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Nikolaj Frobenius: Latours katalog (De Sade’s Valet)

Bou-Bou Quiros was described as the most repulsive woman in all of France. She was very large and very ugly. She was born in 1728 and, given the circumstances of her birth, destined for an early death. However, while in an orphanage, the wife of Dr Quiros sees her and takes pity on her and adopts her. Dr Quiros had made a lot of money as he had discovered in England a technique for removing bladder stones and charged the rich a lot to carry out the operation. Bou-Bou grows up and, unusually for a girl, receives a good education. Then, when she is fourteen, her parents are killed in an accident. However, they have left her a fair bit of money, so she moves from Rouen to Honfleur and buys herself a small cottage overlooking the sea.

Goupils, the man who persuaded her to buy the cottage, advises her on becoming a money lender, which she does, making a lot of money but, of course, quite a few enemies. One night, an escaped convict breaks into her cottage looking for food. He finds the food but also finds her and rapes her, though she offers little resistance. Nine months later, a son is born. His father had mentioned the name Latour so that becomes his name. The midwife says that the child is the spawn of the devil. Bou-Bou does not agree, though she soon recognises that there is an evil side to his character.

She soon discovers that Latour does not feel pain. However, he does not understand pain either and gets pleasure from torturing animals. As he grows up she realises that she must send him to school. As the son of the moneylender he is despised but he does not really care. What does upset him is that Goupils is now having an intimate relationship with his mother and he tries to kill Goupils.

Bou-Bou had tried to bring him up well, teaching him good behaviour but when she reads him books about virtuous maidens being taken advantage of by rogue males,he sides with the rogue males and not the virtuous maidens.

However, it is while on an errand for the priest, who is his schoolmaster, that he meets the priest’s Uncle Leopold. Leopold is a taxidermist and he shows Latour how to do taxidermy but also introduces him to anatomy, both practical but also as described in rare books he has. Latour will, of course, later steal the books but, in the meantime, he learns a lot about anatomy from both the priest and Leopold.

But Bou-Bou is bitten by a fly, contracts purple fever (probably typhus) and dies. Goupils seems to have some sort of legal document leaving all the business to him. Latour finds a list of names that Bou-Bou had compiled when she had visited Paris, from which she had returned unhappy. Latour assumes that these are people who did her wrong and vows revenge. He befriends Valérie, a local prostitute. They decide to leave for Paris. She shows him where Goupils hides his valuables, which Latour steals and off they go to Paris.

They work in a brothel, she as a prostitute, he as the general dogsbody. It is here they meet a client who is clearly into what we now call sadomasochism. He is, of course, the future Marquis de Sade. De Sade hires Latour as his assistant though Latour also continues his anatomy studies with the famous Rouchefoucault. Rouchefoucault is a demanding employer but is impressed by Latour’s knowledge.

Latour and Rouchefoucault want to know more about how the brain works, specifically what region of the brain is responsible for what actions and emotions in humans. Latour finds his subjects – the people on his mother’s list, whom he will track down during the course of the book. But we also follow the adventures of the Marquis de Sade and Latour (who was, incidentally, really de Sade’s assistant, though Frobenius has very much embellished what is known about him).

We also see their escapes from prison and their travels but also their perverted behaviour as well as following Inspector Ramon who is after both de Sade as well as the murderer who kills people and leaves their headless corpses, without the head being found.

Many writers and critics, particularly French writers, have spoken well of de Sade. Pierre Guyotat, a writer not for the faint-hearted, and sometimes called de Sade’s literary heir, famously called de Sade France’s Shakespeare. Michel Onfray, however, said it is intellectually bizarre to make Sade a hero… Even according to his most hero-worshipping biographers, this man was a sexual delinquent. I am with Onfray. Frobenius does not go full Guyotat in this book but while we see many of the perversions and crimes of de Sade, we also see that Latour can match his boss in nastiness. He kills quite a few people and is distinctly unpleasant to quite a few others. He is not averse to sexual perversion. In short, if you do not like the nastiness I have mentioned, you may want to keep away from this book. If nastiness does not bother you, this is not a bad book in that Frobenius tells a good story with many colourful characters.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Gyldendal
First published in English in 2000 by Marion Boyars
Translated by Tom Geddes