Monday, June 1, 2009

The Epistolary Genre and Television

I am rereading Choderlos de Laclos' beautiful epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons. I'm sure evrybody has seen the film version with the amazing John Malkovich and the profoundly gifted Glenn Close. I watch the movie every few years just to remind myself that there are a couple of American actors who actually know how to act.
As good as the film version is, the novel is, of course, unmeasurably better. It's the XVIIIth century and words matter a lot. Beauty of expression which helps to reveal an incredible depth of meaning is valued above anything else.
I appreciate this novel not only because I'm fascinated with the Enlightenment, but also (paradoxically, it might seem at a first glance) because I really like television. In my opinion, the epistolary genre, so popular in the XVIIIth century, is more of a precursor for the television than any other artistic form.
One of the most engaging things about the epistolary novel is its skill in manipulating different stories at the same time. The epistolary creates suspense by abandoning one story and switching to another when a letter from one of the characters is followed by a letter from somebody else narrating a different tale. In a similar way, a television show abandons a storyline for a while by switching to a different scene.
A XVIIIth century novel always has a moral lesson, simply because it has no choice. So does a TV show. It is very easy, however, to find textual evidence in both that subverts the official morality. It is impossible to resist Madame de Merteuil's charm. Whatever might be said of her at the end of the novel, her letters make her undisputably the most engaging character of the book. A similar thing happens with TV shows. In spite of all efforts on the part off the creators of the show, the protagonist of 24 ends up looking like a sociopathic monster.


Anonymous said...

The epistolary genre is a precusor of television indeed, and the missing link in the middle is the serial novel. It has been a while since I read Laclos's beautiful Liaisons, but for what I remember it is a suprisingly radical feminist novel. Maybe I would have a less naive idea if I'd read the novel today, but I like to think that an eighteenth-century novel may teach us a great deal about feminism in our days.

May I suggest another French novel from that period? You ahould read Thérèse philosophe, de Boyer d'Argens. I don't know if it has been translated into English, but it is a short, witty, and fascinating novel, little known unfortunately.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for a great suggestion! I haven't read it but now I will

Laclos' novel is, indeed, very feminist. That's why I love 18th century.

Anonymous said...

I love this novel.