By TONY PERROTTET, New York Times, Published: July 22, 2011
While researching the Marquis de Sade several years ago, I came across an intriguing biographical tidbit: that crazed French libertine, whose string of luridly violent works gave rise to the term “sadism,” actually began his literary career as a travel writer.
In 1775, Sade embarked on a yearlong grand tour of Italy, and wrote an enormous (and enormously tedious) manuscript about the journey entitled “Voyage d’Italie.” The rambling opus, filled with ruminations on Florentine museums and Neapolitan customs, was never completed. Sade’s attention wandered to more carnal pleasures, and in 1777, he was arrested for a long list of unsavory imbroglios, including one that historians call the Little Girls Episode. Sade was thrown into the prison of Vincennes, and would spend most of his remaining life incarcerated. “Voyage d’Italie” soon joined a range of half-finished manuscripts from his youth, scraps of verse and staid dramatic pieces, none of which Sade ever had the discipline to bring to fruition. (Illustration by Jonathon Rosen)
Literary distraction seems a very modern problem. These days, distracted writers tend to blame the Internet, whose constant temptations shred our attention spans, fragment every minute and reduce us to a permanent state of anxiety, checking e-mail every 30 seconds — “like masturbating monkeys,” a writer friend once put it, a phrase of which Sade himself might have approved. But history is filled with writers who, like the marquis, could function only in extreme — and involuntary — isolation.