NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • The captivating, deeply reported true story of how one of the most notorious novels ever written—Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom—landed at the heart of one of the biggest scams in modern literary history.
“Reading The Curse of the Marquis de Sade, with the Marquis, the sabotage of rare manuscript sales, and a massive Ponzi scheme at its center,felt like a twisty waterslide shooting through a sleazy and bizarre landscape. This book is wild.”—Adam McKay, Academy Award–winning filmmaker
Described as both “one of the most important novels ever written” and “the gospel of evil,” 120 Days of Sodom was written by the Marquis de Sade, a notorious eighteenth-century aristocrat who waged a campaign of mayhem and debauchery across France, evaded execution, and inspired the word “sadism,” which came to mean receiving pleasure from pain. Despite all his crimes, Sade considered this work to be his greatest transgression.
The original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom, a tiny scroll penned in the bowels of the Bastille in Paris, would embark on a centuries-spanning odyssey across Europe, passing from nineteenth-century banned book collectors to pioneering sex researchers to avant-garde artists before being hidden away from Nazi book burnings. In 2014, the world heralded its return to France when the scroll was purchased for millions by Gérard Lhéritier, the self-made son of a plumber who had used his savvy business skills to upend France’s renowned rare-book market. But the sale opened the door to vendettas by the government, feuds among antiquarian booksellers, manuscript sales derailed by sabotage, a record-breaking lottery jackpot, and allegations of a decade-long billion-euro con, the specifics of which, if true, would make the scroll part of France’s largest-ever Ponzi scheme.
Told with gripping reporting and flush with deceit and scandal, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade weaves together the sweeping odyssey of 120 Days of Sodom and the spectacular rise and fall of Lhéritier, once the “king of manuscripts” and now known to many as the Bernie Madoff of France. At its center is an urgent question for all those who cherish the written word: As the age of handwriting comes to an end, what do we owe the original texts left behind?
About the Author
Joel Warner is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Esquire, Wired, Newsweek, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, and Slate, among others. He currently serves as managing editor of the investigative news outlet The Lever and previously worked as a staff writer at International Business Times and Westword. He is also co-author of The Humor Code. He lives with his family in Denver, Colorado.
“Fans of John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood or Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiedeman will probably enjoy the final thread of The Curse of the Marquis de Sade. . . . Warner excels at explaining Lhéritier’s complex— and possibly criminal—business operations in easy-to-understand language. And his depiction of France’s lively rare-manuscript community is a fascinating look at a largely hidden subculture.”—The Washington Post
“Readers who dare to open The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scandal, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History will find something for everyone. Inventively assembled by Joel Warner, the book’s time-jumping chapters offer a gentleman’s guide to ungentlemanly behavior.”—Air Mail
“Lively . . . Aristophil’s downfall reads like the best kind of business thriller. . . . Warner writes like a man having fun with his subject.” —The Times
“Warner’s research and extensive interviews help him shuttle across centuries to depict remarkable characters. . . . Warner doesn’t let infamy flatten Sade’s dimensions.”—New York Times Book Review
“A fascinating literary scandal. . . . a strange and fantastical journey involving a level of criminality that rivaled the life of Sade himself.”—Slate
“Dazzling . . . Warner’s story is a tightly woven braid of three connected themes: a history of the racier aspects of European bibliophilia, a morality tale about rapacity in the art world of recent history, and, finally, the life, work and changing reputation of Sade himself.”—The Telegraph
“Compelling . . . so rich in detail . . . obviously meticulously researched.”—The Colorado Sun
“Illuminating . . . The wealth of detail never slows Warner’s well-paced narrative. Literary history buffs will want to check this out.”—Publishers Weekly
“An engrossing history of the travels of a notorious manuscript across nations and centuries.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Joel Warner has written the best kind of history, making the past seem present with wonderful and outrageous characters, a story that jumps propulsively between eras, and a lively exploration of hidden worlds.”—Benjamin Wallace, New York Times bestselling author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar
“Joel Warner has written a juicy literary thriller with outstanding characters . . .”—A.J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Puzzler
“On the surface, this is a remarkable true story about a most controversial and bizarre work of literature, an epic, picaresque true tale that spans centuries. But it’s also a nonfiction allegory about we humans and what and why and how we choose to value . . . stuff.”—Maximillian Potter, author of Shadows in the Vineyard