Joel Warner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Wired and Newsweek among others. He currently serves as managing editor of the Denver-based investigative news outlet The Lever. He is also co-author of “The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.” He lives with his family in Denver.
SunLit: What drew you to the centuries-long narrative of the manuscript of “120 Days of Sodom” by the Marquis de Sade, and the scandal that surrounded it? What convinced you that this was a project you wanted to dive into?
Warner: I think about book projects like I think about getting a tattoo. I don’t want to embark on examples of either unless I am confident I am going to enjoy living with the results for a very long time. As a longtime general assignment reporter, I’ve come across many stories that possibly could have been books, but hardly any of them seemed intriguing enough to me to consume years of my life.
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That changed in 2015. My good friends Grace Hood and Vince Darcangelo told me that during a recent trip to Paris, they had tried to visit a manuscript museum to see an infamous 40-foot scroll written by the Marquis de Sade, only to be turned away by police officers who said the museum’s owner was accused of being France’s Bernie Madoff. The tale captured my attention, and the deeper I dug into the matter, the more convinced I became that this was a story in which I could immerse myself for years.
SunLit: The story you tell in this book has so many different facets. The manuscript has been described variously as one of the most important novels ever written to “the gospel of evil.” And then there’s the scandal surrounding its purchase. Tell us how you tied these together.
Joel Warner: Maybe because I’ve read one too many “Game of Thrones” novels, from the get-go I wanted “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” to feature three interwoven narratives: The 18th century escapades of the Marquis de Sade, the odyssey of his notorious “120 Days of Sodom” manuscript as it crisscrossed Europe in the centuries to come, and the giant alleged Ponzi scheme in which the manuscript landed when it returned to Paris in 2014.
Doing so required me to jump between time periods and locations from one chapter to the next, with the aim of everything coming together at the end of the book. Thankfully, my editors at Crown were supportive of the plan, and I think we were able to pull it off!
SunLit: Let’s talk about the Marquis de Sade himself. Maybe the kindest description of him I’ve seen is “the freest spirit who ever lived,” yet this is a man who literally wrote the book on cruelty and perversion. How do you approach writing about a figure so starkly divisive and controversial?
Warner: Sade is often seen as a mythical figure, one whose reputation overshadows reality. While some see him as a radical philosopher ahead of his time, others argue he was an unrepentant criminal, and possibly a lunatic.
Thankfully, in the mid-20th century, Sade’s descendants found numerous letters written by the marquis walled up in a secret room in one of their chateaus. I was able to use these missives to let Sade speak for himself. That way, readers of “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” can make their own judgments of a man who wrote blithely of his violent transgressions, “Lust’s passion will be served” — and yet also noted he detested the “horrible, inhumane measures” of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
SunLit: The manuscript itself is a character in this book, one that has led an eventful and interesting life. What made it “cursed,” and such a physical curiosity, and why did it become such a fixation of the literary world?
Warner: For starters, the manuscript itself is utterly bizarre. Composed by candlelight in the Bastille, the scroll is just four inches wide but nearly 40 feet long, and covered with text so tiny it’s nearly illegible without a magnifying glass.
“The Curse of the Marquis de Sade”
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Then there’s the fact that the story is so vile that reading it end to end seems to exact a physical toll. One expert declared, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish ‘120 Days of Sodom’ without feeling sick.” Another compared reading it to “being sucked into a seemingly limitless erotic quagmire.” Why would someone have written something so appalling it was all but unreadable? Why would anyone have bothered with such a herculean effort at a time when the results could never be openly published?
Finally, there’s the incredible journey the scroll then took across Europe. The continent-spanning odyssey involved underground erotica collectors, pioneering sex researchers, Nazi book burnings, scandalous Surrealist art, an audacious heist, international court battles, and, most recently, a massive French manuscript scandal. Considering all that, it’s no wonder that some authorities, including a direct Sade descendant, believe the scroll to be cursed.
SunLit: The rare manuscript market plays key roles in the book. Can you take us inside that world as it relates to the “120 Days of Sodom” manuscript?
Warmer: The world’s most illustrious rare book and manuscript market is centered in a small neighborhood on Paris’ Left Bank that boasts more bookshops and document dealers than anywhere else on the planet.
While the area’s open-air book stalls that run along the Seine capture most of the tourist attention, the major deals take place in the medieval alleys that snake away from the river. Here, in cramped, dusty shops, illuminated manuscripts, intimate letters penned by historical greats, and autographed first editions have long commanded international attention and astronomical prices.
It’s a world fueled by the expertise of a handful of dealers and the passion of a few thousand clients, where the exact position of a title page illustration can mean the difference between thousands of euros.
In the 2000s, a new investment company called Aristophil turned this tiny, insular market on its head. Suddenly, people all over France and beyond could buy shares of “120 Days of Sodom” and other literary relics and earn steady rates of return. The question is, was the operation a brilliant business move, or a giant Ponzi scheme?
SunLit: The excerpt that accompanies this interview is so rich in detail about the creation of the manuscript. Tell us how you approached creating such a compelling narrative set in an 18th century prison cell.
Warner: “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” was very much inspired by historical nonfiction classics like Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City” and Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.” As much as possible, I wanted the book to read like fiction, to drop readers in the middle of events that happened hundreds of years ago. To do so required massive amounts of research, rebuilding key moments in time piece by piece, almost like reconstructing a crime scene.
For example, to recreate the Bastille scene excerpted here, I studied all of Sade’s prison letters to determine his cell’s furnishings, his physical condition, and his mental state at the time. I researched other first-hand accounts and maps of the prison to ascertain the size, shape, and location of his cell; the sounds Sade would have heard, and even the location and aroma of the sewer pipe below Sade’s window. Finally, I looked up the timing of the Paris sunset on October 22, 1785, to make sure I accurately depicted the lighting.
SunLit: “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” is extensively footnoted and obviously meticulously researched. Tell us about that aspect of your work. What sources and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Warner: As Patty Calhoun and my other “Westword” editors taught me when I was a staff writer at the newspaper, you can write in any fashion imaginable, provided you can verify every fact. So from the beginning, as I dug into Sade reference books, legal documents, and archival materials, I made sure to double check and reference everything. The book ended up with hundreds of footnotes, but I wanted to assure readers that I had done my due diligence, and perhaps inspire others to embark on similar examples of historical detective work.
SunLit: So many authors describe the tremendous challenges of working on books in the time of COVID. What were the biggest challenges you faced during the pandemic? Did you emerge with new insights on your craft?
Warner: The pandemic upended all of my research plans. I had to scrap my major reporting trip to Europe, and the shutdown of the Denver Pubic Library system meant I couldn’t obtain any of the various materials I needed through interlibrary loans. But I soon found a lifeline, courtesy of the mass digitization of written works that has made access to historical documents far more widespread than ever before.
I found that many of the central documents I needed to tell the story of “120 Days of Sodom” — Sade’s prison-cell letters, the bibliographic writings of Victorian erotica collectors, the quasi-scientific dispatches of early German sexologists, the newspaper accounts of Paris’ May ’68 riots, records of international legal battles over the scroll, news reports and blog posts on the rise and fall of Aristophil — were accessible online, and in many cases could be instantaneously translated into nearly any language.
This discovery not only saved “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade,” but also led me to revise my conclusions about the “end of handwriting,” one of the major themes of the story. As I note in the book, far from ushering in “the end of books” or a “post-text future,” thanks to technology, “writing has become ever more versatile, and access to the results ever more ubiquitous. Now, thanks to social media, Internet slang, hyperlinks, novel punctuations, emojis, GIFs, and memes, communication is more collaborative and dynamic than any other point in history.”
SunLit: This is a story of vast scope, that veers into taboos and morality and even book banning. What do you hope readers take away from the experience?
Warner: While the book’s title makes reference to the supposed “curse” of “120 Days of Sodom,” I don’t want people to come away believing that relics like this are beset by jinxes in the typical sense of the word. Instead, I hope readers learn that people themselves are responsible for “cursing” various books and artifacts by how they define, covet, and demonize them.
For example, “120 Days of Sodom” triggered mayhem wherever it went not because of some evil jinx, but because its reputation turned the manuscript into an object of incredible desire. It inspired people to lie, steal, smuggle, and sue in order to obtain it, leading to resentment, acrimony, and despair.
It’s why I believe the recent uptick in book bans in schools and libraries nationwide isn’t just destined to fail, but will make matters worse. By censoring Nobel-prize winning novels and pornographic drivel alike, you end up making both kinds of work equally intriguing to people, without giving readers the chance to determine for themselves which is worthwhile and which is utter junk.
SunLit: Is “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” too explicit for the average reader?
Warner: While “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” focuses on what is possibly the most obscene work of fiction ever created, I made sure to avoid quoting any of the really explicit stuff from the novel. Instead, I focused on the people and events connected to the scroll — and the effects the work had on people who read and coveted it.
The results are probably too mature for family bedtime reading, but I would rate “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade” as PG-13 — appropriate for older teens and adults who are looking for a twisted tale of true crime and literary escapades.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Warner: I’m hard at work helping my Denver colleague David Sirota run “The Lever,” a reader-supported investigative news website. While the subject matter is very different from “The Curse of the Marquis de Sade,” we often expose the sort of corrupt scoundrels and appalling misbehaviors that surely would have piqued the interest of the infamous marquis!