Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Never A Crossed Sword

Shame-Faced Admission™: I thought I’d read The Three Musketeers.

I had a copy of the swashbuckler by Alexandre Dumas when I was younger. Or what I thought was a copy of it. I read the book, its six-by-four inch pages filled with big print and numerous illustrations, until it fell apart. Repeat viewings of the 1970s Musketeer films, directed by Richard Lester with scripts by Flashman creator George MacDonald Fraser, cemented my imagined familiarity with Dumas’ novel. I was ready to discourse on it at length in plummy gentlemen’s clubs the world over. The gentlemen’s clubs with leather chairs and brandy, not the ones with topless dancers named Brandi. Although I’d talk about Dumas there, too. There’s always at least one dancer going to college.

Realizing that Dumas’ novel was considerably longer didn’t stop me from telling people that I’d read the book. When I heard that a new edition translated by the illustrious Richard Pevear was coming out, I decided it was time to experience the genuine article.

(I owned several “classics” from the same children’s publisher, and may not rectify every situation as I’ve done here. Meaning I will go to my grave insisting that I did indeed read Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. So there.)

My childhood Musketeers focused on the plot, so I was spared the occasional clunkiness of Dumas’ storytelling (most likely the result of the book’s being published serially). But I was also denied the rich pleasures of the author’s voice. Worldly, conspiratorial, larded with nuggets of sound philosophy:

As we know, there is a special god for drunkards and lovers.

A good turn remembered is an insult rendered.

One must speculate on people’s defects, not on their virtues.

The title characters are vividly drawn yet schematic. Porthos, enslaved by his appetites. Aramis, devoted to the church. Athos, haunted by his past. The book’s hero D’Artagnan is a synthesis of their best qualities, and thus the most fleshed out.

Thanks to Charlton Heston, I think of Cardinal Richelieu as a villain. But Dumas’ version is a pure politician, fixated on authority and not ideology. He alone sees the worth of D’Artagnan and his compatriots.

Dumas is so bewitched by the true villain, the cunning Milady de Winter, that he cedes much of the book’s last act to her, forgetting his protagonists entirely. (The Muske-who? How many are there?) Her actions in the extended closing section – in which Milady, unable to use her body to seduce her Puritan jailer, turns the man’s religious beliefs against him – makes Hannibal Lecter look like Bugs Meany, that kid who beats up Encyclopedia Brown.

Milady’s scheming culminates in a shocking act of violence based, as the movies say, on actual events. Dumas treated history as his own personal theme park. If his tale would be improved by involving real-life figures who were long dead, not yet born, or nowhere in the vicinity at the time, in they’d go. Anything to help the action. (Pevear’s meticulous endnotes help keep fact and fiction straight.)

Frankly, I prefer Dumas’ approach. I loathe people who only read historical fiction because “at least I’m learning something.” History is for history books. What I want from a novel is a story, which Dumas delivers in spades. A John Ford movie coined the phrase “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Alexandre Dumas was putting that theory into practice centuries ago.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Seven Chapters Before the Mast

After reading Robinson Crusoe I was in the mood for a not-so-land-locked adventure. I fancied one that took place on the high seas. So I picked up Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

For isn’t Kidnapped the story of a young man picked up off the streets of England somewhere and taken on some kind of a ship by various ne’er-do-wells and having adventures most exotic amongst pirates and other swarthy types?

Short answer: No.

I suppose it’s here I must make the Shame-Faced Admission™ that not only had I not read Kidnapped, I hadn’t read any books by Stevenson. I think I was getting Kidnapped confused with Treasure Island.

The map in the front of my edition should have been the tip-off. It shows the top half of Scotland from Mull in the west to Edinburgh in the east. That’s it. Just Scotland. It dinnae occur to me until later that the Channel Islands aren’t even on the map, never mind Fiji and other locales where pirates are prevalent.

So what of Kidnapped? Young David Balfour, our hero, is a “steady lad…and a canny goer.” Having been sold out by his miserly uncle (Uncle Ebenezer, in fact. Are all miserly uncles named Ebenezer?) he is kidnapped by greedy and loutish sailors. David’s time aboard ship is brief, but it’s nothing if not eventful. A siege of the roundhouse leads to this sight the next morning. “The floor was covered with broken glass and in a horrid mess of blood, which took away my hunger.” Now that’s adventure on the high seas, even if they weren’t even far enough off the coast to play keno.

When the marine leg of his journey ends abruptly, David must walk his way back across Scotland (I tracked it on the handy map) with Alan Breck. Breck is vain, drinks and gambles and there is no one better to lead David across the heather and back to his uncle’s house. There Uncle Ebenezer gets the comeuppance we’ve been hoping for.

Based on historical events and personages, Kidnapped taught me a bit about the history of Scotland and made me realize how much more I don’t know about it. Even better, this well-loved author confirmed my preferences in traveling companions:

Always opt for the dandy with a silver tongue, especially if he knows how to wield a mean cutlass.