This is the review I wrote in late 2003 for the Montesquieu classic The Persian Letters.
I’ve just read this great classic by the equally great Montesquieu all the way through, after originally having only read a total of 69 letters in it, as assigned by my brilliant Enlightenment professor. (We had to read 1-26, 37-8, 55, 59-60, 62, 64-5, 83, 102-7, 116-22, and 141-61; I think I read a few more that weren’t assigned but not the whole thing.) These letters not only touch on many aspects of religion, philosophy, morality, ethics, history, politics, relations between the sexes, differences between East and West, and economy, but also a compelling subplot of the events back in Persia in Usbek’s seraglio (i.e., harem). Usbek and his companion Rica leave Persia in 1711 and by the close of the book it’s 1720; they’ve really been away a long time, and things are going to Hell in a handbasket back home.
Usbek is a very powerful man (but not a sultan) in Persia, and has a large seraglio with many wives, concubines, slaves, and eunuchs. The exact number is never given, but we know he’s got a lot, including at least five wives, Fatme, Zephis, Zelis, Zashi, and Roxana. The latter three are the most important wives. So anyway, Usbek decides he wants to leave Ispahan, Persia, behind and set out for Paris so he can share in the events of the great Enlightenment. He takes along with him his dear friend Rica, and before long they’ve influenced another friend of theirs, Rhedi, to also leave Persia for the West, though Rhedi travels to Venice and doesn’t decide to go as far as France.
The book consists of letters back and forth between mostly these three, their friend Ibben in Smyrna, the Chief (or First) Black Eunuch at the seraglio, and Usbek’s wives. There are a few others, like Usbek’s friend Mirza, to whom he addresses the famous letters on the Troglodytes, as well as people whose names we don’t know (referred to as *** because the names are supposedly unknown by Montesquieu, who presented the letters as real instead of fiction).
In the midst of all of this delightful conversing and learning, the wives in the seraglio are becoming more and more impatient with their husband to come back home and resume his duties over them. And as the saying goes, while the cat’s away, the mice will play. (Or, as Stan Laurel said in Helpmates, “When the mice are away, the cats are always playing around with things…and doing something…If the mice…”) The wives begin to get used to Usbek’s long separation from them, and find more and more scandalous ways of finding their own happiness and pleasure.
Early on, Zephis is suspected by the Chief Eunuch of a lesbian relationship with her slave Zelid, but that’s minor compared to what goes on years down the road. Zashi is caught in bed with a slave, Zelis drops her veil on the way to the mosque and is seen by the people with her face exposed, Roxana and Zelis go to one of Usbek’s country houses and some of the eunuchs and slaves suspect them of hiding secret lovers in a hole in one of the walls there, strange men are caught in the seraglio, a mysterious letter is intercepted (though the Eunuch is unable to find out to whom it was addressed), and things generally are deteriorating. Even the slaves are becoming lax in their work in the long absence of Usbek. You’ll never guess who the guiltiest person is.
On the whole, these letters have held up over time, though naturally some of the things mentioned and discussed are now obsolete and seem dated and silly, things a modern person wouldn’t believe in. Letter 51 is also troublesome, from Nargum to Usbek, talking about how Russian wives love to be beaten (though this has supposedly changed, Montesquieu writes in a footnote), including a letter from a “desperate” young wife who’s furious and devastated that her husband never beats her, no matter how hard she tries to make him angry at her. Apparently the harder and more a husband beats his wife, the more he loves her. That’s just bullshit, and if it really was intended as a joke, it’s in very bad taste. That’s not something you joke about, wife-beating and how women love to be beaten by their husbands.
But overall most of the letters’ observations about human society are still true and interesting today. Montesquieu was even able to use the supposed naïveté of the travellers to bash Louis XIV (who dies during the book), the Regency of Louis XV, alchemy, Christianity, and even the Pope. Letter 24 is a prime example, talking about how great a magician Louis XIV is, but that there is an even greater magician than he. “This magician is called the Pope.” That letter is priceless.
It’s a philosophical work, but it’s couched in the form of letters and interwoven with eroticism. Unlike some works of philosophy, it’s readable and interesting because of the writing style. You can almost forget this book wasn’t primarily intended to be a novel.