Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos may not be what first comes to mind when you think of metafiction, but the the book is metafictional because it troubles the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The book is told through a series of letters — the epistolary method — a device which gives a novel the illusion of being a collection of historical documents, as in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (whose title page pronounces the book to be “A narrative which has its foundation in truth and nature”) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (“written by himself” — as with Pamela, the real author’s name is not included on the title page).
A publisher’s note announces that Les Liaisons dangereuses is — no, might be — a novel: “We think it our duty to warn the public, that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel” (18). What do the publisher mean that they cannot guarantee the book’s authenticity? Doesn’t the publisher know whether or not the letters are real letters or pieces of a novel? The warning, in fact, is dripping with doubt: “very good reason to believe.” If the publisher is not sure, how are we to know the truth?
The proof the publisher offers that the book is a novel is, in fact, more likely to make one think it is authentic. “The author,” he tells us, “destroyed every semblance of truth — and most clumsily — by setting the events he describes in the present. In fact, several of the characters he puts on his stage are persons of such vicious habits that it is impossible to suppose they can have lived in our age: this age of philosophy, in which the light of reason, illuminating every heart, has turned us all, as everyone knows, into honourable men and modest and retiring women” (18). Rather than a convincing argument, a reader is forced to think the opposite, that it is quite possible that such manipulative, scheming people as the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil could have existed as easily now as then, especially at the eve of the French revolution when the indulgences of the ruling classes were notorious. Instead of convincing the reader of the book’s fictionality, the publisher’s note causes the reader to entertain the notion that such characters could exist.
In contrast to the publisher’s note, the editor’s preface presents the letters as actual. The editor defines his role as one of selecting the most significant correspondence, arranging them, and adding “a few brief and sparsely scattered notes, which, for the most part, have no other object than that of indicating the sources of quotations, or of explaining the abridgements I have permitted myself to make” (19). As with the publisher’s note, the editor’s note has the opposite effect of its explicit intent. Rather than convincing the reader that the editor’s role was minimal, we are made aware of just how much goes into the act of editing, and as we will see the editor steps in at the climax of the novel. Editors are always, in fact, a second (or third or fifth) author who reshapes and recasts the material.
The editor goes on to write, “I had proposed more considerable alterations, almost all of them relating to purity of diction and style, which will often be found very much at fault. . . . This course of action was not approved: it would not, of course, been sufficient by itself to give the work any merit, but would at least have removed some of its faults” (19). Who, we must ask, did not approve this course of action, the improvement of style and diction? The publisher, who believes, but does not know that the letters are fictional? If the publisher believes the letters are fake, why would he disapprove of such changes? Or is there a second, shadowy editor, more powerful than our first editor? “It was objected that the intention was to publish the letters themselves, and not simply a literary work modeled on the letters; that it would have been as much counter to probability as to truth if the eight or ten persons participating in this correspondence had written with equal correctness” (19-20). This line puts the reader on the lookout for flaws in diction and style throughout the book, encouraging the reader to look for these “faults” that in fact make the letters seem more realistic.
Throughout the book the Marquise councils the Vicomte on how to make his style more believable. When he wishes to appear to be in love, she tells him to employ a more disorganized style suggestive of a mind overwhelmed by feeling, a style which the Vicomte then adopts. This again draws the reader’s attention to the artifice of making artificial letters appear real. Later on both the Marquise and Vicomte write letters for other characters, using their less adept, flawed styles and improving them just enough to make them more effective without making them unbelievable. These letters apparently fulfill the wishes of the “writer,” but the reader can see the greater plans of the scheming aristocrats behind them, puppet masters who use language to pull the strings of other characters.
A central question of the novel is whether the Vicomte actually falls in love with Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous wife whose reputation, health, mind and life was destroyed through the Vicomte’s seduction. The Vicomte pleads with Madame de Volange to intercede for him with his beloved. In letter 154, Madame de Volange writes to another friend, “But I wonder what you will say to this despair of Monsieur de Valmont’s. In the first place, is one to believe him, or does he want only to deceive us all, even to the last?” (359). To this the editor has attached a note, “It was because nothing was found in the ensuing correspondence to resolve this doubt, that it was decided to suppress Monsieur de Valmont’s letter” (359). Of all the letters in the book, this repressed letter is the one of greatest interest. The editor clearly not merely publishing the letters themselves, as he promised to do in the preface, but is taking a stance and altering the collection of letters.
The missing letter can be found, however, in the appendix, with a note that says, “These letters appear in the manuscript of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but were not included in the editions published during the author’s lifetime” (394). The letter seems to be a sincere declaration of love and repentance, as he attempts to convince Madame de Volange to take his final letter to the tragic woman and get her to read it — a letter which is frustratingly not found anywhere, not even in the appendix — and “to induce her to do so by persuading her of my repentance, my regrets and above all of my love?” (394). Has the Vicomte truly fallen in love and repented? Or has the Vicomte truly mastered the art of making an insincere letter appear sincere?
As in the preface, the suppression of the letter and its inclusion in an appendix may actually incline the reader to believe the letter, to look for clues that might “resolve this doubt.” Another letter appears in the appendix, apparently meant to be the final letter of the book, which had been replaced by a note from the publisher saying, “For motives of our own — and certain other considerations which we shall always consider it our duty to respect — we are compelled to stop here” (393). The final repressed letter is a declaration of the destroyed woman’s forgiveness and continuing love, but the letter itself appears to be unfinished. What is missing here? Readers are left to work this out on their own, to finish the book themselves.
And who is this editor? No name is given either of him or the shadowy editor above him who has the final say on so many important issues. And who is the publisher? In fact, Laclos wrote all the publisher’s notes and the editor’s preface and the editor’s notes. The contradictions between them force the reader to doubt the ficitonality of the work and to consider its possible authenticity.
Les Liaison dangereuses is the height of metafictionality, making the reader aware of how artifice is used to give authenticity to fiction, how fiction is employed to find truth in lies. Laclos borrowed the epistolary method from Richardson and Defoe, but he improved upon it, giving the letters distinct voice, style and quality. The letters seem to be written by different people, yet Laclos draws our attention again and again to how this was accomplished. The genius of the work is that we are fooled in spite of all the warnings, as we are always fooled by well-written fiction. For I am sure — almost one hundred percent sure — that the Vicomte did fall in love Madame de Tourvel!
(To learn more about the affect of author’s on the meaning of a text, read my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)
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