The Fan-Maker's Inquisition: A Novel of the Marquis de Sade


Rikki Ducornet's boldest imaginative act yet-a brilliant novel about the Marquis de Sade that will forever change the way we regard one of history's most notorious men.

Picture a dramatic courtroom scene: during the French Revolution a fan-maker is on trial because of a manuscript seized in her rooms and her friendship with the Marquis de Sade, the notorious author of Justine, who has already been condemned and imprisoned by the same court for his sexual transgressions. Not only...

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Rikki Ducornet's boldest imaginative act yet-a brilliant novel about the Marquis de Sade that will forever change the way we regard one of history's most notorious men.

Picture a dramatic courtroom scene: during the French Revolution a fan-maker is on trial because of a manuscript seized in her rooms and her friendship with the Marquis de Sade, the notorious author of Justine, who has already been condemned and imprisoned by the same court for his sexual transgressions. Not only has she made exquisite and sexually provocative fans for her friend, but she has also coauthored with the Marquis a book about the infamous Spanish missionary, Bishop Landa, accusing him of massacres and other hideous abuses against the native population of the New World. The men of the court are so consumed with punishing the authors of this scandalous book that they are blinded to the folly of their own accusations against the Marquis.

The Fan-Maker's Inquisition is a novel about books and the reveries that enger them, about the intrinsic necessity of the sovereign imagination, and about the risks of passionate living and thinking.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Marquis de Sade, notorious Frenchman and sexual libertine, makes for a sensual, irreverent and politically illuminating subject in Ducornet's (Phosphor in Dreamland) lushly imagined seventh novel. This sumptuous tale is equal parts testimonial, epistolary exchange and reminiscence, opening in 1793 with the eponymous Fan-Maker (Gabrielle) facing an unidentified interrogator from the Parisian Comit de Surveillance, attempting to defend her friendship with Sade, who's already been condemned to prison for his sexual crimes. In addition to being accused of creating blasphemous, erotic fans for Sade, Gabrielle is also known to have collaborated with him on a denunciatory book exposing Spanish Inquisitor Bishop Diego de Landa's vicious treatment of the Mayas in the Y catan in 1562. Landa is accused of torturing and murdering the natives of the New World and stripping the Mayas of their pagan belief system, all in the name of the Church. While it is the notorious book that immediately endangers the composed, eloquent Fan-Maker, she's also vulnerable as a known lesbian and libertine. At the Comit 's request, she reads and explains the raging missives she's received from Sade; they are tantalizingly detailed and incendiary. The theatrical format exacerbates the polemical tone of the book, in which the excesses of French Revolutionary philistines and the Spanish Inquisition's barbarism are made exhaustively clear. In the latter half of the narrative, Sade becomes narrator, treating the reader to his perspective on the courageous Fan-Maker. He reveals the letter she composed on the eve of her execution, and he lovingly describes her devotion to Olympe de Gouges, a radical playwright and fellow victim of the Comit . Ducornet's prose is necessarily and carefully shaded toward purple, often starkly ribald or phantasmic. She convincingly interpolates Sade's audacious, epigrammatic voice, his passion for carnal freedoms and hatred for banal taboos. Her language is an ecstatic performance, with transformational potency that begs to be read aloud. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The Marquis de Sade is so monstruous that he ought to have been conjured up by a novelist. Here, an imaginative novelist does conjure up Sade. The story centers on a fan-maker whose creations for Sade depict exquisitely outrageous sex scenes. Now the Revolution has descended, Sade is in prison, and the fan-maker is on trial for her presumed part in his debauches. During the trial, it is revealed that the two have collaborated on a manuscript imputing acts of horrific torture and killing to Spanish Inquisitor Bishop Landa in South America--acts of course more awful than anything Sade has dreamed up. What's more, the fan-maker has been passionately involved with the notorious Olympe de Gouges. The story is related entirely through trial transcriptions, letters, and manuscript, and though the structure cracks a little mid-way through, it's mostly a bracing and original way to tell this intriguing tale. Throughout, there's a real tension: Sade is defended for "dar[ing] to take imagination's darkest path," yet ideas are also shown to be profoundly dangerous. A thought-provoking book for sophisticated readers. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/99.]--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Ducornet's fantastical sixth novel is a luscious and fiery reverie on sex, art, and the Marquis de Sade...Through her wit and magical language, Ducornet turns the chronicle of an inquisition into irresistable reading.

Entertainment Weekly

Ducornet employs an untraditional narrative—courtroom dialogue, letters, and diary entries—to lay down this lush story of the fan-maker and her allegiance to one of history's most infamous party boys.
Maggie Paley
Freed from the constraints of plot, the reader is propelled forward by the hallucinitory strangness of the prose, hooked by a complex and subterranean emotional logic.
Kirkus Reviews
It's been a good year for the dark and satanic Marquis, what with a major biography and translations of his short stories and letters from prison—and now this fetchingly perverted novel from America's answer to Angela Carter (and perhaps Isak Dinesen), the author of such baroque fiction as The Complete Butcher's Tales (1994) and Phosphor in Dreamland (1995). The story initially focuses on the trial of the eponymous artisan who's corresponded with Sade during his imprisonment (as an aristocrat targeted by the Revolution), provided erotically illustrated artifacts made to his order (flagellation is a favorite theme), and collaborated with him on a scurrilous little volume detailing the swath cut through the Mayan culture of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula by (Spanish) Bishop Landa, a murderous missionary resolved "to pacify the Indians and bring them to the Light of Christ"). In the increasingly declamatory second half, Sade himself offers a witty maledictory cataloguing of his own physical failings ("teeth as untrustworthy as dice, an anus with a mind of its own") and his ego-driven espousal of unfettered freedom of expression (his wish "to embrace the immense disorder of voluptuousness"). There's rather more detailed information about the craft of fan-making than most readers will require, and Ducornet does employ her characters—besides Sade and fan-maker Gabrielle, her intellectual soulmate and lover, feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges—as mouthpieces for the claims of individual freedom from convention and repression. But the novel is filled with amusingly irreverent stories within stories, such as Sade's miscellaneous contrary accounts of his birth and upbringing, andBishop Landa's cautionary tale of how a disguised Satan tempted angels out of heaven, causing God to banish them and curse womankind forever. Elegant jaded entertainment. Readers who aren't immediately glutted, and persevere through the calculated blasphemies and obscenities, will gratefully savor the fruits of Ducornet's hothouse imagination.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345441041
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/31/2000
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.47 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Rikki Ducornet lives in Denver, Colorado. She has written six novels, two short story collections, and five books of poetry. Her story collection The Word Desire (0-8050-5174-0) is available from Owl Books.

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Read an Excerpt

"There is no explosion except a book." - Mallarmè

--A fan is like the thighs of a woman: It opens and closes. A good fan opens with a flick of the wrist. It produces its own weather--a breeze not so strong as to muss the hair.

There is a vocabulary attendant upon fan-making. Like a person, the fan has three principal parts: Les brins, or ribs, are most often of wood; les panaches, or, as courtesans call them, the legs, are also made of wood, or ivory, or mother-of-pearl (and these may be jade: green--the color of the eye; rose--the color of the flesh; and white--the color of the teeth); the mount--and this is also a sexual term--which is sometimes called la feuille, or the leaf (another sexual term, dating, it is said, from the time of Adam)--the mount is made of paper, or silk, or swanskin--


--A fine parchment made from the skin of an unborn lamb, limed, scraped very thin, and smoothed down with pumice or chalk. The mount may be made of taffeta, or lace, or even feathers--but these are cumbersome. A fan trimmed with down has a tendency to catch to the lips if they are moist or rouged. A paper fan can be a treasure, especially if it is from Japan. The Japanese made the finest paper fans, and the most obscene. These are sturdier than one might think. Such a fan is useful when one is bored, forced to sup with an ailing relative whose ivory dentures stink. It is said that the pleated fan is an invention of the Japanese and that the Chinese collapsed in laughter when it was first introduced to China. The prostitutes, however, took to it at once.

--Why is that?

--Because it can be folded and tucked up a sleeve when, having lifted one's skirt and legs, one goes about one's business. Soon the gentlemen were sticking theirs down their boots--a gesture of evident sexual significance. One I saw a fan from India: The panaches were carved to look like hooded cobras about to strike the naked beauty who, stretched out across the mount, lay sleeping. That was a beautiful fan.

--Earlier you referred to the three parts of the person. Name these.

--The head, the trunk, and the limbs.

--Exactly so. Please continue.

--Little mirrors may be glued to the fan so that one may admire oneself and dazzle others. It may be pierced with windows of mica or studded with gems. A telescopic lens may be attached to the summit of a panache; such a fan is useful at the heater. The Comtesse Gimblette owns a fan made of a solid piece of silver cut in the form of a heart and engraved with poetry:

Is to your taste You snap up the world With haste!

A red fan is a symbol of love; a black one, of death, of course.

--When the fan in question--the one found in the locked chamber at La Coste--was ordered, what did Sade say, exactly?

--He came into the atelier looking very dapper, and he said: "I want to order a pornographic ventilabrum!" And he burst out laughing. I said: "I understand 'pornographic,' monsieur, but "ventilabrum'?" "A flabellum!" he cried, laughing even more. "With a scene of flagellation." "I can paint it on a fan," I said, somewhat out of patience with him, although I have to admit I found him perfectly charming, "on velvet or on velum, and I can do you a vernis Martin--" This caused him to double over with hilarity. "Do me!" he cried. "Do me, you seductive, adorable fan-maker, a vernis Martin as best you can and as quickly as you can, and I will be your eternal servant." "You do me too much honor," I replied. Then I took down his order and asked for an advance to buy the ivory. (Because of the guild regulations, I purchase the skeletons from another craftsman.) Sade wanted a swanskin mount set to ivory--which he wanted very fine.


--The ivory of domesticated elephants is brittle because the animals eat too much salt. Wild ivory is denser, far more beautiful and more expensive, too. For pierced work it cannot be surpassed. Then the mount needed thin slices of ivory cut into ovals for the faces, les fesses, the breasts--

--This request was unusual?

--I have received stranger requests, citizen.


--The slivers of ivory, no bigger than a fingernail, give beauty and interest to swanskin and velum--as does mother-of-pearl. I am sometimes able to procure these decorative elements for a fair price from a maker of buttons and belt buckles because I have an arrangement with him.

--Describe this arrangement.

--I paint his buttons.


--The making of buckles and buttons is not wasteful; nonetheless, there is always something left over, no matter the industry. I also use scraps to embellish the panaches--not where the fingers hold the fan, because over time the skin's heat causes even the best paste to soften. But farther up, the pieces hold so fast no one has ever complained.

--And this is the paste that was used to fix the six wafers to the upper section of the--mount?

--The same. Although I diluted it, as the wafers were so fragile.

--The entire fan is fragile.

--So I told Sade. He said it did not matter. The fan was an amusement. A gift for a whore.

--Some would call it blasphemy. Painting licentious acts, including sodomy, on the body of Christ.

--We are no more living beneath the boot of the Catholic Church, citizen. I never was a practicing Catholic. Like the paste that holds them to the fan, the wafers are made of flour and water. They are of human manufacture, and nothing can convince me of their sacredness.

--Your association with a notorious libertine and public enemy is under question today. Personally, I don't give a fig for blasphemy, although I believe there is not place in the Revolution for sodomites. But now, before we waste any more time, will you describe for the Comitè the scenes painted on the fan. [The fan, in possession of the Comitè de Surveillance de la Commune de Paris, is handed to her.] Is this the fan you made for Sade?

--Of course it is. [She examines fan, briefly.] It is a convention to paint figures and scenes within cartouches placed against a plain background or, perhaps, a background decorated with a discreet pattern of stars, or hearts, or even eyes--as I have done here. In this case there are two sets of cartouches: the six painted wafers, well varnished, at the top, and the three large, isolated scenes beneath--three being the classic number.

--And now describe for the Comitè the scenes.

--There is a spaniel.

--The girl is naked.

--All the girls are naked, as are all the gentlemen. Except for the Peeping Tom hiding just outside the window.

--And the spaniel.

--He is dressed in a little vest, and he carries a whip in his teeth.

--His master's whip?

--His master's whip.

--And the--master is in the picture, too?

--Yes! Smack in the middle. It is a portrait of Sade with an enormous erection!

--As specified in the agreement?

--Exactly. "Have it point to the right!" he said. "Because if I could fuck God right in the eye, I would." And he laughed. "Point it right for Hell," he said. So I did.

--The Comitè is curious to know about your continued service to the Marquis de Sade.

--I paint pictures for him, and I--

--What is the nature of these pictures? Why is he wanting pictures?

--Because he is in prison! He has nothing before his eyes but the guillotine! All day he has nothing to occupy his mind but executions, and all night nothing but his own thoughts.

--Explosive thoughts.

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book:
"A fan is like the thighs of a woman: it opens and closes." And so begins this lush, historical novel—a mixture of imagination and conceit, passion and suspense. In a tense courtroom during the French Revolution, a young fan-maker, renowned all over Paris for her sensual and graphic objets d'art, is on trial because of her collaboration with the Marquis de Sade. Heads will roll unless the independent fan-maker, erotically cast in the shadow of Sade, can justify her art and friendships to a court known for its rigid and prudish proprieties. . . .
Discussion Questions:Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion

Question:A central theme in The Fan-Maker's Inquisition is the ability of imagination to bring a world into existence. What role does imagination play in the worlds created by Sade, Gabrielle, and Bishop Landa?

Question:Parodying Descartes' intellectual starting point, "I think therefore I am," Gabrielle and Sade have their fictional laborers assert "I stink therefore I am." According to the novel, can the world sometimes be best known through the body? When?

Question:Lists of exotic kitchens, fantastic meals, bizarre machines and other inventions appear throughout The Fan-Maker's Inquisition. Discuss how these lists serve as "miniatures" within the novel. How do they help tell the story?

Question:According to the novel, does unlimited personal freedom always lead to murder and perversion? Does unlimited institutional freedom?

Question:Class differences were central to the French Revolution. Do you think Sade's opinions would differ if he, like Gabrielle, had been a member of the artisan/worker class instead of a member of the aristocracy? Would Gabrielle's values differ is she was a member of the aristocracy? Do class differences play a role in this novel?

Question:At the beginning of the novel, Gabrielle states that a fan opens like the "thighs of a woman" and "produces its own weather." Later we are told that a "book will open like a fan." Discuss how this novel is like one of Gabrielle's fans. What is the nature of the "weather" it produces? What is its desired effect on the world?

Question:According to Gabrielle, is brutality, like beauty, always in the eye of the beholder? Is all truth subjective?

Question:Rather than trying to explain the world, The Fan-Maker's Inquisition often tries to show how mysterious it can be. Is this a worthwhile goal? Explain.

Question:Do you agree with Sade's statement that "The best books cause us to dream; the rest are not worth reading?" Explain how Ducornet's lyrical prose style reinforces this world view.

Question:According to the novel, are "idealism" and "reigns of terror" two sides of the same coin? Do Sade's crimes differ from those he accuses governments and religions of committing? Do intentions matter?

Question:How would you describe the relationship between Gabrielle and Sade?

Question:Gabrielle tells the court that "Sade offers [us] a mirror." Does he? What do we see reflected in him? How does reading about Sade and Gabrielle make you feel about your own life? Your own country? Your own moment in history?

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