The Sopranos by Alan Warner | Jonathan Cape (UK) 1998
Scotlands Alan Warner is one of the most exciting and startlingly original writers at work today. I couldnt wait to get my hands on this, his third novel, which I awaited in keen anticipation after such luscious trysts with Morvern Callar (1995) and These Demented Lands (1997). But The Sopranos, alas, proved rather a playful, summer affair - hardly hot and sizzling - but sweetly memorable just the same. And speaking of sex - er, were we? - Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls, school of the fifth-form sopranos, would seem to be the hotbed of nubile naughtiness. Ever wonder what Catholic schoolgirls chat about in the loo? What they get up to on a Saturday night? How far they really go? What comprises their teen dreams and aspirations? Leave it to a 34-year-old man to tell you. And he mostly gets it right; the problem is that he really lingers too long in the loo - this loo, that loo - until one feels a voyeuristic presence that smacks of being decidedly male. Not a criticism I easily make; in fact, I am usually the one to jump to an authors (and often male) defense when critics harp on this very point. Whats the problem? He got it too right? But at some point in this novel, undoubtedly during yet another loo scene - without the least premeditated thought of any such thing - I felt a voyeur lurking. And that proved distracting. Too bad, because Warner is master of the female narrative voice as he proved in Morvern Callar and as is clearly evident here.
The plot is structured around the day trip of the schools choir - most notably the "sopranos" Orla, Kylah, (Ra) Chell, Manda and Fionnula (the Cooler) - as they head from their small village, the Port (Morverns own), to the big city for the national singing finals. The girls dont give a hoot about the competition; theyre focused on their free afternoon loose in the city where they intend to pub crawl and prowl for the opposite sex. That means a quick change in McDonalds from school uniforms to micro-mini skirts and sexy tops that reveal navel piercings and the application of make-up, nail varnish and Chells eyebrow ring. (And, yes, theres a full description of underwear, too.) Then, as Kylah says, "Lets go for it!".... and do they ever. This is fun stuff with the appropriate and inevitable bittersweet flip side. It brought back memories, too, although being American I could never have hoped to enter so many city pubs and drink so many drinks at age 17. (18 is the drinking age in Scotland, so the girls can just slip by here and there.) I loved the way girls paired off - some to French Connection, some to buy CDs, some straight for a pub - before meeting up at a pub called The Pill Box at four oclock. Rehearsal for the sopranos is seven oclock sharp, says Sister Condron (Condom to the girls) before giving strict orders to "carry yourselves with grace through this city today." Yeah, right.
I dont think it gives anything away to say they came in second to last, because the last thing the girls wanted was to win, which would have delayed their getting back to the towns local disco, the Mantrap, for slow dances with the submariners from the nuclear sub that has just anchored in the bay. Since the sopranos are "screwed anyway" after their days activities and will probably be expelled from school, they decide to make it an all-nighter. This leads to more zany goings-on, more personal and self-revelations - and more trips to the toilet - before dawn sees them gathered for breakfast at the station buffet "none appearing much worse for wear."
My initial criticism aside - and I can put it aside without too much
difficulty - Warner achieves what he set out to do: capture the essence of the vitality of
youth, something made all the more poignant by the fact that these girls come from lower
working-class families - if theyre not on the dole - and have little hope of
escaping the dead-end future that lies ahead. "Theyve youth; they walk it out
like a favourite pair trainers. Its a poem this youth . . . " The narrative
voice picks up the teen speech, leaving out prepositions, rushing headlong into
conversation. Once or twice I felt the narrator could have kept quiet and let the girls
and their actions speak for themselves, but mostly they do and the flow and rhythm of
their dialogue is spot on:
Another minor criticism concerns the appearance of The Panatine and The Argonaut, characters from the previous novels, in a story relayed by Fionnula telling of how the two had swallowed condoms of cannabis in Amsterdam with the intention of transporting it back to Scotland. A bad case of diarrhea in Paris in the wrong place, wrong time, sets the stage for a scenario a bit too reminiscent of Rents episode in Trainspotting. Though possibly intentional - a wee homage to Welsh? - the story has the feel of being tacked on.
The plot here is far more contrived than in the first two novels, and at times borders on the preposterous. Just occasionally, too, a young lassies actions ring false - Orlas sexual proclivity doesnt seem that of a 17-year-old virgin, as nothing about her - even the fact that she is battling cancer - would seem to account for her more sophisticated desires. But all in all Warner has accomplished quite a feat in the creation of his sopranos. Morvern will always be remembered as the hauntingly unique character she is and These Demented Lands - in which some critics felt Warner had over-reached himself - was, for me, a brilliant follow-up into headier and more surreal realms. The Sopranos, by comparison - already with a film attached and destined to be his biggest seller yet - is more the commercial venture. But Warner is no ordinary writer: the novel ultimately succeeds despite its overtly commercial aspects and despite my reservations because Warners talent is too great not to succeed. It didnt catch fire with me like the first two, but theres nothing wrong with a playful, summer romp when its as fun, moving and memorable - all the more so in retrospect - as The Sopranos. As Kylah says, go for it! J.A.
Alan Warner in The
Gargoyle #41 edited by Richard Peabody, Lucinda Ebersole and Maja Prausnitz. Paycock Press (US) 1998
Postmarked June 22nd, Gargoyle #41 finally arrived at our Barcelona doorstep mere hours before this current issue was due to go online. Even with the short time Ive had to peruse the contents, it is instantly obvious that editors Richard Peabody, Lucinda Ebersole and Maja Prausnitz have assembled a minor classic. Three basic sections - Non-fiction, Poetry and Fiction - are divided by short photography contributions (of note here are Connie Imbodens three manipulated nudes). Non-fiction kicks off with Jennifer Egan's Rowing: a (n Anti-) Memoir, a humorous recounting of a time, eleven years ago, when she was studying at Cambridge and experienced a broken love affair (and much weight gain) before a Christmas trip to Paris with one pair of yellow baggy pants to meet up with her mother. Non-fiction also contains the long and detailed piece Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse by Steven Moore which draws to our attention this forgotten, and now dead, artist-writer, who played a significant role in the literary history of our time (acquaintances include Anaïs Nin, William Gaddis, Ezra Pound, Ginsberg and Bukowski, to name a few). There is even a song along with the sheet music, Ode to the Golden Toad by Anne LeBaron. Moving along, the poetry section was a revelation. I personally am not a great poetry lover, but Gargoyles collection has turned me around and brought me to attention. Those responsible for this epiphany are Ronald Koertge, Q and A; Steve Aylett, Bestiary; Tim Turnbulls maniacal Raw Horse; and Joe Assers tongue-twisting Graffiti Artist. There are plenty more of note - 81 total and all good stuff. (Two of the UK poets I have seen read: John Cooper Clarke used to read at punk gigs in the late 70s, keeping a beat with his chewing gum. I can still hear it when I read Eat Lead Clown; and Roger McCough, Whoops!, I saw at Exeter and have liked ever since I was a kid and learned that he used to play in a group with Paul McCartneys brother.) Take note, too, of Paul Birtill (Best Seller) who knows how he is going to market his work..
From what Ive managed to read in the Fiction section so far - mostly the
shorter pieces - it's evident the editors have managed to find some excellent work. The
tedium of trapped lives is neatly told in Stokes Howells Just Drive. The
confusion of his parents' marriage falling apart is told with gentle humour from the
viewpoint of a twelve-year-old in Mary Halnons How It Seems in September.
Shelley Jacksons Sperm..er.. Shelley Jacksons piece, Sperm,
(phew!) is the oddest and most intriguing Ive read so far. If you want to know how
to de-brain and cook giant sperm, look no further. Another nice quirky number is Pedro
Ponces Stories of the Unexplained. I now intend to relax on the beach with
#41 and take in the remainder at a less frantic pace. With 23 short stories on offer,
there's an amazing abundance of new and original material. Theres a good
Anglo-American mix, too, especially in the poetry; the contributors' notes reveal the huge
diversity of talent between the covers. The quote from the second best book of the
century, House at Pooh Corner, (first is Winnie-the-Pooh), naturally sealed Gargoyle
#41s fate as gem of the season - make that small press gem of the year. Don't miss
it. If it's not available at a bookstore near you, you can order a copy by e-mail: email@example.com (US) or firstname.lastname@example.org (UK) Price $10.00 or
£7.00 See also the Atticus Books website:www.atticusbooks.com
Be Cool by Elmore Leonard | Delacorte 1998
Ive seen a few films, but its been a long time since I've read an Elmore Leonard novel and Id forgotten just how much fun he could be. Be Cool is the second Chili Palmer book and as I havent read the first - or seen the film with Travolta, Get Shorty - Im not too sure that I caught all of the many in-jokes flying about, but no matter. Ex-mobster Palmer had a hit film, Get Leo, followed by a dud, Get Lost. He is trying to come up with a third film based around a dating agency. While researching for the film he speaks to receptionist Linda Moon, who has a good voice, a spunky attitude and would much rather be fronting her own band. A fellow ex-mobster wants a film made of his life, but is shot dead with Palmer as witness. The Russian assassins now want Palmer dead, but just to complicate the issue Palmer goes to see Moons current band- a soulless all-girl cover band that make the Spice Girls look good- decides she is a hot number, breaks her contract with Raji, and becomes her manager. Raji, of course, who is protected by a huge gay Samoan bodyguard, sees Moon as his meal-ticket and a dead Palmer the best way to deal with the situation. Palmer is not fazed at having two killers on his tail and a prima donna rock star under contract because all this is helping with his film plot. His meddling and forcing of situations backfires on him one or two times and when it all gets too much he knows that only a dreaded screenwriter can sort it all out. On the bumpy journey to the conclusion the reader is taken through the horrors of how a record is sold and the nasty people who hang around the edges of the music and film industry. For wannabe rock stars some useful warnings of the slime world can be found here; for others, loads of laughs - Moons band supporting Aerosmith, for instance, and Palmer getting laid. As one would expect with Leonard, the dialogue is spot on and the plot reasonable enough (with one or two holes). For me the biggest flaw was Palmers coolness: as a mere mortal he remains a little too unflappable for my liking, harking back to the 70's type of hero in a very 90's book - hell, even Prodigy gets mentioned. Film rights have already been bought and Travolta will again star in what could be an intriguing set up: a film of a film that might be made. M.G.S.
The Agent by George V. Higgins | Harcourt Brace ( January 1999)
Considering he has 28 books behind him, a large fan base and critical praise by just about everyone, I was a bit let down by my first encounter with Higgins. Basic plot is fine. In Part One we meet Alexander Drouhin who set up one of Americas first sporting agencies. He comes across as an OK guy, bit money crazy but concerned about the welfare of his clients. Through horrendously long dialogues, however, we learn that not everyone is happy with the running of the business and that they are worried that a leak to the press about his homosexuality would bring the company down. Parts Two and Three find Drouhin with two bullets in his head and Detective Frank Clay on the job. Clay interviews four people to find the killer and during these interviews we discover that Drouhin wasnt such a nice person: he as good as hated his clients, was a racist, and, if encouraged, would supply drugs and prostitutes for outlandish parties at his house. This part contains some interesting stuff on American sports and the control that agents and management have over players. All in all Id say Drouhin was an OK agent (if not such an OK person), but lots of people thought otherwise, so... adios Drouhin . It is the unnaturally lengthy dialogues that put me off. Just about everyone suffers from verbal diarrhoea. The New York Times Book Review, writing about a previous book, says "The story unfolds almost entirely through superb dialogue that reveals character in a far more complex and interesting way than does an omniscient [narrator]...we welcome their loquaciousness." Well, Im sorry, in this book one interview lasts 80 pages, and of those at least 70 are of one person speaking, with occasional prompts, in exactly the same voice as all the other people who have l-o-n-g dialogues. It becomes a monologue of sheer tedium - people just do not talk in such a manner and character and information can be gleaned much quicker in shorter bursts- see Elmore Leonard. Minus the 'monologues' what we have left is a 40-page short story with a flimsy ending. Elmore Leonard says on a cover blurb: "Higgins is my favorite....I learn from him." Learn what? How not to do things maybe? M.G.S.
Now Its Time To Say Goodbye by Dale Peck: Farrar, Strous and Giroux (US) May 1998
The author says in his dedication: "I wouldnt wish this book on anyone." The reader cant say he wasnt warned. Peck (Fucking Martin 1993; Law of Enclosures 1996) has written a post-modern psychological thriller (as its touted) that is structured in good part around whats not said and what we dont learn about the protagonists. ". . . people dont want to know the truth. They just want a explanation, and a end to things" (sic), says the town sheriff; and Peck, seizing on this thesis, is hell bent on denying the reader that satisfaction. Its a clever ploy. If youre left griping about the loose ends and the pointlessness of it all, then you fall under the sheriffs critical observation that the average bloke wants only a clear "explanation." Point taken. Clever. But what else is going on in this "thriller" and is it worth the 458-page effort?
The narrative centers around the 45-year-old, rich and sophisticated writer Colin Nieman and his young lover, Justin Time (a pet name based on we never know what). They flee New York when the number of friends and lovers who have died from AIDS hits 500, and settle in a small, racially segregated Kansas town. The white half (Galatea) is dominated by the ambitious and manipulative middle-aged belle from Georgia, Rosemary Krebs. The black half (Galatia) by Reverend Abraham Greeving. White males Colin and Justin rent a limestone house from Rosemary, but their closest acquaintance is Wade Painter, a painter, and Wades main subject and amour, the pretty, black, street-smart boy, Divine. Webbie Greeving, who almost graduated from Columbia but had to return to Galatia to tend to her father, the Reverend, also hangs around the circle. Lawman Brown is the slow-witted town sheriff (white). Also white are Myra Robinson and her teenage daughter Lucy. All these characters and more have a voice in the novel - though not so distinct from each other as one would like.
The suspense begins when teenage Lucy goes missing (not that the reader gives a damn - she never seems real). The two gay newcomers are immediately suspect, a predicament not helped by the fact that Justin had been with her at the time of her abduction; and that the dark, menacing character (undoubtedly the culprit) is glimpsed more than once wearing Colins greatcoat and boots. Other mysterious occurrences have taken place as well: Local guy Eddie Comedy was found dead in his truck, a bullet through his head. Black man Melvin Cartwright has just left town. So have a couple other men. Slowly, the mystery unfolds as the towns dark history comes to light. The key figure is albino Eric Johnson, the "white nigger," who was supposedly lynched for having "touched" seven-year-old Lucy, but who we suspect is lurking around town like Jason out of Halloween. And someone is lurking because Lucys severed fingertips turn up in the mail. The mystery gets resolved after a fashion (in a murky, totally illogical manner), but the haphazard plotting is annoying and the ending (as well as much of the novel) is simply dumb. The characters never fully develop (drifter Rosetta Stone refuses to talk of her dark past - ever; huge chucks of the protagonists past is left unmentioned; and there are a few small-town stereotypes to boot ); and - as Im sure the author didnt intend - the setting is not memorable.
Peck seems to try to balance his post-modern style and approach with the genre of thriller. Doesnt work. (Rare example of where this does succeed is Rupert Thomsons 1995 novel The Insult.) For those who enjoy a good thriller, the novel falls flat for lack of fulfilling that genres prime criteria (and most genres for that matter): a believable plot (difficult here) and, most importantly, a satisfactory denouement. For those who can forego the need for clear, even semi-logical explanations in hopes of gaining some deeper insight into, say, the creative process (another oblique theme) or whatever else the novel might spew up, then there are myriads of elliptical avenues to explore. But to return to the question, is it worth it? Id have to say no, because - worst failing of all - this book is tedious. The lengthy, overwritten and overblown story - now and then with a big part of the puzzle filled in just for a tease - becomes too much of a tease in its own right. Its bold and ambitious in its aim, and Peck can write, as hes shown in his first two novels, but this ones a big, fat turkey. J.A.
Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Virago (UK) 1998
Tipping the Velvet is a long, sprawling lesbian novel set in the early 1890s in and around London. It follows the coming of age of its first-person narrator, Nancy Astley, from her girlhood in Whitstable working in the familys oyster-house business to her career in the music halls of London as a "masher" (performing in mens clothes) on to a brief career as a "renter" (working as a rent boy in her theater attire) on to a period of being "kept" by the wealthy Diana Lethaby for the sole purpose of giving her pleasure, and ending finally in a solid and healthy lesbian romance with a socialist activist. It is Dickensian in its epic sweep with a full cast of odd characters, and in fact reads much like the 19th-century novel it purports to be. It is, simply, a picaresque tale (Moll Flanders and Tom Jones come to mind as well) of a plucky young lesbian trying to make it on her own, moving from one adventure to another before finding love and happiness just next door.
Theres sex aplenty, too. Nancys first love is the masher Kitty, first seen
playing the small-town halls in Whitstable where Nancy forms a crush on her. Kitty hires
Nancy as her dresser and soon the two travel to London, sleeping together in a narrow bed
where they come - and come - to know each other intimately. Kitty doesnt want
their relationship to be known, however, and goes so far as to marry their manager. Nancy
flees in distress and puts in her time as rent-boy (delightfully decadent passages, these)
before being picked up by the wealthy and manipulative Diana to be used as her toy
"boy." Nancy must strap on a leather dildo and do her duty which she
wholeheartedly - and expertly - performs. Dianas circle of lesbian friends who meet
at the posh Cavendish Ladies Club present quite a picture. When Diana introduces her
"boy" Nancy, dressed beautifully in her boys attire with her short-cropped
hair, the ladies are fascinated - though one fussy "tom," Miss Bruce, objects to
the male costume and Nancy must dress more as they do, which in many cases is mannish but
not the full monty: take Dickie with her monocle and her "boiled shirt and bow
tie." These ladies sit around smoking, reading newspapers, gossiping and working on
the suffrage issue. Theyre out of touch with street-smart Nancy and the lower
classes, whom they tend to look down on even while pursuing their feminist causes. Nancy
finally stands up to her Sapphic master, gets thrown out of her prison of a palace, and
moves on to find real love - and lots more sex - with a plain-looking social activist
who introduces her to a new lezzie crowd at the dockyard saloon (tattooed pool
players and fun-loving working class females). The whole wild cast meet up at a socialist
rally (seems most of the female socialists are lesbian) and all is resolved to
satisfaction. The authors contemporary imprint is seen in the refreshingly open
attitude to lesbianism and the explicit lesbian sex. The novel is a bit long and drags at
first - my biggest complaint - but it picks up and develops into a fun, racy romp of a
read, giving a backstreet, late-19th century portrait of London - with nice period details
- such as you'll never enounter in Dickens. J.A.
Personal Demons by Christopher Fowler (short stories): Serpents Tail 1998
Obscure 80s English rock band The Dancing Did used to fuse history and nature in their
songs about rural England, creating the image that the country and its countryside formed
an entity that can get pretty nasty with we humans. Christopher Fowler also hints at the
same theme in his horror/thriller novels like Psychoville and especially Disturbia, but in place of the Dids
dying countryside he uses a dying old lady called London. London appears or is
mentioned in just about every one of these 17 stories with "Unforgotten" proving
there is still a fight in the old girl yet. Maybe this Englishness is the reason Americans
have called his work "quirky" but it is more likely that Fowler earned that
adjective by not following the conventions of horror writing, and after reading this
collection and a novel or two it is quite hard to actually pigeon-hole the author.
The stories appear in chronological order with a wonderful dig at horror conventions as
well as a thought or two about author as God wrapping the collection together
at the end. On the way there we meet Spanky - the title of Fowlers fifth book
- who is one of the fallen angels, trying to get back into heaven ("Spankys
Back in Town"). The familiar name Jonathan Harker appears in a wonderfully
intelligent and funny, lost Bram Stoker Dracula manuscript
("Draculas Library"). Brett Ellis, another familiar name, appears as a
yuppie doomed to be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ("Phoenix"). We
also meet Judy Merrrigan, a character in the forthcoming novel Soho Black, who gets
involved with a sort of Greekish deity that evokes memories of Fowles The Magus
("Midas Touch"). For those of you who work in an intelligent building that keeps
you all warm and secure, really panic if the fire alarms go off! ("Wage
Slaves"). Fowler says that he rarely writes "anything as dark as the real lives
we lead" and two good examples would be the soccer/wife beating "Permanent
Fixture" and the dog/flat sitting "Looking for Bolivar." There is no
information on previous publications but one or two have been published elsewhere.
"Armies of the Heart," a kind of Jesus-died-for-somebodys-sins
tale, was in Love in Vein 11 and, "Inner Fire," a science fiction story
of a frozen London, was in another anthology. All in all a very good, representative
collection of stories by a writer who still has a day job...not bad! MGS
Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon: Viking 1998
The good thing about reading a manuscript is that there are no cover blurbs or reviews to prefigure the story. Billy Deads very tight beginning introduces us to first-person narrator, uneducated Ray Johnson, learning that his wife-beating, town-thug brother Billy has been murdered by someone who "must have been meaner than him". But if the reader were expecting a brother-looking-for-revenge type thriller to follow then their expectations have already been dashed by the odd behaviour of Ray who, well, not only hears animals talk and whistle - a bug and a raccoon will help him find Billys killer - but can even hear the pain of an ice cube cracking in a drink. His behaviour becomes a little more disturbed with the arrival of "The only person in the world who scares me more than my brother.." - his little sister Jean: and then the reader realises that Ray and Jean have had an incestuous relationship. The story covers just the few days from murder to funeral but it is Rays thoughts as he slowly remembers his childhood with Billy and Jean - of all the sad sickness, abuse and torture that went on in his formative years - that is the backbone of the book. As his memories unravel the darkness of his sorry family saga, Ray also starts to unravel and 10 years of suppression and frustration come to the surface, along with the fact he actually misses his revolting sibling Billy. It is a delicate web that Reardon spins and I wouldnt want to break the thread by giving any more of the plot away. Incest (the word appears once in the book) and child abuse play a big part in the novel and Reardon will get some flak from certain quarters but in no way is she trying to be sensationalist: this book is not written to titillate. It is a story where there is no dividing line between love and hate; it is about ignorance, poverty, domestic violence and profound love.... and the destruction and resurrection of family. It is complex, harrowing, sad, and at times very funny - an exceptional debut novel. MGS
At Home With The Marquis De Sade: A Life by Francine du Plessix Gray: Simon & Schuster due out 1998
Just what it says it is, this life of De Sade takes us behind the doors and into the private world of the man who prompted psychiatrist Kraft-Ebbing to coin the term "sadism" in 1882. Interestingly, sadism was a minor feature of De Sades deviances. He was, we learn, as much a masochist as a sadist in the boudoir - asking to be whipped before he did the whipping - and preferring above all to be farted on by his prostitutes before engaging in anal intercourse. Born in 1740 Paris, De Sades mother was a governess and lady-in-waiting to Prince Condé. At age four the child De Sade threw a temper tantrum at the slightly older Condé and was sent away to his doting grandmother in Avignon - the first of his many banishments. He then went on to spend time in Jesuit schools where the students endured regular floggings by their preceptors as a matter of course and where sodomy was common practice: all combining to form De Sades character, as the author convincingly argues.
After a stint in the army he married the plain and ungraceful Pélagie Montreuil, daughter of the bright and highly ambitious Madame Montreuil, whose family had money but no familial link to the aristocracy. Mm Montreuil at first excused the sexual forays of her son-in-law, but eventually turned against him and plagued De Sade for the rest of his life. He and his wife, interestingly, got on well. It is speculated that De Sade awakened a passion in her that remained until their separation many years later when she rejected him in an about face as absolute as the fervor of her previous devotion.
De Sade preferred living on his estates in the Provence area rather than cavorting with Louis XVs court in Paris and Versailles - one reason he became the media target he did. In his chateau in La Coste he enjoyed his own domain and the feudal rights he had over its villagers, whom he looked upon, quite literally, as serfs. While ensconced here - his mother-in-law raised his three children in Paris - he made excursions to Marseille and its environs where he kept "rented houses" for the purpose of extra-marital sex, as was the accepted fashion. But several incidents landed him in trouble: prostitutes didnt liked being whipped - at least one we know was whipped quite badly - nor were they keen on sodomy or his "coprophilic perversions." Plus his near epileptic fits during orgasm scared the hell out of them. Depositions were filed and the pre-Republic parlement system, frustrated in their failure to make a dent in the power of the crown, were all too happy to vent their anger on a vulnerable member of depraved nobility. De Sade found himself in and out of prison for the rest of his life where he wrote his "pornographic" novels - Justine and Juliette and numerous other works. Bizarre as it seems - chalk it up to his megalomania - every time he was released he immediately set off to get himself into another scrape. In Marseille he fed Spanish fly to two prostitutes covered with anise "to increase flatulence." They were so ill that they accused De Sade of poisoning which landed him again in jail. Not long after this release, he and his wife hired an entire new staff of nubile young girls to live with them at La Coste. What followed were six weeks of debauchery, probably involving sodomistic "daisy chains" (the valet accommodated De Sade) which only ended when word leaked out in the village and the parents of some of the girls filed charges. A thirteen-year prison term followed. He was released after the fall of the Bastille, where he had recently been incarcerated, and went on to hold a minor position in the new National Assembly until Robespierre turned on all atheists and had De Sade thrown in prison yet again. Freed after the fall of Robespierre, his family - meaning his mother-in-law - had him committed to a mental asylum where he spent the remainder of his years, often conducting lavish theatrical productions with the inmates, which were open to the public.
The author brings De Sade vividly to life, recounting everyday details, much based on letters to his wife. We know he grew tremendously fat in prison and it is understandable when we read his letters to Pélagie demanding truffles, chocolates, jams, cakes "glazed on both side," and all sorts of gourmet goodies which she could hardly afford, De Sade having bankrupted them, but which she tried to supply. He was also allowed tailored clothes and a valet - hardly the roughest of incarcerations! - while Pélagie was reduced to meager lodgings in a convent. The historical background which takes us all through the fall of Napoleon is, too, mainly captured in the everyday details and personal touches, such as Louis XVIs distress over his debilitatingly tight foreskin. At times the author appears over-sympathtic to her subject - referring to a particularly abusive incident later as a "frolick" - but overall it is a well-written, well-researched, highly vivid account of a man who suffered, so we conclude, from an astonishing case of arrested development - for which his name would be a more apt eponym. J.A.