his deeds. He was a notorious libertine even by the standards of his age. His 20s and 30s had been marked by a series of public scandals: a sexual assault on a young woman named Rose Keller; an orgy in Marseille which led to four prostitutes falling ill after consuming chocolate-coated Spanish fly (an aphrodisiac); and, most disturbingly, a winter spent in his chateau with his wife and several freshly recruited servants aged around 15 – the so-called “little girls affair”. After years of covering up her son-in-law’s behaviour, Madame de Montreuil had finally had enough: she had the king sign a lettre de cachet, a royal warrant that meant Sade could be incarcerated indefinitely. He was arrested in February 1777 and remained in prison for the next 13 years.
Sade began drafting his novel in earnest on 22 October 1785, working from seven to 10 each evening over 37 consecutive days. The novel is not complete, however, as only the introduction and the first of its four parts are written in full. The remainder are very detailed summaries but no more. Though he had ample opportunity over the next four years, Sade never completed his first – and most extreme – novelistic enterprise. Perhaps he realised it was unpublishable – a conclusion that censors and courts around the world would repeatedly endorse over the course of the 20th century. He described his novel as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began” and, for all the hyperbole, his description still holds true even now.
The 120 Days tells the tale of four libertines – a duke, a bishop, a judge and a banker – who lock themselves away in a castle in the Black Forest with an entourage that includes two harems of teenage boys and girls specially abducted for the occasion. Four ageing brothel madams are appointed as storytellers for each of the four months, and their brief is to weave a 150 “passions” or perversions into the story of their lives.
The libertines, surrounded by their victims, listen and enact the passions described, and as the passions become more brutal, so do the libertines: the novel builds to a violent climax with the “criminal” and “murderous” passions of Parts Three and Four. These are presented as long, numbered lists, interspersed with brief accounts of the scenes they inspire. Sade’s tortures range from the cartoonish (“He vigorously flattens a foot with a hammer”) to the clinical (“Her air supply is turned off and on at whim inside a pneumatic machine”); and from the surreal (“They make her swallow a serpent which in turn will devour her”) to the mundane (“He dislocates a wrist”). But the vast majority are simply too obscene and too violent to be quoted, as one nameless victim after another is subjected to increasingly elaborate and frenzied torments.
These relentless lists read like a series of nightmarish diary entries, or a set of instructions for an apprentice torturer. The 120 Days is not a work that seduces its readers: it assaults them. Reading it is, thankfully perhaps, a unique experience.
Sade’s once unpublishable novel has now joined the ranks of Penguin’s Classics for the first time, and its author will take his place alongside the great figures of world literature – many of whom would no doubt turn in their graves at the news that their club now counted Sade among its members. It is a significant cultural moment for a work that was for so long the preserve of a privileged few. Indeed, ever since Sade began work on his draft, The 120 Days has been a hidden text – hidden first by its author and later by its subsequent owners.
For much of the 20th century, even those who published the novel did their best to keep it away from the prying eyes of the authorities. These early editions were published – pseudonymously or anonymously in some cases – in very small numbers for private and wealthy subscribers, and thus remained inaccessible to the general public. It is no coincidence that Jean-Jacques Pauvert – the first publisher to put his own name to an edition of Sade’s major works, and the first to attempt a larger print run – was prosecuted by the French government in 1956 for committing an outrage against public morals.
Pauvert argued that Sade’s works were “medico-legal documents” of great scientific value, and that his editions were in any case too expensive for ordinary members of the public to buy. Most of his sales, he insisted, had been to doctors and medical faculties – Sade was, in other words, in safe hands. The judge disagreed, but his verdict was overturned on appeal, and a little over a decade later, Sade’s works were available in France in mass-market paperbacks. Sade is now firmly established as part of the French literary canon.
This concern about the wider circulation of the works was as revealing of class anxieties as it was about attitudes towards Sade. To say that his works posed a risk to the public was really to say that a public able to read Sade was itself a risky prospect. These same anxieties resurfaced a few years later across the Channel, just when it looked as if Sade was beginning to gain a foothold in British culture.
Though the translations published by the Olympia Press in Paris were banned from the UK throughout the 1950s, British publishers such as Peter Owen were able to produce (very careful) selections from Sade’s writings without running into trouble. In the wake of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial in 1960, a test case for the Obscene Publications Act passed a year before, more publishing houses were emboldened to publish Sade. But all this came to a halt with the Moors murders trial of 1966, and with the revelation that Ian Brady had owned a paperback Corgi edition of Sade’s Justine.
Brady’s taste in books was widely reported in the tabloid press, and fired the public imagination – a fire stoked by commentators who saw his reading of Sade in “fairly recent paperback” and his crimes as a matter of cause and effect. George Steiner alluded to the “high probability” that Brady’s reading of Justine was a “significant factor” in the case. Pamela Hansford Johnson fretted about the threat posed by the rise of “a semi-literate reading public”: “There are some books that are not fit for all people and some people who are not fit for all books.”
It did not seem to matter that the copy of Justine that Brady owned had only appeared in print after he had committed all but one of his murders. A ban on the publication and importation of Sade’s works swiftly followed the trial and remained in effect for more than 20 years. When a British publisher, Arrow Books, finally tested the ban by reprinting Sade’s major novels in the late 1980s and early 90s, Ann Winterton MP led calls for the DPP to act, condemning Juliette as “filth of a particularly ugly and dangerous kind”.
It is hard to imagine a work of fiction prompting calls for prosecution in Britain today. The written word no longer seems to frighten people in the same way any more. The fear that novels used to inspire has shifted instead to more recent – and visual – forms of fiction and fantasy such as video games, horror movies, and internet pornography.
It is telling that the controversial section relating to “extreme pornography” in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2009 deals only with images, and makes no mention of the written word. But is this because words now seem safe, or because they are just too slippery for the law?
In 2003, MPs debated whether “paedophile pornography” could be textual as well as visual. A young George Osborne advised his fellow MPS against delving into the “quagmire” of words: “In previous generations, people have been dragged into debates about works of literature, such as Lolita, or works that do not quite qualify as literature, such as those by the Marquis de Sade, and parliament should not be drawn down that avenue again.” Even works that are “not quite” literature have words in them – reason enough, Osborne suggests, for politicians and lawyers to steer clear of them.
Do Sade’s novels now qualify as great literature? That a novel as extreme as The 120 Days is part of a “classics” collection tells us just how much our sense of literature has changed over the past few decades. And publishing The 120 Days as a classic changes it still further: if it makes Sade a little more respectable, it also makes literature a little more dangerous than it was before.
• Will McMorran is a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. His translation, with Thomas Wynn, of The 120 Days of Sodom is published by Penguin Classics. (RRP £12.99). To order a copy for £10.65 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.