Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Today at the San Francisco library that employs me I encountered the new authoritative French edition of the Choderlos de Laclos novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses. It first appeared in the classic leather-bound Pléiade series in 1932 (exactly 150 years after its original publication). The French famously are more scrupulous than any other nation about honoring and preserving and disseminating their literary legacy. This classic tale of aristocratic depravity was deemed deserving of newly revised and annotated Pléiade editions in 1944 and 1979. And now the time has come round again. Catriona Seth has produced a volume of 969 pages, though the text of the story itself only occupies about half the book. The rest is commentary, where dozens of French authors past and present weigh in on the significance of the work and its many adaptations for stage, screen and television. (I myself just this past summer offered a brief (mostly visual) appreciation of the Stephen Frears movie version.)

How truly admirable is the format, unchanged since the inception 80 years ago of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. All volumes are issued in limp leather with dull gold lettering on the spine, printed on bible paper, small in format and satisfyingly compact. Historical periods and special subject areas consistently appear in bindings of uniform colors (and I'm sure Pantone is lurking behind them somewhere): green for Antiquity, purple for the Middle Ages, Corinthian brown for the 16th century, Venetian red for the 17th, blue for the 18th, emerald green for the 19th, tobacco for the 20th, with all anthologies in a clear red, while spiritual texts are in gray. The books are sold with protective mylar wrappers and sheathed in stiff paper slipcases printed in color (at top is pictured the new Laclos slipcase in all its preternatural tastefulness).

Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) wrote only this one novel, yet in undertaking it he was consciously intending "to write a work which departed from the ordinary, which made a noise, and which would remain on earth after his death." He succeeded, and became the Margaret Mitchell of French literature.

At the beginning of her introduction to this new edition Catriona Seth lists just a few of the adjectives that have been hurled at or lavished on Les Liaisons dangereuses over the past couple of centuries: "dangereux, satanique, mauvais, noir, atroce, méchant, immoral, scandaleux, condamnable, terrible, infâme, corrosif, pernicieux ... admirable, moral, intelligent, original, charmant, spirituel, étonnant, plein d'intérêt, bien écrit, utile." People continue to care a lot about what Laclos chose to write. Below, a few additional packages this notorious classic has found itself inhabiting, just in the last few decades.