Friday, 18 October 2013

Artillery and Les Liaisons Dangereuses: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos (Amiens, Kingdom of France, 18th October 1741 – Taranto, Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, 5th September 1803)


Pierre Choderlos de Laclos by Maurice Quentin de La Tour
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Today it's back to France to meet an army officer who is better known for a certain scandalous novel than his military exploits. A man of contrast, artillery know-how and huge literary ambition, it is a pleasure to meet Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Although Laclos was to attain notoriety for his writing, when he was a young man in Amiens there was no doubt as to the direction his career would take and he was dispatched to the École Royale d'Artillerie de La Fère, where he trained for a life in the service of his country, devloping a particular expertise for artillery. At the age of 22 he took part in the Seven Years' War and then rose through the ranks to the office of Captain, becoming a noted authority on ballistics and though his professional ambition was more than fired, his true dreams lay elsewhere. Frustrated with the regimented military life and bored with his fellow soldiers, he amused himself by writing poetry that enjoyed some small success. Buoyed by this, Laclos' career seemed to be taking off when he wrote the libretto to the opera Ernestine. The work was chosen for a royal premiere in the presence of Marie Antoinette, which could surely only mark the start of a glittering career.

Opening in 1777, the opera was a commercial and critical flop and Laclos went back to what he knew. He established a military school in Valence, where a certain young man by the name of Napoleon would one day study. Whilst his career went from strength to strength Laclos continued to write, eventually beginning work on what would become his most famous novel. With his military career getting in the way of his creative urges, Laclose took a six month leave from the army and retired to Paris, dedicating himself to the business of writing.


Marie-Soulange Duperré, Madame Laclos by Alexandre Kucharski, 1786
Marie-Soulange Duperré, Madame Laclos by Alexandre Kucharski, 1786

In 1782, three years after he began writing Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the book was finally published in four volumes. The hugely successful novel made his name and he was famed throughout society for the scathing, scandalous work even as he returned to his military career. In 1786 he married 27 year old Marie-Soulange Duperré, with whom he would have three children. The couple were devoted to one another and enjoyed a harmonious, loving marriage

When Laclos retired from the army in 1788 he immediately took up a diplomatic position in the service of Louis Philippe, duc d'Orléans. Devloping strong Republican sympathies as the Revolution swept France, Laclos took a position in the Ministry of War and proved himself a decisive and  invaluable strategist. Revolutionary politics and personalities were nothing if not changeable and intrigues led to his arrest, with Laclos spending some time in prison.

Laclos moved into research then, working on the development of artillery shells and in 1800 Napoleon himself saw that Laclos was allowed back into the army, this time as Brigadier General. Once again his career trajectory soared but this time Laclos was cut short by failing health and he died in the former convent of St. Francis of Assisi at Taranto, his remains laid to rest at Forte de Laclos. Sadly Laclos was not to rest long and a decade later the Bourbon restoration saw his tomb destroyed and his remains hurled out to sea.

It was an ignominious end to a life that had known both highs and lows; one hopes that Laclos might take some comfort from the knowledge that, more than two centuries since he set out to write an epistolary novel that would be remembered, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has attained the status of masterpiece.

12 comments:

karen talley said...

I hate to admit my own stupidity so publicly but, even though I loved the movie, I didn't know that it was based on such an early work. I am ordering the book from Amazon today. Thank you. l look forward to reading your posts because they are so varied and interesting. NEVER dull!

Madame Gilflurt said...

Thank you for your kind words! I think you will enjoy the novel - do let me know your thoughts...

Georgie Lee said...

I read the book many, many years ago. It is so good. Thanks for the great post.

Julian Rixon said...

What a fascinating chap! I love that book and had never connected the writer with the career soldier. Once again it's interesting to see the highs and lows that the political intrigue of the Revolution evoked throughout society and, once again, it's fascinating to see how Napoleon would intervene in matters.

Madame Gilflurt said...

A pleasure!

Madame Gilflurt said...

Napoleon pops up everywhere, doesn't he? The book is wonderful, I think I shall have to read it again!

Anonymous said...

I learned something new. An interesting man. His interests were weapons and words. Thank you for posting, Madame.

Mari Christian said...

"Les Liaisons" is a magnificent epistolary novel. Thank you Catherine for filling in the biographical detail. Laclos must have had a remarkable mind to be both a soldier and a novelist--although a kind of war strategy is evident throughout his novel.

Catherine Curzon said...

What a lovely way of putting it, weapons and words!

Catherine Curzon said...

I feel the need to go back and read it all over again!

Mari Christian said...

Laclos' literary genius was to create characters through their letters to each other. The most evil and manipulative character, Mme Meurteil has the greatest command of the language.

Catherine Curzon said...

It's a wonderful book, beautifully structured and written.