A Novel of the Marquis de Sade

By Rikki Ducornet

Henry Holt. 212 pp. $22

After the French Revolution, in a frightening inquisition, a female fan-maker defends her life, her art, her craftsmanship, her love of pleasure, her extraordinary imagination and, especially, her friendship with the Marquis de Sade. He languishes now, in prison--the pervert!--for assorted crimes against "normal" sexuality and the sober state.

The fan-maker is not afraid. Never does she cower. She's describing, to this vengeful court, a way of life that is gone for her forever: the elegant city of pre-revolutionary Paris; mornings spent shopping and spending, gossiping and planning affairs, hours and hours spent seeking ways to capture the delicious vagaries of an overheated imagination and make those visions real through art; voluptuous nudes painted on an armoire or dressing table or a beautifully constructed fan; a world in which pleasure, both sexual and intellectual, reigns triumphant.

The tribunal will have none of this, of course. Its members are shocked--shocked!--at the excesses of de Sade and the corrupt society he represents. The guillotine is in place by now, and each day more heads roll, purging all that is wealthy, frivolous, beauty-loving, pleasure-seeking, from this increasingly ascetic, increasingly savage society. Paris is swimming in blood, and the righteous have come into power.

The inquisition of the fan-maker continues. She chats placidly about the world she knew, the world of imagination and craft to which she still owes her sole allegiance: "A fan may be made of "swanskin . . . a fine parchment made from the skin of an unborn lamb, limed, scraped very thin, and smoothed down with pumice and chalk. The mount may be made of taffeta, or lace, or even feathers--but these are cumbersome. A fan trimmed with down has a tendency to catch to the lips if they are moist or rouged. A paper fan can be a treasure, especially if it is from Japan. The Japanese make the finest paper fans, and the most obscene. . . . Such a fan is useful when one is bored, forced to sup with an ailing relative whose ivory dentures stink. It is said that the pleated fan is an invention of the Japanese and that the Chinese collapsed in laughter when it was first introduced to China. The prostitutes, however, took to it at once."

What need does a society, choking on its own sense of vengeance and self-importance, have for this kind of arcane and frivolous information? No need at all. And yet the tribunal keeps on querying the fan-maker, using that time-honored ploy of anti-pornography puritans: They have to know every last bit of pornographic information, down to the very tiniest "prurient" detail, before they can deplore it with sufficient indignation.

Besides searching for all possible documentation of the fan-maker's licentious way of making a living, the judges pester her incessantly about her liveliest customer, the Marquis de Sade himself. Surely he's a monster, and she's a monster by implication. But the fan-maker isn't impressed by this line of thinking. It's true, she says, even she has chided him for his cruelty, and more importantly, for his tedium. (And de Sade--monster or not--got his feelings hurt.)

But she's glad she's read all his books, tiresome or not: "They say he is evil incarnate and that his books are a plague, but I have survived the torment, the tedium, and the exhilaration of the reading that, to tell the truth, gives me the courage to live unfettered a vivid and moral life."

What constitutes the truly monstrous? While de Sade, rotting in prison, dreams up a meal of roasted pope, "stuffed with a hachis de cardenal and served with the truffled liver of a Jesuit," Spanish inquisitors have massacred and roasted thousands of indigenous people in the New World, to save the souls of the natives--and because the inquisitors feel like it.

In this bloody and horrifying real world, church and state alike commit atrocities that make de Sade's look puny and pale.

These atrocities are committed in the service of one or another public belief system, while de Sade, for all his ugliness, commits crimes mostly of his own imagination: "A book is a private thing," the fan-maker says, "it belongs to the one who writes it and the one who reads it.

"Like the mind itself, a book is a private space. Within that space, anything is possible. The greatest evil and the greatest good."

The tribunal isn't at all interested in these nice distinctions. The fan-maker will inevitably die, and de Sade, friendless and alone, will remain to mourn her. The fan-maker's real crime will turn out to be that she's kissed a woman, passionately, in public. And been caught. And denounced.

This book is about murder, and murder of the imagination. This trial, this inquisition, has gone on through and through our "civilization." Some of us will always think differently, or weirdly, and will be perceived as a threat to the public good. But is it "pornography" or "murderousness" or the stinging nettle of unregenerate individuality that causes the public to lash out with reflexive murderousness of its own? The reader may ponder these questions through the finely crafted prism of "The Fan-Maker's Inquisition."

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.

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