Writing to his wife from prison, the Marquis de Sade demanded that she send him specially crafted prestiges. The word - his vainglorious term for "dildo"- recurs in his letters, and his requests specify the most precise measurements: 20cm in length, 16cm in circumference, the supposed dimensions of his own tumescent penis. If this seems a frivolous vignette of de Sade's preoccupations, it is also a telling one; his brutally factitious billets-doux remind us how he exploited his wife and of how game she was to be exploited, and they reveal his narcissism as well as his humourless exactness in sexual detail.
It is interesting that at best de Sade's life dissolves into symbolic fragments such as this and at worst finds itself commemorated in a single word. The father of "sadism" has long been elusive, the details of his life clouded by myth. In de Sade's case, as with Plato or Proust, it is easier to use the adjective deriving from his name than to account for its etymology: there is a remarkable imbalance between the number of people who have an opinion about de Sade and the number who might be deemed qualified to do so.
Born Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, in June 1740, the son of an enthusiastic hedonist and his penniless wife, he spent much of his childhood in the care of his licentious clergyman uncle, studied at a Jesuit college in Paris, served as a cavalry officer, and reluctantly married the daughter of the head of the French Customs and Excise. Throughout his adulthood he attracted the attentions of the police on account of his habitual violence to prostitutes: he was sent to jail within six months of his wedding, and much of his life was spent in various prisons - most notably, the years 1778 to 1790, during which he wrote his scandalous novel, Les Cent Vingt Journees de Sodome. The years 1784 to 1789 were spent in the Bastille. When the revolution annulled all feudal privilege, de Sade affected a specious egalitarianism in order to avoid its darker ravages. In the 1790s he published three of his most noted works - Justine, Juliette and La Philosophie dans le Boudoir - then spent his declining years in the asylum at Charenton. This last resort was the vantage point from which he observed Napoleon's career as emperor, along with the death of his elder son and his wife, before dying himself, aged 74, in the flush of one last dangerous passion.
Two new lives, drawing inspiration from Maurice Lever's biography of 1991, now seek to explain de Sade's conduct, writings and reputation. Francine du Plessix Gray's life is readable, astute and visually pleasing. The more scholarly enterprise of Laurence Bongie is also attractive, but is aimed at an academic audience. Each of the books is, in its own way, radical. As the title of Gray's suggests, her special accent is on de Sade's domestic world, his relationships and family ties; yet as it also suggests, she is at pains to reach through the veils of mystique - to conjure a plausible, even palatable de Sade with whom we can perhaps begin to be "at home". Bongie's study is less interested in the populist slant; he is sceptical about de Sade's magical allure. But both biographies show more of his family than has previously been seen, and the authors share an interest in the way de Sade's behaviour was schooled by those close to him: by his mother, whom he saw so seldom in childhood that he was barely able to describe her; by his wife, who sold her diamonds to pay for his whimsy; and by his mother-in-law, whom he regarded as the mastermind of his repeated downfalls. His vexed relationships with women, both real and imagined, fuelled not just misogyny but a desire to transcend conventional sexual boundaries.
Yet one wonders whether de Sade deserves such keen attention, even if his equation of sex and violence is esteemed by his apologists, who claim his texts as triumphs of self-asserting individuality or the imagination's bold autonomy. Camille Paglia, for instance, laments his being "the most unread major writer in western literature", and argues that "no education in the western tradition is complete without de Sade. He must be confronted in all his ugliness."
In truth, however, what the writings fecundate is little more than a richly playful criticism - an orgy (or meta-orgy) of thought, but not of appreciation. For writers like Roland Barthes and Octavio Paz, Angela Carter and Simone de Beauvoir, de Sade's work is a point of departure, a springboard to diffuse musings on sex, morality, art and the will. He has served handsomely to point arguments and dissertations; his shock tactics translate into a productively shocking criticism.
The irony is that no such philosophy energised the thoughts of the man himself; his engine was a spendthrift sexuality, his idiom the prose of icy reportage. Now and again he contrives a strong image that survives translation. Describing his ejaculatory difficulties he explains it is as if "one tried to squeeze cream through an overly narrow flask". On another occasion, he beseeches his wife for chocolate cakes, "black, like the devil's ass". Yet the essence of his style is, as Gray puts it, "glacially terse, bureaucratic"; and it was this very baldness that caused Georges Bataille to suggest, in similar vein, that de Sade's fiction reads "more like prayer books than books of entertainment".
Incarceration made him revere and exaggerate the liberating powers of sex. Incapable of expressing himself physically, he consigned his sexual urges to the page, rejoicing in the vertiginous possibilities of language. But one of language's possibilities is numbness - an isolating self-loathing, the boredom of being out of control.
It's a modern bromide that we live in a depraved age, its excesses abetted by the Internet, drug companies, flashy consumer values, journalistic prurience and political leaders who arrogate cigars as instruments of sex. What de Sade begins to remind us is that there is nothing new in sexual abandon. True, his depravity was remarkably overt, and he has no immediate English analogue (the closest we come is perhaps the epicene Gothic oddball William Beckford); but his acts and words speak of the innate human capacity for finding in sex an infinite expression of the hidden fancies, tastes and traumas of the mind. Yet this is insufficient reason to lionise or canonise: sex on the page is always most successful when it leaves the best part undisclosed; and a reader wishing to delve into the dark abysm of sexuality will profit more from two of de Sade's contemporaries, Goethe and Laclos.