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Research

Thought leadership

New translation of infamous novel

(12 December 2016)

The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, banned in Britain in the 1950s for its sexually violent content, has now been published as a Penguin Classic in a new translation by Dr Tom Wynn from Durham University and Dr Will McMorran from Queen Mary University of London. 

Here Tom Wynn talks about the infamous novel and the debates it ignites about sex, violence, ethics and literature.

‘The time has come, friendly reader, for you to prepare your heart and mind for the most impure tale ever written since the world began…’ And so the narrator of The 120 Days of Sodom issues the grandest trigger warning – or is it an invitation? – to any reader who dares venture deeper into this infamous novel.

Bastille cell

Imprisoned at the instigation of his mother-in-law after a series of sex scandals, Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade was languishing in his cell at the Bastille when he wrote this uniquely challenging work in just thirty-seven days in late 1785, and which he lost when that fortress was stormed in the Revolution.

But don’t be misled: this is no hastily compiled list of abject sex acts; written on bits of paper glued together to form a scroll almost 40-feet long, his novel is more than a curiosity; and despite its eighteenth-century setting complete with fabulously wealthy aristocrats, it is not a period piece.

The 120 Days of Sodom is, as its narrator tells us, a timely book for open-minded readers.

Effects of storytelling

Sade’s dark exploration of power, desire, and cruelty speaks urgently to today’s fantasies and anxieties of individualism, sexuality, and vulnerability. Sade offers no easy comfort or solace, but he commands to be read and re-read. It’s precisely by placing the reader in extreme situations that he is a significant writer of enduring value.

Yes, The 120 Days of Sodom features misogyny and barbarity, but it also offers comedy and pleasures. One need not subscribe to the values espoused in the book, or admire its libertine heroes, who are variously impotent, cowardly, and drunk.

This is a book that explores storytelling and the effects of those stories; for instance it features one churchman who in just two hours of conversation ‘was sure to make a whore out of the most virtuous and most prudent of girls’. In acute form the novel asks what happens when we listen to stories. How are we drawn in? When no one is watching us, are we turned on, repelled, amused, saddened – or all of the above?

Morals and values

Sade is an author more spoken about than read. People may use the words ‘sadistic’ or ‘sadomasochistic’, but they read 50 Shades of Grey, not Justine.

When Sade is read, he usually provokes heated responses. For Andrea Dworkin, Sade is ‘the world’s foremost pornographer’ who ‘embodies and defines male sexual values’. Writing at the height of the culture wars, Camille Paglia proclaimed ‘No education in the western tradition is complete without Sade’, yet recognised he had made ‘barely a dent on academic American consciousness’; plus ça change

There are of course those who profess to be bored by his scenes of sexual violence, dismemberment, and murder, but one of the questions I’d like to ask such readers is where they’ve put their moral compass. Simone de Beauvoir was right when she wrote that Sade was a moralist. Sade’s scenes of aggression demand that we think about how individuals value and treat each other, about our responsibilities to those both weaker and stronger than ourselves. Literature matters because it is a provocation to ethical and political thought.

And, to paraphrase his fellow countrymen Daft Punk, Sade in all his obscenity provokes ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ more than most writers.

Ethics and complexity

Ethical concerns are at the heart of the new translation of The 120 Days of Sodom. This is not the first English-language version of the novel – that honour belongs to Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse who translated it in 1966 – but we do hope it is the most accurate, as well as the most effective in bringing readers face-to-face with the complexity of Sade’s original work.

Seaver and Wainhouse have a penchant for quaintness that can raise a smile when excitement or fear might be the desired response. We avoid phoney archaism, aiming instead for the clarity characteristic of Sade’s French, which Pasolini captured on film in his adaptation Salò.

We also keep Sade’s mistakes and idiosyncrasies, encouraging our readers to let themselves be absorbed within this disturbing text, to be touched in unexpected ways, and to forge affiliations (however fleeting) with a narrator and characters whose practices and tastes might ordinarily repulse them.

Culture wars

The culture wars are here again, and they’ll no doubt continue to rage under a Trump presidency. At a time of no-platforming, safe spaces, and a polarised media, Sade makes us think about literature’s place in a fiercely contested public realm.

His fiction gives readers the free space in which to examine pressing concerns like toxic masculinity, the dominance of the 1%, and political alienation.

The 120 Days of Sodom survived the ruins of the Bastille to speak to our own turbulent age.

The translation of The 120 Days of Sodom is published as a Penguin Classic in the UK and US. Visit thebadbooksblog.com to find out more about the translation.