Paul Parillo 120 Days of Sodom: A Review

In 1785, behind the cold and solid stone walls of the Bastille in France, a nobleman and writer referred to as the “Marquis de Sade” would unknowingly fortify his name into the pantheon of literary depravities. Over the course of thirty-seven days, Sade secretly wrote “120 Days of Sodom” on a tightly rolled 40 ft sheet of paper hidden in his cell. During the French revolution in 1789, the Bastille was stormed and looted, leaving Sade’s liberation soured by the loss of his one and only draft. It wasn’t until several decades afterwards that the posthumous discovery of his work would be brought to light.

The first publication took place in 1904 with several other publications and translations to follow in the years to come. Naturally, the book is still banned in most countries and it’s frustratingly impossible to find an unfiltered version (I suggest the 2008 publication from Solar Books). Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” is arguably the most extreme, vile, offensive and generally amoral piece of literature seen by the human race, and I love it! – And think you will too.

To better understand the work, I think it’s more than prudent to first understand its maker. I wouldn’t presume to denounce the irregularity of an individual who boasts such a transparent duality in life; Sade was a Marquis (one step below a Duke), a politician, a revolutionary and most importantly, an Aristocrat (I’ll describe the importance of this shortly). As mentioned earlier, Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille – for no less than 10 years - with other prison sentences taking him all over France. In his 72 years of life, Sade spent 32 of them locked up (either in jail or an asylum). If you can guess why he was locked up, I’ll give you a chocolate covered dead prostitute; the answer of course is sex crimes (and for his written works).

So, what of the importance of Sade’s involvement in the high society and aristocracy of France in the 18th century? Well, here’s where we find the exact basis and setting with which the prose of 120 Days of Sodom is set.

Four, exceedingly debased, intelligent and wealthy libertines of high rank in society, barricade themselves in a medieval castle (described as similarly to the one owned by Sade himself) for four months of debauchery and continuously escalating sexual crimes unparalleled. “The Lords of Sodom” are as follows (note: don’t shoot me I’m just the messenger!): The Duc de Blangis, aged fifty, incredible strength and endowed with penis “measuring eight inches in girth and twelve in length”; The Bishop of X, forty five, the “sight of a vagina makes him physically ill”; The President de Curval, aged sixty, will have sex with women but they “must be both elderly and unwashed”; Durcet, fifty three, has a four inch penis and enjoys being anally raped. I know what you’re thinking – time to update the internet dating profile.  

But they aren’t alone, and in some cases one might argue the quality of the story rests more on the involvement of sub characters than that of the instigators of this fine mess. The bulk of “Sodom’s” storytelling comes from the sub characters aptly and collectively named “The Storytellers”. They consist of four weathered, experienced and somehow incredibly well-spoken prostitutes whose main purpose in the story is to act as the narrative vehicle as well as catalysts for much of the inspired sexual activity that takes place. 

Of course, the story couldn’t be complete without the victims (the terms protagonist and antagonist have no place in this novel.) And without giving too much away, I’ll simply say the rest of the castle’s company comprises of four wives (belonging to the Lords), four female servants, eight girls (ages ranging from 12-15), eight males (ages ranging from 12-15), eight “cock mongers” (find this one out on your own), and finally six house staff to manage the cooking and cleaning (with a stern emphasis on cleaning).

Together, with the castle’s inhabitants - led by the lords, the reader is taken down a literary avenue both disturbing and absorbing, where at any time you can find yourself grimacing, or even worse, laughing. Random passage: page 141, “Duclos, said the Duc, be truthful: did you masturbate while watching the bitch expire? Did the piercing pleasure of your crime not bring you to orgasm? I admit it, my Lord; my cunt was soaking wet, and I came no less than five times in the commission of that atrocity”.

You can surmise almost immediately within the first page of the book that the inspiration is far from contrived. In fact, this book reads less like a novel, and more like a dictation of events. The specificity and categorizing of dates and personal/sexual arrangements is something I’ve never seen before – it’s as if Sade was constructing it for the vicarious enjoyment first, and storytelling second. Not to say that there’s no fluidity, there most certainly is – and considering the aforementioned conditions the novel was written in, I’d day Sade’s prose was more than exemplary.

In any or most books within the eroticism or horror genre (or the combination of both for that matter) simply setting the narrative and establishing characters is grossly misguided and tend to take up more pages than the information is actually worth. Often times an author tirelessly works with their imagination to provide a firm ground with which to base such sensitive topics – and regrettably the result is less than satisfying. Such is not the case here.

As mentioned above, Sade already had a very similar predisposition that is likened to the lords themselves. If anytime an author’s unoriginal ability to create a setting could be deemed a compliment, it would be here; Sade merely took the life he tried to lead (with some success mind you) and dropped it onto some paper. I would even contend with notion that this was the unintentional autobiography inside Sade’s head. Random passage: page 39 “These arrangements allowed for the rupturing of all front and rear maidenheads by the 30th of January, save for the anuses of the four young boys whom the libertines would take as wives: they wish to marry virgins”.

With graphic content ranging from pedophilia to necrophilia, why on earth would anyone want to read this book, let alone condone it? I hate to say this, but it’s entertaining. I myself found certain parts difficult to stomach (I’ve got an incredible tolerance) but nevertheless I read on because I couldn’t help but be interested by the characters and the scenarios they were in. It’s already understood that Sade was a maniac by any common definition, so I can find some sort of odd solace in knowing that the genesis of “Sodom” was from a deranged mind, and not someone who voluntarily chose a story like this out of a sane mental state. Random passage: page 273, “He is careful to administer non-fatal stabs, as he wants her to die slowly among the putrid bodies while he discharges to the sound of her wails”.

How many times a day do we stifle our interests and take refuge in normalcy? I, like most, people find great comforts in sharing banal commonalities with friends and family; certain balances between the two should be maintained for something if not effectiveness. But the unfortunate truth that remains unchallenged is the unfailing effect that other people can have on one another with regards to enjoyment. There is a fear instilled in us to accept correctness and manners held together by the thin threads of tradition. I say take a leap of bad faith and be swallowed by the mouth of social and sexual degradation – the desire to discover this side is present in all of us, whether you admit it or not.  

To close, I’d like to site a passage written by Sade as the forward to “120 Days of Sodom”:

“And now, let the casual reader beware; the pages that follow comprise of the most obscene story that has ever been told since the world began, a bible of atrocities unequalled amongst either the ancients or the moderns. Imagine that every honest pleasure permitted by that beast which men speak of, though they do not truly understand it, and which they call Nature – imagine that any such pleasures were banished from this compendium of evil, and that if you should by some chance detect a trace of them it will only be because they were besmirched by some crime, or juxtaposed with the most diabolical of iniquities.”

Happy Reading!

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