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Persian Letters (Lettres persanes, written 1721) is a literary work by Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, recounting the experiences of two Persian (Iranian) noblemen, Usbek and Rica, who are traveling through France.
In 1711 Usbek leaves his seraglio in Isfahan to take the long journey to France, accompanied by his young friend Rica. He leaves behind five wives (Zashi, Zéphis, Fatmé, Zélis, and Roxane) in the care of a number of black eunuchs, one of whom is the head or first eunuch. During the trip and their long stay in Paris (1712–1720), they comment, in letters exchanged with friends and mullahs, on numerous aspects of Western, Christian society, particularly French politics and Moors, ending with a biting satire of the System of John Law. Over time, various disorders surface back in the seraglio, and, beginning in 1717 (Letter 139 ), the situation there rapidly unravels. Usbek orders his head eunuch to crack down, but his message does not arrive in time, and a revolt brings about the death of his wives, including the vengeful suicide of his favorite, Roxane, and, it appears, most of the eunuchs.
The Chronology breaks down as follows:
- Letters 1–21 [1–23]: The journey from Isfahan to France, which lasts almost 14 months (from 19 March 1711 to 4 May 1712).
- Letters 22 –89 : Paris in the reign of Louis XIV, 3 years in all (from May 1712 to September 1715).
- Letters 90 –137  or [supplementary Letter 8 =145]: the Regency of Philippe d’Orléans, covering five years (from September 1715 to November 1720).
- Letters 138 – 150 : the collapse of the seraglio in Isfahan, approximately 3 years (1717–1720).
The novel consisting of 150 letters appeared in May 1721 under the rubric Cologne: Pierre Marteau, a front for the Amsterdam publisher Jacques Desbordes whose business is now run by his widow, Susanne de Caux. Called edition A, this is the text utilized in the recent critical edition of Lettres persanes for the complete works of Montesquieu published by the Voltaire Foundation in 2004. A second edition (B) by the same publisher later in the same year, for which there is so far no entirely satisfactory explanation, curiously included three new letters but omitted thirteen of the original ones. All subsequent editions in the author’s lifetime (i.e., until 1755) derive from A or B. A new edition in 1758, prepared by Montesquieu’s son, included eight new letters – bringing the total to 161 – and a short piece by the author entitled "Quelques réflexions sur les Letters persanes." This latter edition has been used for all subsequent editions until the Œuvres complètes of 2004, which reverts to the original edition but includes the added letters marked as "supplementary" and, in parentheses, the numbering scheme of 1758.
An epistolary novel
Montesquieu never referred to Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) as a novel until "Quelques remarques sur les Lettres persanes," which begins: "Nothing about the Lettres persanes was more ingratiating than to find in it unexpectedly a sort of novel. There is a visible beginning, development, and ending […]." Initially, for most of its first readers as well as for its author, it was not considered primarily a novel, and even less an "epistolary novel" (as it is often classified now), which was not at that time a constituted genre. Indeed it has little in common with the sole model at the time, Guilleragues’s Lettres portugaises of 1669. A collection of "letters" in 1721 would more likely evoke the recent tradition of essentially polemical and political periodicals, such as Lettres historiques (1692–1728), the Jesuits’ famous Lettres édifiantes et curieuses (1703–1776), not to mention Mme Dunoyer’s Lettres historiques et galantes of (1707–1717) which, in the form of a correspondence between two women, provide a chronicle of the end of the reign of Louis XIV and the beginning of the Regency. The Lettres persanes thus helped confirm the vogue of a format that was already established. But it is in its numerous imitations – such as Lettres juives (1738) and Lettres chinoises (1739) of Boyer d’Argens, Lettres d’une Turque à Paris, écrites à sa sœur (1730) by Poullain de Saint-Foix (published several times in conjunction with Lettres persanes), and perhaps especially Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747) – not to mention the letter-novels of Richardson – which, between 1721 and 1754, had in effect transformed Lettres persanes into an "epistolary novel." Whence this remark in Montesquieu’s Mes Pensées: "My Lettres persanes taught people to write letter-novels" (no. 1621).
The epistolary structure is quite flexible: nineteen correspondents in all, with at least twenty-two different recipients. Usbek and Rica by far dominate with sixty-six letters for the former and forty-seven for the latter (of the final 161). Ibben, who functions more as addressee than correspondent, writes only two letters but receives forty-two. Likewise, an unnamed person (designated only as ***) – if always the same – receives eighteen letters and writes none at all. There is even one complete anomaly, a letter from Hagi Ibbi to Ben Josué (Letter 37 ), neither of whom is mentioned elsewhere in the novel.
The letters are apparently all dated in accordance with a lunar calendar which, as Robert Shackleton showed in 1954, in fact corresponds to our own, by simple substitution of Muslim names, as follows: Zilcadé (January), Zilhagé (February), Maharram (March), Saphar (April), Rebiab I (May), Rebiab II (June), Gemmadi I (July), Gemmadi II (August), Rhegeb (September), Chahban (October), Rhamazan (November), Chalval (December).
In Paris, the Persians express themselves on a wide variety of subjects, from governmental institutions to salon caricatures. The difference of temperament of the two friends is notable, Usbek being more experienced and asking many questions, Rica less implicated and more free, and more attracted by Parisian life. Although this takes place in the declining years of the aged king, much of what he has accomplished is still admired in a Paris where the Invalides is being completed and cafés and theatre proliferate. We observe the function of parliaments, tribunals, religious bodies (Capuchins, Jesuits, etc.), public places and their publics (the Tuileries, the Palais Royal), state foundations (the hospital of the Quinze-Vingts  for the blind, the Invalides for those wounded in war). They describe a thriving culture, where even the presence of two Persians quickly becomes a popular phenomenon, thanks to the proliferation of prints (letter 28 ). The café – where debates take place (letter 34 ) – has become established as a public institution, as were already the theatre and opera. There are still people foolish enough to search at their own expense for the philosopher's stone; the newsmonger and the periodical press are beginning to play a role in everyday life. Everything from institutions (the university, the Academy, Sciences, the Bull Unigenitus) via groups (fashion, dandies, coquettes) to individuals (the opera singer, the old warrior, the rake, and so forth) comes to the eye of the reader.
Usbek for his part is troubled by religious contrasts. Though it never occurs to him to cease being a Muslim, and while he still wonders at some aspects of Christianity (the Trinity, communion), he writes to austere authorities to inquire, for example, why some foods are considered to be unclean (letters 15–17 [16–18]). He also assimilates the two religions and even all religions with respect to their social utility.
Certain sequences of letters by a single author develop more fully a particular subject, such as letters 11–14 from Usbek to Mirza on the Troglodytes, letters 109–118 (113–122) from Usbek to Rhedi on demography, letters 128–132 (134–138) from Rica on his visit to the library at Saint-Victor. They sketch analyses that will later be developed in L’Esprit des lois for many subjects such as the types of powers, the influence of climate and the critique of colonization.
While Usbek appreciates the freer relations among men and women in the West, he remains, as master of a seraglio, a prisoner of his past. His wives play the role of languorous and lonely lovers, he the role of master and lover, with no true communication and without revealing much about their true selves. Usbek’s language with them is as constrained as theirs with him. Knowing, moreover, from the outset that he is not assured of a return to Persia, Usbek is also already disabused about their attitude (letters 6 et 19 ). The seraglio is a hothouse from which he increasingly distances himself, trusting his wives no more than his eunuchs (Letter 6).
Everything cascades in the final letters (139–150 [147–161]), thanks to a sudden analepse of more than three years with respect to the preceding letters. From letter 69 (71) to letter 139 (147) – chronologically from 1714 to 1720 – not a single letter from Usbek relates to the seraglio, which is unmentioned in any guise from letter 94 to 143 (and even in the edition of 1758 from supplementary letter 8 (97) to 145. Moreover, all the letters from 126 (132) to 137 (148) are from Rica, which means that for about fifteen months (from 4 August 1719 to 22 October 1720) Usbek is completely silent. Although he has in the meantime received letters, the reader does not learn of them until the final series, which is more developed after the addition of supplementary letters 9–11 (157, 158, 160) of 1758. Although Usbek has learned as early as October 1714 that "the seraglio is in disorder" (letter 63 ). As the spirit of rebellion advances, he decides to act, but too late; with delays in the transmission of letters and the loss of some, the situation is beyond remedy.
A dejected Usbek is apparently resigned to the necessity of returning, with little hope, to Persia; on 4 October 1719 he laments: "I shall deliver my head to my enemies" (147 ). He nevertheless does not do so: late in 1720 he is still in Paris, for letters 134–137 (140–145), which contain the whole history of Law’s "System," are in fact posterior to Roxane’s last missive (dated 8 May 1720), which he must already have received – the usual time for delivery being about five months – when he writes the latest in date of his own (supplementary letter 8 and letter 138 [145 and 146]), in October and November 1720.
Montesquieu’s "sources" are legion, since they doubtless extend to readings and conversations which are modified en route. The impact of Jean Chardin’s Voyages en Perse, to which he owes most of his information about Persia – which is far from superficial – must of course be recognized; he owned the two-volume edition of 1687 and purchased the extended edition in ten volumes in 1720. To a lesser degree, he drew on the Voyages of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and Paul Rycaut, not to mention many other works which his vast library afforded him. Everything having to do with contemporary France or Paris, on the other hand, comes from his own experience, and from conversations of anecdotes related to him.
Various aspects of the book are doubtless indebted to particular models, of which the most important is Giovanni Paolo Marana’s L’Espion dans les cours des princes chrétiens (Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy), widely known at the time, even though Montesquieu’s characters obviously are Persians and not Turks. While the great popularity of Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits (The Arabian Nights) contributes, as do the Bible and the Qu’ran, to the general ambiance of oriental subjects, in fact it has almost nothing in common with the Lettres persanes.
The Lettres persanes was an immediate success and often imitated, but it has been diversely interpreted over time. Until the middle of the twentieth century, it was its "spirit" of the Regency which was largely admired, as well as the caricature in the classical tradition of La Bruyère, Pascal and Fontenelle. No one had the notion of attaching it to the novelistic genre. The Persian side of the novel tended to be considered as a fanciful decor, the true interest of the work lying in its factitious "oriental" impressions of French society, along with political and religious satire and critique.
In the 1950s began a new era of studies based on better texts and renewed perspectives. Particularly important were the extensively annotated edition by Paul Vernière and the research of Robert Shackleton on Muslim chronology; also studies by Roger Laufer, Pauline Kra and Roger Mercier, which put new focus on the work’s unity and integrated the seraglio into its overall meaning. Others who have followed have looked into the ramifications of epistolary form, the structure and meaning of the seraglio, Usbek’s contradictions. Beginning about 1970 it is religion (Kra) and especially politics (Ehrard, Goulemot, Benrekassa) which predominate in studies on Letters persanes, with a progressive return to the role of the seraglio with all its women and eunuchs (Delon, Grosrichard, Singerman, Spector) or the cultural cleavage of Orient and Occident.
The American philosopher Marshall Berman devotes several chapters in his book The Politics of Authenticity (1970) to the radical humanism of the Persian Letters.
Though the manuscripts from which were set editions A and B have not survived, there is a notebook of corrections and addenda ("Cahiers de corrections" at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (n. a. fr. 14365): cf. Edgar Mass, "Les éditions des Letters persanes," Revue française d’histoire du livre nos 102–103 (1999), pp. 19–56.
The most important modern French editions:
- Antoine Adam, Genève: Droz, 1954.
- Jean Starobinski, Paris: Gallimard "Folio," 1973, reprinted in 2003.
- Paul Vernière, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 1960, reprinted in 1965, 1975, 1992; revised edition by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Livre de Poche classique, 2001.
- Cecil Courtney, Philip Stewart, Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, Pauline Kra, Edgar Mass, Didier Masseau, Œuvres complètes, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, vol. I, 2004.
There have been numerous English translations, usually under the title (The) Persian Letters:
- Mr. Ozell, London, 1722.
- Mr. [Thomas] Flloyd, London, 4th edition 1762. Available in Eighteenth Century Collections Online to libraries which subscribe to that series.
- John Davidson, 1899. A 2002 online version prepared by Ronald Schechter and his students is available at http://www.wm.edu/history/rbsche/plp/
- J. Robert Loy, New York: Meridian Books, 1961.
- George R Healy, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
- C. J. Betts, Harmondsworth and New York: Penguin, 1973.
- Robert Shackleton, "The Moslem Chronology of the Letters persanes," French Studies 8 (1954), pp. 17–27.
- Jean Rousset, "Une forme littéraire : le roman par letters," in Forme et signification, Paris: José Corti, 1962, pp. 65–103.
- Roger Mercier, "Le roman dans les Letters persanes: structure et signification," Revue des sciences humaines 107 (1962), pp. 345–56.
- Pauline Kra, "The Invisible Chain of the Letters persanes," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 23 (1963), pp. 7–60.
- Roger Laufer, "La réussite romanesque et la signification des Letters persanes," Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France 61 (1961), pp. 188–203; reprinted in Style rococo, style des Lumières, Paris: Seuil, 1963.
- Patrick Brady, "The Letters persanes: rococo or neo-classical ? », Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 53 (1967), pp. 47–77.
- Aram Vartanian, "Eroticism and politics in the Letters persanes," Romanic Review 60 (1969), pp. 23–33.
- Jean Ehrard, "La signification politique des Letters persanes," Archives des Letters Modernes 116 (1970), pp. 33–50; reprinted in L’Invention littéraire au siècle des Lumières : fictions, idées, société, Paris, PUF, 1997, pp. 17–32.
- Pauline Kra, Religion in Montesquieu’s "Letters persanes", Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 72 (1970).
- Clifton Cherpack, "Montesquieu’s Usbek: paper Persian or anti-hero?" Kentucky Romance Quarterly 18 (1971), pp. 101–110.
- Jean Marie Goulemot, "Questions sur la signification politique des Letters Persanes," Approches des Lumières, Paris: Klincksieck, 1974, pp. 213–225.
- Alain Grosrichard, Structure du sérail : la fiction du despotisme asiatique dans l’Occident classique, Paris: Seuil, 1979.
- Laurent Versini, Le Roman épistolaire, Paris: PUF, 1979, pp. 40–46.
- Alan Singerman, "Réflexions sur une métaphore : le sérail dans les Letters persanes," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 185 (1980), pp. 181–198.
- Jean Pierre Schneider, "Les jeux du sens dans les Letters persanes: temps du roman et temps de l’histoire," Revue Montesquieu 4 (2000), pp. 127–159.
- Edgar Mass, Literatur und Zensur in der frühen Aufklärung: Produktion, Distribution und Rezeption der "Letters persanes," Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1981.
- Josué Harari, "The Eunuch’s Tale : Montesquieu’s imaginary of despotism," in Scenarios of the Imaginary, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 67–101.
- Jean Marie Goulemot, "Vision du devenir historique et formes de la révolution dans les Letters persanes," Dix-Huitième Siècle 21 (1989), pp. 13–22.
- Sylvie Romanowski, "La quête du savoir dans les Letters persanes," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 3 (1991), pp. 93–111.
- Céline Spector, Montesquieu, « Letters persanes », de l’anthropologie à la politique, Paris: PUF, 1997.
- Louis Desgraves, Chronologie critique de la vie et des œuvres de Montesquieu, Paris: Champion, 1998, pp. 36–94.
- Philip Stewart, "Toujours Usbek," Eighteenth-Century Fiction 11 (1999), pp. 141–150.
- Mary McAlpin, "Between Men for All Eternity: feminocentrism in Montesquieu’s Letters persanes," Eighteenth-Century Life 24 (2000), pp. 45–61.
- Jean Goldzink, Montesquieu et les passions, Paris: PUF, 2001.
- Randolph Paul Runyon. The Art of the Persian Letters: Unlocking Montesquieu's "Secret Chain", Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005
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