Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Style - Has been var­i­ously de­scribed as “one of the most im­por­tant nov­els ever writ­ten” and “the gospel of evil”.

EMERG­ING FROM THE MORN­ING FOG shroud­ing the art gal­leries and bou­tiques of Paris’s 7th Ar­rondisse­ment, the po­lice ar­rived at the Hô­tel de La Salle at 9am on 18 Novem­ber 2014. Once home to the au­thor of France’s code of civil law and, af­ter that, sundry dukes and duchesses, the 17th-cen­tury man­sion was now the head­quar­ters of Aristophil, an up­start in­vest­ment com­pany founded by Gérard Lhéri­tier, the son and grand­son of a plum­ber.

In just over two decades, the then-66-year-old Lhéri­tier—the “king of manuscripts”, as he’d been dubbed by the lo­cal me­dia— had amassed the coun­try’s largest pri­vate col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal let­ters and manuscripts, ef­fec­tively cor­ner­ing the mar­ket. Among his 130,000-odd hold­ings were An­dré Bre­ton’s orig­i­nal Sur­re­al­ist Man­i­festo, love notes from Napoleon to Josephine, Louis XVI’s last tes­ta­ment and frag­ments of the Dead Sea scrolls.

The bulk was housed in Aristophil’s Mu­seum of Let­ters and Manuscripts, around the cor­ner on Boule­vard St Ger­main. But Lhéri­tier’s star as­set rested in­side a cus­tom-made glass dis­play on the man­sion’s ground floor: a yel­lowed, fray­ing parch­ment, 11.43cm wide and nearly 12m long, densely cov­ered on both sides with 157,000 or­nately hand­writ­ten words so minute they are vir­tu­ally il­leg­i­ble with­out a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. Com­posed in a prison cell by Dona­tien-Alphonse-François, bet­ter known as the Mar­quis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom has been var­i­ously de­scribed as “one of the most im­por­tant nov­els ever writ­ten” and “the gospel of evil”.

Lost for more than a cen­tury and smug­gled across Europe, it be­came one of the world’s most valu­able manuscripts when Lhéri­tier pur­chased it for SGD13 mil­lion in March 2014—a year that hap­pened to mark the bi­cen­ten­nial of Sade’s death and the fi­nal stage of his two-cen­tury-long re-eval­u­a­tion. An ex­hi­bi­tion in Aristophil’s of­fices was timed to co­in­cide with a na­tion­wide se­ries of events that would cul­mi­nate in De­cem­ber.

Lhéri­tier, a some­what stout and diminu­tive man with thin­ning grey hair in a well-tai­lored suit and tie, was with a few em­ploy­ees dis­cussing a re­cent re­cep­tion he had at­tended at the res­i­dence of then pres­i­dent François Hol­lande when his as­sis­tant rushed in to in­form him that the po­lice were down­stairs. At the same time, dozens of other agents swooped in on Aristophil’s mu­seum, the of­fices of sev­eral Aristophil as­so­ci­ates and Lhéri­tier’s villa in Nice. While the of­fi­cers seized com­pany doc­u­ments, fi­nan­cial records and com­puter hard drives as po­ten­tial ev­i­dence, the French courts froze his busi­ness and per­sonal bank ac­counts.

Lhéri­tier stood ac­cused of dup­ing nearly 18,000 clients out of SGD1.3 bil­lion. The claim, if true, would make him the ar­chi­tect of the largest Ponzi scheme in French his­tory.

The ex­ten­sive wars that Louis XIV had to wage through­out the course of his reign, while ex­haust­ing the state’s fi­nances and the peo­ple’s re­sources, nev­er­the­less un­cov­ered the se­cret to en­rich­ing an enor­mous num­ber of those leeches al­ways ly­ing in wait. . . It was to­ward the end of this reign . . . that four among them con­ceived the unique feat of de­bauch­ery we are about to de­scribe. . . 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. . .

So Sade be­gan The 120 Days of Sodom on 22 Oc­to­ber 22 1785, while im­pris­oned in the Lib­erty Tower of the Bastille. Scat­tered around him were as­sorted per­sonal ef­fects, a priv­i­lege af­forded to in­mates of his stature: stacks of books on ev­ery­thing from the ex­is­tence of God to the his­tory of vam­pires, pack­ages of PalaisRoyal bis­cuits, bot­tles of laven­der cologne, and one wooden dildo crafted, for per­sonal use, to the Mar­quis’s pre­cise spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

Born to a noble fam­ily in 1740, Sade had spent his life mired in scan­dal—he nar­rowly dodged a bul­let fired by the fa­ther of one of his ser­vants, slashed a beg­gar and poured hot wax into her wounds, and of­fered to pay a pros­ti­tute to defe­cate on a cru­ci­fix, to give a small but rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple. In 1777, Sade’s pow­er­ful mother-in-law, Madame de Mon­treuil, un­der­stand­ably sick of his an­tics, se­cured an ar­rest war­rant for the Mar­quis signed by her friend Louis XVI. Sade was locked away on no charges. By the time he be­gan The 120 Days of Sodom, he had been jailed for eight years. Work­ing by can­dle­light in the Bastille had ren­dered him nearly blind. Nonethe­less, he wrote: “It is im­pos­si­ble for me to turn my back on my muse; it sweeps me along, forces me to write de­spite my­self and, no mat­ter what peo­ple may do to try to stop me, there is no way they will ever suc­ceed.”

The 120 Days of Sodom tells the story of four aris­to­crats who abduct 16 boys and girls be­tween the ages of 12 and 15 and sub­ject them to four months of what would later be called, af­ter the au­thor, sadis­tic rape and tor­ture. The novel be­gins with pe­dophil­iac priests and golden show­ers, and things only de­gen­er­ate from there—to in­cest, bes­tial­ity, co­prophilia, necrophilia, star­va­tion, dis­em­bow­el­ment, am­pu­ta­tion, cas­tra­tion, can­ni­bal­ism and in­fan­ti­cide. By day 120, the château is awash in bod­ily flu­ids and strewn with corpses. Sade wrote ev­ery even­ing for 37 days, join­ing pages end to end to form a sin­gle scroll, and hid the ob­scene and blas­phe­mous man­u­script in the wall of his cell.

On 3 July 1789, Sade was forcibly trans­ferred to a men­tal asy­lum out­side Paris af­ter us­ing the fun­nel from his piss­ing tube as a mega­phone to de­nounce his cap­tors. Eleven days later, an in­sur­gent mob stormed the Bastille; the French Revo­lu­tion had be­gun. Sade was re­leased a year later, amid the up­heaval.

Call­ing him­self Ci­toyen Louis Sade, he dab­bled in pol­i­tics be­fore be­ing ar­rested again in 1801 at the age of 61. Sade spent his fi­nal years back in the asy­lum. He went to his grave be­liev­ing The 120 Days of Sodom had been de­stroyed in the sack­ing of the Bastille. “Ev­ery day,” he wrote of the miss­ing work, “I shed tears of blood.”

The 120 Days of Sodom

TWO YEARS BE­FORE LHÉRI­TIER’S IN­DICT­MENT, as a troop of Napoleonic guards played an im­pe­rial march and women made up to look like 18th-cen­tury cour­te­sans sipped cham­pagne with govern­ment min­is­ters, Aristophil’s founder stood be­hind a podium at the Hô­tel de La Salle and wel­comed his guests to the brand-new “pan­theon of let­ters and manuscripts”.

Re­cent re­ports that the out­fit was in trou­ble were noth­ing but un­founded “at­tacks”, Lhéri­tier said. “A suc­cess­ful com­pany pro­vokes jeal­ousies, de­sires, ques­tions and cre­ates op­po­nents. . . It is a per­ma­nent strug­gle.”

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