From a strictly literary point of view, prison was the best thing that ever happened to the marquis. It was only behind bars that Sade was able to knuckle down and compose the imaginative works upon which his enduring, if peculiar, reputation lies.Nor was the marquis alone.
Sade’s most impressive stint began after 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille, which effectively operated as a literary colony on a par with Yaddo today. From a suite decorated with his own furniture and 600-book library (and tended by his valet), the marquis entered a mind-boggling frenzy of writing, cranking out thousands of manuscript pages at breakneck speed. As Francine du Plessix Gray describes in her classic biography “At Home With the Marquis de Sade,” he completed the first draft of his pornographic novel “Justine” in a single two-week-long burst, and knocked out the final 250,000-word draft of “The 120 Days of Sodom” in 37 days, transcribing minuscule letters on five-inch-wide pages glued into a roll nearly 50 feet long. By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.
The peripatetic Marco Polo got around to recording his classic travels through China only because he was captured in 1298 during a naval battle with Genoa and held in a lavish palazzo. Five hundred years later, the playboy Giacomo Casanova found time for his renowned erotic autobiography only after he had run out of money (and libido) and retreated to Castle Dux in Bohemia, where he accepted a sinecure as a librarian. Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his multivolume memoir — one of the great best sellers of 19th-century France — thanks only to his long exile on St. Helena. Even the harsh public jails could induce results. In 1897, Oscar Wilde wrote the philosophical essay “De Profundis” while locked up in Reading Gaol on charges of “unnatural acts.” And in 1942, Jean Genet wrote his first novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” while in Fresnes prison, near Paris, for petty theft, scrawling on scraps of paper.To work properly, a writer’s prison doesn’t even have to be the official kind, and no crime need be involved.
“A prison is indeed one of the best workshops,” Colette declared. She wasn’t speaking metaphorically. In the early 1900s, by her own account, her caddish first husband had stashed her in a tiny room for four hours a day, refusing to let her out until she had finished a requisite number of pages — a drastic measure, but one that resulted in a novel a year for six years. “What I chiefly learned was how to enjoy, between four walls, almost every secret flight,” she later recalled, sounding almost sentimental.