Thursday, 17 April 2014

On writing letters

I have just been re-reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses. An inscription on the title page tells me that I bought it twenty years ago. Published in 1782, it is a fascinating novel concerning the education of women in the author's society. It was made (minus a rather eye-opening sub-plot) into a striking film in 1988, and there are lots of other film versions, including a rather good Korean one in 2003. I read an interesting essay recently which argued that a film by its nature misses the point of a novel in which all the characters construct themselves in the form of their letters, and never even bother to describe themselves or each others' physical appearance. However, all that aside, one of the bits I was looking for just now was this - my translation is below.


[The main part of the letter, instructing the 15-year-old Mlle Volanges on the management of her two lovers and prospective husband, need not detain us.]

P.S. - A propos, j'oubliais... un mot encore. Voyez donc à soigner davantage votre style. Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'oú cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas. Cela peut passer ainsi de vous à moi, qui devons n'avoir rien de caché l'une pour l'autre : mais avec tout le monde! avec votre Amant surtout! vous auriez toujours l'air d'une petite sotte. Vous voyez bien que, quand vous écrivez à quelqu'un, c'est pour lui et non pas pour vous : vous devez donc moins chercher à lui dire ce que vous pensez, que ce qui lui plaît davantage.

Adieu, mon coeur : je vous embrasse au lieu de vous gronder dans l'espérance que vous serez plus raisonnable.
My translation:

P.S. - A propos, I was forgetting ... another word. Pay more attention to your style. You still write like a child. I know exactly why; you say everything you think, and nothing you do not think. That is all very well between the two of us, who should have nothing to conceal from one another : but with everyone! and with your Lover, above all! You will always sound like a little fool. Think well that when you write to someone, it is for them and not for yourself : so you should try less to say what you think, and more to say what will please them best.
Goodbye, dear heart : I kiss you instead of scolding you, in the hope that you will be more sensible.


Ghost said...

Much along the lines that if you find yourself in a situation where need to follow Machiavelli's advice in "The Prince", your first priority should be getting out of there are fast as possible, if you have to edit your thoughts to your lovers, it's probably time to look for a better lover.

msHedgehog said...

I won't go into the plot of Dangerous Liaisons - there is rather a lot of it - but naturally, none of the characters has any get-out possibilities whatsoever, except via where they actually end up. Suffice it to say that the advice in this particular letter is correct and potentially very valuable, but in important respects insincere.

The many different changes which have been made to the plot, on film, to make it acceptable to audiences, are interesting. Even the book itself has a partial alternative ending built in.

The point is rather that this is excellent advice on how to write - although it is by no means the whole story, it is an important principle we all do well to bear in mind. Especially on Facebook, for example.

Ghost said...

Is it fair to say that writing letters has been replaced with "thinking" and the reader being privvy to those thoughts in more modern settings?

msHedgehog said...

That's not a replacement. It's the identical thing, except that it's now much easier to write a letter to many people at once (they still read it in isolation) and it's also easier to forget the audience. Whenever you write anything, you have to consider the audience.