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Some claim that a hex surrounds the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished erotic novel The 120 Days of Sodom. “Throughout history,” says Denver author Joel Warner, “the people who ended up taking the [original] scroll or tried to take the scroll have had some really horrible stuff happen to them,” including early deaths, lost fortunes, and legal troubles. So if something bad befalls Warner, you’ll know what to blame.
While Warner didn’t attempt to make the vulgar and influential work his own, he certainly became obsessed with the scroll—and the tales that surround it—while researching his latest book, The Curse of the Marquis de Sade. Out on February 21, The Curse weaves together three stories. First is the history of the Marquis, including how the French nobleman penned the work in 1785 while imprisoned in Paris’ Bastille prison. Then there is the book’s centuries-long journey across Europe as book collectors, sexologists, and others sought to possess it. Finally, there’s the scroll’s role in France’s largest alleged Ponzi scheme, in which manuscript dealer Gérard Lhéritier is said to have swindled around 18,000 people out of millions of euros in the early 2010s by persuading them to invest in rare manuscripts with the promise of spectacular returns.
Warner first heard about the scroll’s latest scandal from two friends who tried to visit Lhéritier’s Museum of Letters and Manuscripts only to find it closed while investigators removed boxes of evidence from the now-defunct Paris gallery. When they asked a cop what was happening, the policeman said it was related to “the Bernie Madoff of France.” Warner couldn’t shake the scene from his head, and as he dug deeper into 120 Days’ sordid past, a common theme emerged: how people become defined by the things they covet.
Warner admits he’s not exempt from that truism—only his fixations take a different form. “I’m gonna paraphrase my favorite writer, Susan Orlean: I don’t really have obsessions, so I get obsessed with other people’s obsessions,” he says. There were plenty of hurdles that tested Warner’s resolve during the eight years he worked on the story, from losing his first agent because she didn’t believe the book would sell to canceling his final reporting trip to Europe due to COVID-19. “It was like being dead in the water,” he says of the latter. Luckily, he was able to find documents through other means, including using Google Translate to convince an employee at a German sex research archive to send him digitized versions of important letters. If all goes well, his good fortune will continue. “Hopefully, I won’t run afoul of the curse,” Warner says, “but who knows?”
Stop by Tattered Cover’s Colfax location on Wednesday, February 22, at 6 P.M. for a free book launch event, including a conversation between Joel Warner and journalist David Sirota.