The Marquis de Sade: A Life

Neil Schaeffer, Author
Neil Schaeffer, Author Alfred A. Knopf $35 (592p) ISBN 978-0-679-40407-1
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-0-674-00392-7
Paperback - 576 pages - 978-0-330-31961-4
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The '90s have been a banner decade for ""the Divine Marquis"": six biographies, an A&E film and an upcoming book of previously unpublished letters all seek to illuminate the man after whom ""sadism"" was named. Hence, Brooklyn College professor Shaeffer will suffer for his timing. Several years ago, Maurice Lever was hailed for offering an exhaustive and balanced view in Sade: A Biography. He was followed, last fall, by Francine du Plessix Gray, whose engaging At Home with the Marquis de Sade took on the previously neglected, but dramatic, relationships Sade had with his loyal wife and his vengeful mother-in-law. Then came Laurence Bongie's Sade: A Biographical Essay, a hearty attempt to undercut the growing Sade myth. Schaeffer does take a somewhat different approach, defending the marquis as a man of his time. Using somewhat old-fashioned Freudian theory to excuse, or at least explain, his subject's ""outr "" behavior, Schaeffer finds that Sade had a ""sweet"" side and ""yearned for the embrace of a mother."" Schaeffer is far more successful in recounting Sade's adventures. He does so with great relish and facility, and his book is often as riveting as a tightly drawn historical novel. Sade's first arrest, for accidentally poisoning a prostitute, began with a lengthy manhunt; once captured, the marquis managed to escape from prison. He was subsequently arrested many times, for writing pornography and for political reasons, and committed to a madhouse. In a stroke of bad luck, he was transferred--for poor behavior--from the Bastille only 10 days before it was liberated. Though well researched and accessible, Schaeffer's uneven effort to distill the man from the myth is unlikely to make much of a dent in the growing body of Sade studies already available. (Apr.)
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