Books by A. C. H. Smith, Author of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal
Cover image for The Dangerous Memoir of Citizan Sade by A. C. H. Smith

The Dangerous Memoir of Citizen Sade

A novel set in the French Revolution

ISBN 3-453-01837-0

About this book | Read excerpts | How to buy this book

My third bio-novel (and perhaps last) after Wagner and Sebastian. An eminent London publisher found it often brilliant, but could not see a profit in it. My agent, who had suggested the subject, was personally affronted by the rejection, and eventually I brought it out with my friend Jeremy Mulford, whose small firm could do little or nothing to promote sales, but at least gave it a physical existence in the cold world. Now that it can be posted on the web, it might tiptoe in from the cold. It is an account of the period of the Terror in the French Revolution, told by two writers who were incarcerated together and loathed each other: Choderlos de Laclos, author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the Marquis de Sade.

Excerpts from The Dangerous Memoir of Citizen Sade

Imagine two parks, laid out for pleasure. My home is close by one of them, at Versailles. I am most often to be found at the other, in the middle of Paris.

The first park is a palace of air, beside one of stone. At my back are 375 windows, reflecting the passing clouds, as I stand in weak sunshine, eyes closed, facing the wide vistas, the terraces, the yew-lined walks, the fountains and ornamental basins, the statues, and I see the Sun King showing a select group of visitors how to look at his gardens. One must pause on this terrace, at the top of the steps, in order to appraise the pattern of spume at the far end of the arcade. Next, one must turn to the left, advance five paces, and contemplate the arrangement of the marble group comprising the figures of Diana, Air, and Venus. The Doge of Genoa, and the Princes of Persia, Muscovy, and Siam, glide along with the King as though transported on a moving carpet of air, to the sound of hautboys and fifes, drums and silver trumpets. Louis Quatorze is in his element, vaingloriously waving his hand at the impossible dream that Le Nostre has carved for him in water and marble, stone and air. Next, one must turn left and pass between the sphinxes. He is reading from the guide written in his own hand. One will pause to contemplate the grounds to the south, and thence one must go straight to the orangery, whence one will consider the terrain of orange trees and the Swiss lake. Afterwards, one must turn to the right and descend to the little west shrubbery, wherein one will arrive at the Baths of Apollo attended by Nymphs. He was awoken by his valet this morning at 8.15, as he is every morning, and attended by his physician, the first gentleman of the bedchamber drew back the curtains of his bed, he was addressed by three privileged petitioners, his beard, wig and costume were prepared, before he proceeded from the vestibule to the guardroom, the antechamber, the chamber, and into the cabinet room at nine o'clock, to attend to every detail of government. None will escape him. His divine function on earth is never disordered. He governs by an etiquette that cannot be disturbed. To disobey him would be sin. One must walk westward along the precise centre of the green carpet of grass in order to appreciate its continuation by the Grand Canal. The heterogeneous little group glides as one along the broadwalk of the sun, between trim files of trees brought from Normandy, beds of jonquils, anemones, narcissi and tulips, another aisle of the airy cathedral to the glory of Louis Quatorze. What was sand and black mire has been imprinted with the splendour of his absolute will. Nature has been tyrannised into unity. I hate it. In a hungry land, the ostentation of taste is obscene. Even water obeys him, even gravity is the Sun King's subject. To feed his fountains in an arid plain, all the ponds of the region were trapped and culverted. But there was not enough to supply the spumes and plumes of his fantasy. Windmills, and horse-drawn pumps, were installed far away, to drive water up here for His Majesty. Still not enough. A river of water was required, the Eure, and who better to besiege it, with Louis Quatorze, than Vauban himself? Across twenty leagues of flatland, along aqueducts higher than the Romans', twice as high as Notre-Dame, through reservoirs, ports and sluices, down any little slope or terrace that led to Versailles, they ordered the diversion of the Eure, from Pontgoin to Courville, Saint-Arnoult, Fontaine-la-Guyon, Bailleau-l'Évêque, Berchères-la-Maingot. Nothing, not even nine million livres, nor twenty thousand infantrymen struck down with pleurisy, was too much to spend on beauty. The machine of grandeur remade the land. And still it was not enough. Still the Sun King has to order his fountains to play when he wishes to impress Genoa and Persia, Muscovy and Siam, moving evenly through air heavy with the scent of orange blossom. I see them coming spectrally back, now, between statues of heroic size, toward the level skyline of the stone palace, where tonight, from the Salon of Apollo, furnished in silver, the King will move through a hall of mirrors crested with the discs of the sun, to where the almoner of the day waits with a lighted candle in still air, which he will hand to the first valet, who will name aloud tonight's bearer of the candle, who will step forward, removing a glove, and lead the King to bed, while a thousand courtiers and four thousand servants, all stinking inside their clothes, bow to wish him a good night. O, I am rapt, despite myself, when I contemplate that perfection of order, that luxury and calm, unblemished by the voluptuousness of Louis Seize, who had no secrets to bow us down. And when the Sun King went to his last bed, eighty years ago, his dazzling invisibility was preserved in the eyes of his people by burying him incognito. Dust to dust, light to light, the Sun King set beyond the western horizon, and the night air, already cold, closed in upon all of our bones.

The second park, also, is laid out beside a palace, which embraces it with a horseshoe curve. At midnight, at noon, and at every other hour, it is swarming with people, like maggots in a dead sheep's belly. Some have come there for pleasure, some for politics, most could not tell you the difference, and perhaps, in those heady days and nights, there was no difference. You can taste hope, like sharp lemonade. You can get drunk on the future. Here is one declaiming for threequarters of an hour how he would reform the constitution. Walk five steps along the arcade, and another, no less vehement, is denouncing the aristocracy. Turn to your left, and appraise the defrocked Abbot Bernard singing a bawdy song about Marie-Antoinette to his own guitar. Rivarol is here, Marat, Chamfort, Danton. Servan is reading out his own pamphlet. If hotheads still dream of holding back the changes that millions are demanding; if fanatics wish to build a dam with their coats-of-arms, robes and necklaces, strings of pearls, hats of office, mitres and crosses - then let us, in return, offer them not our anger but our laughter. At Versailles, history is frozen; at the Palais-Royal it is a foaming torrent. It will sweep us along, like children in small boats, to paradise. Six thousand people of all sorts cram themselves into the gardens to promenade, listen, laugh, solicit, pick pockets, learn satirical slogans, play chess or billiards, read journals. You gawp at the four-hundred-pound man Butterbrodt. You sigh at the two-hundred-years-old corpse of Zulima. You enjoy serious arguments in the Café Foy, and risqué repartee in the fetid air of the Grotte Flamande. White-faced Harlequin will wring your tears in the Théâtre Beaujolais, if you can squeeze in. Look, over there the merry Grammont family have everyone at a roar with their poissard patter. Pass between the magic-lantern booth and the shadow-light show, along the arcades of the wig-makers and the lace-makers, smile at the whores, bet on the knave of hearts, but exactly at noon do not fail to be beside the miniature cannon, which will be fired when the meridional ray falls upon it. Smoke hangs on the air. And the moment of silence that follows is broken by a cry of 'The King to Paris!' Cheers, easy laughter. There is no rancour here, not yet. We are the children of the patrie. We want our King with us here, in the heart of Paris, because he belongs to us, to the people, the family that is France. He should reside at the Tuileries. No one will decry the King. So what if he has issued a ban on political pamphlets? It has served only to increase their production tenfold. They denounce the aristocrats who would fain sabotage the Estates-General. They execrate the King's wife, who sells herself for a diamond necklace. But it is, for the most part, just general denunciation. The pamphleteers denounce the state of things, as Rabelais would if he were here, or Molière. Over there, Desmoulins is declaring that tax fiefs are leeches on the body politic, and no policeman will arrest him, for this is a private place, a sacrosanct carnival, and the policemen wear no uniforms, you know them by their eyes only. Later, in years to come, we will know them better. But by then we will know, too, that the jolly Grammonts have been employed to sniff out traitors for the guillotine, and Zulima's perfectly preserved body was wax. Not yet. Now, at midnight, torchlight flickers on the sweaty faces who are watching the principal balcony, in case the most popular man in France will wave to them tonight. He is the Prince, Philippe, Duke of Chartres, Duke of Orleans, and of a coronet of other titles which, soon, he will doff to call himself Citizen Égalité. He is the great spoon that stirs this melting-pot, in the gardens of his palace. He is the hope of the liberals, and the despair of his more numerous creditors.


Mirabeau and I are with the Prince when word is brought in that Lafayette requires to be admitted at once. The Prince makes a face at us. “You'd better wait outside.”

Lafayette is in the drawing-room, pacing rapidly up and down, the plumes in his hat wagging madly. When he sees us he draws himself up to attention, with a frigid glare. Then he strides in to see the Prince. In less than a minute he comes striding out again, and away, without a look in our direction. Mirabeau laughs loudly enough to be sure that the Hero of Two Worlds will hear. Then he mutters to me, “A brief painful interview with the headmaster.”

The Prince looks up at us with his great vague eyes when we enter again. The smile on his face is bemused.

“What was it?” Mirabeau asks. “Did he come to explain that what happened at Versailles was not at all his fault, Sire, oh no, the Commander of the National Guard cannot be held responsible for guarding the national sovereign?”

The Prince shakes his head, and is quiet for a moment. Then he clears his throat, and tells us, “All he said was: 'Get out of the kingdom, or be arrested.' That was all.”

“I hope your considered reply,” Mirabeau says, “was: 'Kindly go and do your farting in somebody else's office.'”

“Oh no.”

“Well, what did you say?” Mirabeau asks impatiently.

“I said I'd go to London.”

Neither of us speaks.

Twitch, twitch. “Tomorrow,” the Prince adds, and smiles again.

We plead with him. The crown is his to pluck now, as if from a hatstand. As king he will be even freer than he is now to enjoy every pleasure, since he will be a constitutional monarch only, ratifying the Assembly's decrees. Eventually Mirabeau loses his temper and, more vehement than I have ever heard him, barks, “They are just clearing you out of the way. Can't you see that? Can't you see it?”

But I have surrendered. I watch the Prince, his face averted from Mirabeau, and see how happy the man is to be running away from responsibility, politics, creditors, family worries, and running away, moreover, to England. Lafayette has brought him delightful news.

Mirabeau gives up too, in the end. Without a goodbye, he turns and stamps out of the room. We hear him bellowing at someone, Shee perhaps, or Danton, “He's a useless bugger, a eunuch who can't wank. Don't let me hear his name again. Never!”

The Prince looks up, and quietly asks, “Will you come with me, Laclos?”

“Yes.” Later, I wondered why I knew the answer at once. I was surely not touched by the oaf's helplessness. I think I must have reckoned, instantly, that my only alternative would be La Fère.

We left the Palais-Royal at five in the morning on October 14th. Many tears were wiped away in my apartment. We would all miss each other dreadfully, but I could not take a wife and two small children with me to the end of the earth.


Laclos complains that he could not find this memoir in my room. Oh dear, what a vexing day he must have had. I, in contrast, have merely been carted off with a tumbrilful of common criminals, as so many cattle to the knacker. The stink of fear will never be purged from my nostrils, however refined the orange-water. The tribunal disposed of twenty-seven lives as casually as my gardener would sweep up a few leaves. By now they will be along the street, at La Place du Trône, waiting for the banality of the falling blade. Down, up, down, up, the executioner can do it with one hand, in his sleep (if he sleeps). To kill somebody takes such a little movement. Even to kill the last King of the French, it is all one, down, up. What an efficient machine it is, how full of virtue. It will not wait for your fine farewell speech. There was time for that when we were burned, or impaled, or broken, when it was our right as noblemen to demand the axe, until they botched Lally-Tollendal and he danced around for half a minute trying to hold his head on, there was always time to ennoble one's inexpressible rage at being cut short, through a few words tossed back at those who would unforgivably go on living. Perhaps that is why, so they say, the heads talk afterwards now. Et tu, said Louis's. Even the spectators don't like it. It's too abrupt, too high up, uniforms always get in the way. There was a call for provision to be made for the people to be able to dance and sing, otherwise how is an aristocrat to see what happiness his death brings them? Not that my family were ever aristocrats. I told them that, looking straight into their eyes, the eyes of those who boast they are the sons of Saturn. Is it their father they eat? I could hardly suppress the impish proposal that they eat a wafer in remembrance of me, instead. The joke would have gone too deep for them. Nothing is holy. We live in a stew, stirred and forked by the State. When the body politic has no head, it has no reason, and gives none. It cannot speak. And so all we see, sitting up at that bench, are dismembered limbs, preening themselves on their sensitive virtuousness. I was led in, quivering, to face that row of arms and legs gouting blood. I was number 11 of 28. Truly, number 11, I will sing hosannas to thee every day of my life, which may not be many days, but at least I am not yet delivered, hands bound behind me, coatless, head shaven, shirt ripped open, and then trundled by pale lamplight behind the hedge. My politics have always been what circumstance demands, and now the demand was the most sacred of all lusts, that of preserving my own bodily self at no matter what expense. They looked at Citizen Sade, but what looked back at them was the only thing that is wholly my possession.


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