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Secrets of Provence

of 1789, a good segment of what we now know as Provence constituted part of the papal territories.) Vaster and more forbidding than Lacoste, the castle of Saumane has been restored recently and opens to the public in the middle of this month. The château's brooding exterior almost certainly served as the model for the fictional Castle of Silling, in which the morbid orgies of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom are held: "A very narrow, very steep spiral staircase with three hundred steps…descended into the entrails of the earth and a kind of vaulted dungeon sealed by three iron gates and containing all that the cruelest art and most refined barbarity could invent in the way of atrocity."

The trip north from Saumane or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to Carpentras would have been the longest leg of Sade's journey. The most handsome medieval town in the Vaucluse after Avignon, Carpentraspopulation 30,000still contains vestiges of its large community of Jews. Tens of thousands of Jews were expelled from France by King Philip IV in the late 13th century and sought refuge in Provence's papal territories. They were warmly welcomed by the shrewd pontiffs, who saw, besides the possibility of new conversions, financial advantages in these émigrés' talent for banking and commerce. (Sade himself often borrowed from Carpentras's moneylenders.) The synagogue of Carpentras, built in 1367, reconstructed in the 18th century, and superbly preserved, is the oldest in France; the equally beautiful one in the town of Cavaillon, 20 minutes from Lacoste, followed it by a few decades. The Château de Mazanbirthplace of Sade's father and uncleswas the troupe's ultimate destination. But only the most hard-core Sade aficionados would find it worth a detour. A spacious but dreary 17th-century dwelling set in the middle of an equally lackluster town, it now serves as a rest home for the aged and, like Saumane, cannot be visited without special permission. Those eager for another Sadean frisson are instead advised to head for Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, only three miles from either Saumane or L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; after Lacoste, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse may well have been the place closest to the Marquis's heart.

Sade's attachment to this village was derived from his fascination with a favorite ancestor: the 14th-century beauty Laure de Sade, the fabled muse of the poet Petrarch. It was in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse that Petrarch lived for 16 years while nursing his chaste passion for "Laura," and where he wrote his famous sonnets to her. A charming little museum, said to stand on the site of Petrarch's house, commemorates the poet's devotion. The many visits the young Marquis made hereSade's uncle the Abbé was then writing a pioneering biography of Petrarch seemingly made a strong impression on him. At the age of 38, in a letter to his wife from prison, he recounted a vision he'd had about his forebear:

"Listen to a dream I had of [Laure] yesterday. …Suddenly she appeared to me…I saw her! The horrors of the tomb had not impaired the brilliance of her charms, and her eyes had the same fire as when Petrarch saw them. …`Why do you groan on earth?' she said to me. `Come and join me.'…I flung myself at her feet calling out, `O my mother!' "

The extraordinary sight of the Fontaine-de-Vauclusethe natural phenomenon, rather than the tourist-glutted village that bears its nameoffers a gripping allegory for anyone interested in the Marquis de Sade.

Set in a narrow gorge, the fontaine-de-Vaucluse, one of the world's most powerful resurgent springs, first appears as a calm pool of eerie greennessa lustrous peacock-feather green, the most radiant green I've seen in any liquid element. And then, from the edge of that deceptively tranquil basin, its waters bound down the mountain with thunderous speed, generating huge mounds of white spume, surging over rocks and wooded banks with a force that seems supernatural. This foaming green fury eventually flattens out and flows into the plain, becoming the Sorgue River, which rushes through miles of Provence with an imperiousness that always strikes me as Dionysian and utterly male. Until early medieval times, the Sorgue's numerous tributaries created thousands of acres of swampland noisome to the local population. But eventually these waters were coerced into irrigating some of Provence's richest valleys, land that yields the cherries, melons, pears, apples, and wines that abound in the markets of Apt, Gordes, and Lacoste itself. As I stood at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse one day, watching the green cascade romping savagely from its clandestine source, I was struck by its affinity with the saga of the Marquis de Sade: sexuality and water power are only two of the countless manifestations of energy that society must curb and rechannel in order to survive. This is the lesson of the Marquis's fate.

For in 1778 Sade's Provençal idyll was forced to end. Remarkably, during his years in Provence Sade was officially accused of only two offenses: sodomy and the attempt to poison. (At one particularly festive series of orgies, he had offered aphrodisiac candies to some prostitutes, which made them ill.) He was cleared of the first charge because he was a high-ranking noble with influential relatives, and exonerated of the second through due process of court. But in the eyes of his mother-in-law, the vindictive, consummately proper Madame de Montreuil, Sade was guilty of dishonoring her family, a crime that in her estimation deserved nothing less than a life sentence. Enraged by the Marquis's increasingly lewd escapades, she had him imprisoned through that most despised legal feature of the Ancien Régimea lettre de cachet. This was a royal decree that could mandate the incarceration of any citizen for life without trial, and was frequently used by powerful families to dispose of their more fractious relatives. The Marquis spent 13 years in jail, during which time he wrote or outlined some of his major texts. He was liberated only in 1790, following the onset of the Revolution of 1789. Upon his release, his once adoring wife, in an enigmatic turnabout, decided she wanted no more of him; the couple separated and probably never saw each other again.

After his long prison term the Marquis was never again able to live at his cherished Lacoste. The château was eventually sold to a local peasant. Sade died in 1814, aged 74, at the mental institution in which he had been immured for more than a decade under Napoleon's ordersthis time on charges that he had written and published immoral books ("novels that must be read with one hand" as the French demurely refer to pornography). Throughout Sade's incarcerations, the most poignant nostalgia expressed in his letters concerned his longing to return to his cherished corner of Provence. ("How is my poor cherry orchard?" was a typical query about his estate at Lacoste. "See to it that the park be well tended. …Tell them to replace that little hedge of hazelnut trees.")

Sade left behind scores of manuscriptsexecrable to many, admirable to otherswhose publication was forbidden for more than a century after his death. It was not until after the Second World War, after he had been championed and rehabilitated by the Surrealists and all taboos on his work were lifted, that the writer and his village finally had their renaissance. Though Lacoste had grown increasingly poor since Sade's time, the lurid reputation of his texts began to draw thousands of tourists there. Several struggling farms were converted into bed-and-breakfasts. Whether they had ever read a word of his or not, many visitors found the village such an amiable place that they eventually settled there. (Nearly half of Lacoste's official residents are foreigners.) In the 1970's an American art school was founded a few hundred feet below Sade's castlethe School of the Arts in France, administered by the Cleveland Institute of Art. And unlike their prudish forebears, contemporary Costains, as natives are called, express opinions that range from bemused tolerance to outright pride when queried about their views of Sade.

To Liliane Ségura, who owns and manages the community's most popular restaurant and bar, the Café de Sade (where she always displays a regional wine called Cuvée du Divin Marquis), the titillation evoked by the ghost of this native son brings the town plenty of visitors: "Thousands are drawn here by the romance of his namethe romance of the illicit." Bernard Lamy, a native of Strasbourg, who runs Bonne Terre, one of the village's most attractive B&B's, concurs: "His odor of sulfur draws the crowds, particularly the Germans." As for the mayor, Gilbert Grégoire, a jovial Socialist who, like many, finds the Marquis's works "boring and repetitious," he comes to Sade's defense: "He never committed the crimes he describes in his books. …Anyone has the right to jazz it up in his own home."

But here is what would give the Marquis the greatest pleasure of all: beginning in 1943, the château at Lacoste and its surrounding terrain were purchased by a progressive-minded local teacher, André Bouer, whose widow still owns it. The Bouers partially restored Sade's domain and built a theater in the stone quarries just below the castle. With a seating capacity of 1,600 persons, the Théâtre de Lacoste now has the largest public auditorium in the Vaucluse, equaled only by the outdoor theater in Avignon's Palais des Papes. Jazz festivals, ballet performances, and avant-garde plays are produced there in summer. So the Marquis's ambition to make Lacoste a mecca for thespians has finally been realized.

One recent dramatic venture might have particularly delighted him: a "fantastical melodrama" that concerns a love affair between the Marquis de Sade and Saint Theresa of Avila, and in whose dénouement the saint follows the accursed writer into hell. The 1995 production, which originated at Lacoste, received enthusiastic reviews and went on to tour in Berlin, Rouen, and Bucharest.

Strolling through the ruins of Sade's château, I often imagine the Marquis's merriment upon hearing of this rather ironic posthumous success. His laugh might have been savage, cynically amused.

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