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My rating: 1 of 5 stars
This book was listed in one of those “500 Books One Must Read” lists. Maybe it was “1,001 Must-Read Books.” However large the number, I think it was wrongly included. But it was free in e-book form (or nearly so) and so I figured: “I love free and I like edgy, so what’s not to enjoy.” Besides, this book has been banned many places around the world and there’s nothing that makes me want to read a book like it being banned. Plus, how many authors have such profound impact on the language as to have their names raised from that status of proper noun to common noun (the Marquis de Sade being from whence the word sadism, or “delight in cruelty,” is derived.)
Now the natural inclination of people seeing the uncomplimentary fashion in which I present this novel will be to think that I’m just a vanilla guy who found the work morally objectionable and that tarnished my view. It’s true that the scat, pedophilia, rape, and—in the latter chapters—homicidal mania rampant throughout the book are not my cup of tea. I, therefore, may not be able to convince you that I could have found the book appealing if it presented the same content in a more skillful manner. [I can’t imagine such a book being “enjoyable,” but I can imagine one that would be “engrossing.”]
However, I intend to convince you that there is a great deal that is unappealing about this book that has nothing to do with the subject matter. I firmly believe that, regardless of one’s ability to stomach the substantive content, one will still find the book to be an utter disappointment. [It should be noted that many people will find the book is more effective in the horror genre than the erotica genre—which isn’t to say that it succeeds in either.]
The synopsis is that four wealthy and prominent men take a harem of 46 individuals (boys, girls, men, and women) to a remote retreat to both have their way with them and, ultimately, snuff most of them out. The four men spend their time listening to tales of debauchery and sadism as told by a couple of prostitutes and then emulating the acts in the aforementioned stories.
Now, you may say, “What would keep 46 people from overwhelming four men—rich and powerful as they may be—and regaining their freedom?” Well, that’s the first problem with the book. It’s true that many of the victims aren’t adults, but enough are to make a rebellion workable. We are never told why this should work, and in this way the book is just a bunch of crude juvenile fantasies that fail the credulity test. A Bishop or President tells someone to drink acid or kill their own kin, and we are just supposed to accept that they would do it without question. The book sets up no tension. It really is the fantasy realm of an impotent man with delusions of grandeur.
The organization of the book is in five parts corresponding to the months / partial months that make up the 120 days mentioned in the title, and the storytellers tell progressively more vicious tales as the book progresses. The first couple parts don’t involve much violence and the acts described aren’t much different from what one might find in a book like The Story of O, except for the tonnage of poo in the Marquis’ stories. Having compared this to Réage’s work, let me say that it’s not just the poo that makes Sade’s work inferior, it’s also the lack of insight into the mind of the characters. (Part of the problem is that there is a vast cast of victims that have no dimensionality to them.) We see O’s reluctance, anger, pain, and transformation, but get none of this in The 120 Days of Sodom.
As the book progresses, it degrades further into lists of acts of debauchery and cruelty that all seem to blend together into a tepid bowl of poo. The Marquis de Sade wrote this work in prison and it really comes off as an outline of acts of violence he dreamt up out of the frustration of impotence. A well-written work that wanted to explore this situation would pick a few particularly evocative acts from the list and would form them into a coherent story with multi-dimensional characters and a narrative arc. This book is just a list of cringe-worthy acts written out tersely, but they don’t induce a cringe because none of it feels real because we get no insight into characters and the four leads are just supermen who get to do whatever they please without any realistic opposition.
If you read this book, read it out of interest in the historical persona of the Marquis de Sade. If you’re reading it as erotic literature, you’ll probably find it to be a disappointing series of premature ejaculations that just tries too hard to list the most disgusting and objectionable acts imaginable. If you read it as horror, you’ll have to read through a couple of chapters of stuff that’s just disgusting–but not particularly scary, and then when you get to the horrifying part it’ll just be a machine gun blast of little tales with inadequate description to be truly gripping.
Needless, I think the greatest act of cruelty ever committed by the Marquis de Sade was getting people to read this horrible book—maybe that was what he was after.