The French government is appealing for corporate help to acquire the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s notorious The 120 Days of Sodom, valued at €4.5m (£3.9m), for the National Library of France.
Referred to as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began” by De Sade, Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’École du Libertinage was composed in minute handwriting in 1785 on a 12-metre long and 11cm wide scroll. The aristocrat concealed the manuscript in the wall of his cell in the Bastille, where he was serving time after a series of sexual scandals.
Ten days before the Bastille was stormed in 1789, De Sade was moved to an asylum and had to leave the manuscript behind. He never saw it again. It escaped the storming of the Bastille, and remained in the hands of a Provençal aristocrat’s family for more than 100 years. It was then sold to a German collector, who allowed its publication for the first time in 1904, by the sexologist Iwan Bloch.
Telling of four libertines who, in their search for extreme sexual gratification commit a series of increasingly depraved tortures on abducted teenage boys and girls, the scroll was then acquired by De Sade’s descendants, the Noailles family, in 1929. It was stolen in 1982 and smuggled over the border to Switzerland, where it was sold it to a collector of erotica, Gérard Nordmann. In 2014, it was acquired by a private foundation and put on display in Paris; in 2017, the minister of culture classified it as a national treasure and put a block on its export when it was put up for auction.
Now, the French government is looking for corporate help to aid its acquisition of the manuscript, which is valued at €4.55m, telling companies that they can benefit from a reduction in corporate tax if they help it buy the scroll for the state.
Describing The 120 Days of Sodom as “the most radical and the most monumental” of De Sade’s works, the French government said the “sulphurous reputation” of “this ‘black sun’ of literature”, and the influence it has had on 20th-century French writers, means it is of “capital importance” in the oeuvre of De Sade.
Banned in the UK in the 1950s, in 2016 an English translation of the work became a Penguin Classic. Writing at the time, its translator Will McMorran said that “its author will take his place alongside the great figures of world literature – many of whom would no doubt turn in their graves at the news that their club now counted Sade among its members”.
“The 120 Days is not a work that seduces its readers: it assaults them,” he wrote in the Guardian. “Reading it is, thankfully perhaps, a unique experience.”