Reality Conditions

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

More on Dumas

When I was 10 or 11 years old, me and my three years younger sister watched a cartoon version of The Three Musketeers. I was enthralled at that time with the whole d'Artagnan romances, and offered to tell my sister the whole and real story, which I did over a time of many days, or perhaps weeks. There are a few moments of the retelling I remember distinctly, like stumbling on how to describe Milady's fleur-de-lis brand and saying finally "a seal on the skin" (my sister surely pictured an ink seal), or not knowing how to describe Cardinal Mazarin in Twenty Years After in a way she could understand he was neither "goodie" nor "baddie", just greedy and miser. I also remember us sitting in a room in our old great-grandmother's house, me telling long parts of The Vicomte de Bragelonne in a rather simple style: "Then Louise falls in love with the king, and the princess and the king fall in love with each other, but later the king also falls in love with Louise..." But the thing I remember best is when I started with Vicomte, saying that d'Artagnan was an old man now, and she said: "I can't imagine d'Artagnan being old!"

I love the memory of that remark, because of the way it summarises everything d'Artagnan represents in our cultural imagination: youth, adventure, romance. But nevertheless, I confess I have a deep affection for the old d'Artagnan of Vicomte, perhaps greater than the one I have for the young d'Artagnan of Musketeers as he is portrayed in the book. I am not alone in this feeling: no less an authority in adventure and romance than Robert Louis Stevenson agrees with it (and I swear that my opinions in this blog post predate my reading last year the linked essay).

Of course d'Artagnan is not really so old in Vicomte: I reckon him about 54 years. He can still use a sword better than anyone, and ride a horse at physically impossible speeds when the King's service requires it But he feels and speaks like an old man, full of wisdom and knowledge of the world, dissapointed and sad at the young generation that knows nothing of dueling and honour and thinks only of flattering the King, but never becoming cynical and keeping his ideals all the time. I remembering reading with fascination his meetings with the young Louis XIV, and feeling my young heart raptured with words like these ones protesting the unjust imprisonment of Athos:
"Oh! sire! I should go much further than he did," said D'Artagnan;
"and it would be your own fault. I should tell you what he, a man full of the
finest sense of delicacy, did not tell you; I should say - 'Sire, you have
sacrificed his son, and he defended his son - you sacrificed himself; he
addressed you in the name of honor, of religion, of virtue – you repulsed, drove
him away, imprisoned him.' I should be harder than he was, for I should say to
you - 'Sire; it is for you to choose. Do you wish to have friends or lackeys -
soldiers or slaves - great men or mere puppets? Do you wish men to serve you, or
to bend and crouch before you? Do you wish men to love you, or to be afraid of
you? If you prefer baseness, intrigue, cowardice, say so at once, sire, and we
will leave you, - we who are the only individuals who are left, - nay, I will
say more, the only models of the valor of former times; we who have done our
duty, and have exceeded, perhaps, in courage and in merit, the men already great
for posterity. Choose, sire! and that, too, without delay. Whatever relics
remain to you of the great nobility, guard them with a jealous eye; you will
never be deficient in courtiers. Delay not - and send me to the Bastile with my
friend; for, if you did not know how to listen to the Comte de la Fere, whose
voice is the sweetest and noblest in all the world when honor is the theme; if
you do not know how to listen to D'Artagnan, the frankest and honestest voice of
sincerity, you are a bad king, and to-morrow will be a poor king. And learn from
me, sire, that bad kings are hated by their people, and poor kings are driven
ignominiously away.' That is what I had to say to you, sire; you were wrong to
drive me to say it."

I actually learnt this paragraph by heart (in Spanish, of course) and recited it aloud sometimes, in the privacy of my room. Or take these words from another of the meetings, near the sad end:

"Oh!" replied D'Artagnan, in a melancholy tone, "that is not my
most serious care. I hesitate to take back my resignation because I am old in
comparison with you, and have habits difficult to abandon. Henceforward, you
must have courtiers who know how to amuse you - madmen who will get themselves
killed to carry out what you call your great works. Great they will be, I feel -
but, if by chance I should not think them so? I have seen war, sire, I have seen
peace; I have served Richelieu and Mazarin; I have been scorched with your
father, at the fire of Rochelle; riddled with sword-thrusts like a sieve, having
grown a new skin ten times, as serpents do. After affronts and injustices, I
have a command which was formerly something, because it gave the bearer the
right of speaking as he liked to his king. But your captain of the musketeers
will henceforward be an officer guarding the outer doors. Truly, sire, if that
is to be my employment from this time, seize the opportunity of our being on
good terms, to take it from me. Do not imagine that I bear malice; no, you have
tamed me, as you say; but it must be confessed that in taming me you have
lowered me; by bowing me you have convicted me of weakness.

Or (SPOILERS AHEAD) who could fail to be moved when d'Artagnan, after the death of his friends, cries at the end of the last chapter before the epilogue:

The captain watched the departure of the horses, horsemen, and carriage, then
crossing his arms upon his swelling chest, "When will it be my turn to depart?"
said he, in an agitated voice. "What is there left for man after youth, love,
glory, friendship, strength, and wealth have disappeared? That rock, under which
sleeps Porthos, who possessed all I have named; this moss, under which repose
Athos and Raoul, who possessed much more!"

He hesitated for a moment, with a dull eye; then, drawing himself up, "Forward! still forward!" said he. "When it is time, God will tell me, as he foretold the others."

He touched the earth, moistened with the evening dew, with the ends of his fingers,
signed himself as if he had been at the bénitier in church, and retook alone - ever alone - the road to Paris.

The Vicomte de Bragelonne is surely not as good a novel, as a whole, as The Three Musketeers. It is much too long (most editions cut the first two thirds and leave only the last one, calling it The Man in the Iron Mask), too full of digressions, with too many secondary and tertiary characters who pop up, dominate the scene for a few chapters, and then disappear from the plot. The supposed hero Raoul de Bragelonne is a bore: he does almost nothing but cry about Louise in the whole novel. Louise herself does little else than swoon at the King.

There are many other faults that could be listed, but with all them, I have the novel closer to my heart than its two prequels, and indeed more than a majority of other books I have read. Because, reading at the age of ten paragraphs like the quoted ones , I felt for the first time that literature could be not only fun, but also moving and leave one with an impression I vaguely called "greatness".


  • Wow... it reminds me of the mythic eating of the madeleine in Marcel Proust's "In search of lost time" (or "Remembrance of things past", depending on the translation from French), which is the best literature ever written in my opinion. OK, I haaven't read that much...

    By Anonymous the soul of Marcel Proust, at 2:45 AM, March 30, 2006  

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