Joel Warner’s new book, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History (Crown Publishing 2023) is an incredible, thoroughly researched book whose story spans hundreds of years. The twists and turns of this novel are truly stranger than fiction and I was hooked until the very end.
Warner’s book initially appears to be about many things, but primarily it recounts the history of one of the most notorious manuscripts in the world: Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Sade was a notorious French aristocrat, who became famous for his debauchery and criminality, eventually ending up in the Bastille in Paris just before the French Revolution. There, Sade penned the manuscript that he saw as his greatest transgression: 120 Days of Sodom, a thoroughly controversial and depraved text of sexual violence and—to use the term Sade himself coined—sadism. Left abandoned during the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the tiny scroll was left hidden and tightly rolled until it was discovered by someone unconnected to Sade. This discovery marked the beginning of a centuries long journey across the world. Warner takes us through different buyers and sellers, the hidden networks of erotic literary collectors and archivists, Nazi book burnings, and more. Eventually, we arrive in 2014, when the manuscript is returned to France, having been purchased by Gérard Lhéritier, a self-made man who had become deeply involved with the rare book market. However, the sale eventually led to more complications in the form of government vendettas, sabotage, feuds, and more.
I could not have enjoyed this book more, and I am convinced it is going to be one of my favourite true crime reads of the year. Warner expertly weaves history, literature, and narrative together to craft a story that was equally insightful and captivating. That Warner chooses to tell the story of the manuscript in a way that also tells the stories of Sade, rare books in France, and erotic literary collections, was especially successful. This is a story not many know, or would not know in full, and Warner is able to capture key elements of a history than spans hundreds of years through a focus on just one manuscript. For those two are aware of Sade and his writings, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade is an absolutely thrilling window into his biography. Warner is concise, definitive, and thorough; indeed, the notes and citations for the book are extensive, representing his careful research.
As Warner writes, his book aims to answer the following questions:
“Why would someone have written something so appalling that it was all but unreadable? Why would anyone have bothered with such a herculean effort at a time when the results could never be published? And who exactly was the man behind it? Was Sade a revolutionary, working to expose the rotten core of the aristocracy to which he had been born? Was he a radical philosopher, aiming to lay bare humanity’s most cruel and twisted desires? Or was he simply an unrepentant criminal, chronicling his own atrocities, committed or simply dreamed of?” (Warner)
In pursuit of these answers and more, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade jumps across time, with each chapter, we’re in a new time or place that adds to the fabric of this story. Warner’s choice to work non-chronologically keeps the story moving, and rather than confuse the reader, it gives the impression of a story’s disparate elements coming together, all connected via the manuscript that has inspired so much controversy, infighting, and international attention.
Historians and pleasure readers alike will absolutely enjoy Warner’s writing, and this story has to be read to be believed!
Please add The Curse of the Marquis de Sade to your Goodreads shelf and follow Joel Warner on Twitter.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary and the co-creator of True Crime Index. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.