And here the Marquis de Sade was so looking forward to hell. Like any good French Catholic, he knew his way around Dante’s Inferno. The Purgatorio wasn’t his cup of tea, and the Paradiso was even worse, but he knew the Inferno like the back of his hand. His dog-eared copy was coming apart at the spine.
He once had a talk with a softhearted priest who couldn’t bear the thought that hell was an everlasting torture chamber, but for de Sade, that was the main attraction.
He’d dabbled with torture back on earth, but the authorities tended to frown on that sort of thing—except when they nabbed an occasional Huguenot.
When he got to hell he was hoping to pick up a few new techniques from the Aztecs, swap trade secrets with Torquemada—that sort of thing. Bonding with the locals.
But, much to his dismay, the Almighty assigned him to a book club. The club was run by some little old ladies. All of them were sentenced to hell because they engaged in the morally questionable practice of seasoning their husbands’ supper with a dash of arsenic, as part of a life-insurance scheme; but other than that they were charming in a sweet, grandmotherly sort of way.
So the bottomless pit proved to be anticlimactic after pitching his expectations so high. A real disappointment. Why, it was enough to make a man downright cynical.
As de Sade soon found out, he had been assigned to the book club because the old dears were busily studying the French novel, and he was there to give them tips on pronunciation or tricky idioms.
Mind you, they hadn’t gotten very far. They started with Madame Bovary, and after a thousand years or so they still hadn’t moved beyond the first chapter.
The club originally had a very ambitious itinerary. After reading Flaubert, they would work their way through Balzac, de Beauvoir, Camus, Colette, Proust, Hugo, Dumas, and so one and so forth.
But then they hit a little snag. You see, all of them had been a bit senile when they died, and they kept forgetting what they read.
So everyday they’d assemble at 1:00 sharp—with their cream tea, toasted scones, and watercress sandwiches—to talk over the first chapter of Madame Bovary.
In case some of you are wondering how a man who died before Flaubert was born suddenly found himself in a book club devoted to the Nineteenth Century French novel, time moves differently in hell. It isn’t so relentlessly linear. And Tophet Standard Time isn’t synchronized with any terrestrial time zone.
Einstein once tried to explain it as a variation on the twin paradox, but Gödel disagreed—suggesting that it had more to do with time travel.
De Sade was soon bored out of his gourd. He tried to boycott the proceedings by remaining in bed. But, at 1:00 sharp, he found himself magically transported to the club—shaved, bathed, and dressed for the occasion.
He also tried to torment the old dears, but aside from the fact that there’s only so much you can do with a butter knife, his weapon also had the disconcerting habit of passing right through their wraith-like figures without leaving a scratch.
And while his violent behavior might be disruptive, they forgot about it by the next day. And there was always a next day, just like the day before.
He complained to the prison guard, an ill-tempered demon by the name of Graffiacane. Was there some way of transferring to lower circle of hell where he’d get to see a bit more action?
Although not the most amiable demon you ever met, Graffiacane was sympathetic to his captive’s frustration. Like any normal, well-adjusted hellspawn, Graffiacane had a healthy appetite for wanton mayhem.
He’d only been demoted to this dead-end job after making an off-hand comment about Satan’s poor pedicure. Unfortunately for him, the Foul Fiend was known to hold a grudge. Definitely not the forgiving type.
It would, of course, be necessary for de Sade to fill out the official paperwork. But he’d have to be patient. The pandemonic bureaucracy was nearly as inefficient as the European Union. Too many sulfurous, midlevel managers who spent every meeting haggling over the schedule for the next meeting.
For the time being, de Sade would have to cope with the fusty fact that hell was a tremendous letdown.