Celliniesque : Alexandre Dumas -“Ascanio”

ABOVE: Bench-warming

I consider “Ascanio”, (which by all rights should be called “Cellini”), as a possible first novel in Alexandre Dumas’ central, continuous historical saga. That’s not an academic statement. It’s not first by composition (it’s from 1843) or by historical era (it’s set in 1540, and Dumas wrote plenty covering earlier periods.) But because of cameos from Catherine of Medici, Marguerite of Valois, and Diane de Poitiers in “Ascanio,” one can trace a very direct line from here to “The Two Dianas” to the Valois trilogy to the Regency romances to the Musketeer Trilogy to the Marie Antoinette Saga to the Napoleonic novels. Characters, historical or otherwise, spill over from one novel to the next. The scheme is not always as intentional (and never as literary) as Balzac’s in “The Human Comedy,” but Dumas’ ingenuity is seldom appreciated by modern critics, who may group the novels in trilogies or diptychs but rarely (ever?) as part of the near-accidental uber-saga I consider it to be.

“Ascanio” is inspired by passages from the scandalous “Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini,” the original tell-all tabloid memoir. It covers the great sculptor’s stay in France under the auspice of Francois I, as that King wrestles for control of Europe with the Charles V from “El Salteador,” (which by the way, is too unambitious to properly kick-start the conceptual chronological saga I propose.)

Court is lively at this time. Rabelais and the aging Montmorency cross paths, while Triboulet the buffoon plays under their feet. (That same Triboulet would eventually inspire works from Victor Hugo and Michel Zevaco, not to mention Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”)

The plot: The brilliant, brash, occasionally murderous, but always honorable Benvenuto Cellini moves from under papal eyes to Paris, (accompanied by a colorful retinue that includes dashing young apprentice Ascanio.) Cellini has his heart set on installing himself in the Tower of Nesle, which, two centuries after the events of “The Tower of Nesle,” is no longer a disreputable den of sin. Indeed, the Provost of Paris and his virginal daughter Colombe live there.

That the tower has occupants doesn’t deter Cellini (few things did, apparently.) He storms the tower and evicts the Provost. The Provost runs to get help from his protector, the Duchess D’Etampes, who is also the Queen’s mistress, and Diane de Poitiers’ main competitor. Meanwhile, circumstances lead both Benvenuto and young Ascanio to fall for Colombe, who has been promised to an icky old man. Who will get the girl? The master, the apprentice, or some decrepit creep? And how will Cellini’s colossal, hollowed out statue of Mars figure in the plot?

The answers to those questions are mostly obvious, but it’s a lot of fun getting there, particularly thanks to the many lively characters in Cellini’s entourage, all of whom get a chance to shine. The Duchess D’Etampes is another of Dumas’ brilliant political strategists, holding France together; Cellini himself is larger than life, and Dumas clearly saw a kindred soul in the artist who looked Kings and Popes in the eye. (Although the real life Cellini was more likely to stab those Kings and Popes in the eye than his Dumasian counterpart.)

The novel only falters with the characters of Ascanio and Colombe, both so pure as to become diaphanous.

ABOVE: Corner-hugging


ABOVE: Dumas’ collaborator for the novel was Paul Meurice, (Auguste Maquet was kept pretty busy elsewhere around this period.) Meurice would go on to write a play based on the novel some ten years later, to Dumas’ discontent. The play in turn would inspire Camille Saint-Saens’ opera, “Ascanio” which is rarely revived but does have some charming ballet music.

Captains Courageous # 2 : Michel Zevaco – “The Captain”

ABOVE: That newspaper doesn’t have enough pie charts.

Another tale of bravado-prone captains after Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse.” Michel Zevaco’s succinctly titled “The Captain” takes place in what I call “Musketeer times.” (A historian might be better helped by mentions of Louis XIII and the Cinq-Mars conspiracy.)  The titular heroic cap is an obvious D’Artagnan imitation down to the name (De Capestang) but Zevaco never had qualms when imitating Dumas: compare “Buridan, the Hero of the Tower of Nesle” and “The Tower of Nesle”. What’s important is that he always provides reasonably entertaining Dumasian facsimiles, and here he displays a gift for comedy: a subplot involving witty servants and a fake hair-growing pomade is as spirited as the sword fights that take first billing. The Condes, Marie Medici, Concino Concini, Leonora Galigai, Giselle d’Angouleme, and Marion de Lorne, (to whom Victor Hugo dedicated a whole play) all join on in the intrigue. Since it’s not part of any diptych or multi-volume saga, (Zevaco’s usual M.O.) this might be the ideal intro to his work.


Fancy Fantasmas : Carlos Fuentes – “Unsettling Company”

ABOVE: Glass Half Dead

Carlos Fuentes often shows up in the kind of inclusive “all-Latin-American-writers-are-the-same” sentences that link Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and more recently Roberto Bolanos. But “Unsettling Company,” a late-career collection of literary horror stories, casts him in the light of an even more trans-national Henry James.  (Albeit a Henry James with a crazy Mexican abuela.) Fuentes was 75 at the time of the collection’s release so his admirably modern energy is tempered by an old-school, refined elegance. Collection highlight: “Vlad.” 


From Both Sides, Now : Dorothy L. Sayers – “Clouds of Witness”

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” – Hebrews 12: 1

ABOVE: The flying monocle had always wanted to own a suit… and its wish was finally granted.

“Clouds of Witness” (Dorothy L. Sayers’ 1926 follow-up to “Whose Body?”) finds Lord Peter Wimsey attaining new depths of character. In fact, too many depths. He has so many depths he’s practically composed of holes. Let’s have Sayers describe this monster of a genius who, a mere book ago, was a foppish, idle Wodehousian figure:

“To Lord Peter the world presented itself as an entertaining labyrinth of side-issues. He was a respectable scholar in five or six languages, a musician of some skill and more understanding, something of an expert in toxicology, a collector of rare editions, an entertaining man-about-town, and a common sensationalist. He had been seen at half-past twelve on a Sunday morning walking in Hyde Park in a top-hat and frock-coat, reading the News of the World. His passion for the unexplored led him to hunt up obscure pamphlets in the British Museum, to unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors, and to find out where his own drains led to.”

In short, he’s suited to deal with anything the plot may throw at him. This time around, crime comes close to home: Peter’s prospective brother-in-law is found dead on the lawn of Wimsey manor. The main suspects are Peter’s not-that-bereaved little sister, May;  and Peter’s older, more consciously aristocratic brother, the Duke of Denver. It’s up to Peter to clear the family name, which of course he will do because there’s no way a DUKE could be the bad guy.

“Clouds of Witness” is a marked improvement over the debut; Peter now has a family and a more logical station within his upper crust milieu. Sayers treats her aristocracy in a too-gentle satirical manner: at least in this novel, there’s never any actual danger that a proper well-bred member of the British nobility could condescend to something as emotional as murder – not while there’s dubious Socialist-sympathizers and Francophiles in the cast list.

(It should be noted that the mystery’s solution breaks one of S. S. Van Dine’s 20 Classic Rules for Writing Detective Stories and is thus potentially disappointing. I keep liking the dialogue in these novels more than I like the rather commonplace intrigues, but the trial scene is very good.)


P. S.:

“Clouds of Witness” was one of the books defaced at the Islington Public Library by English playwright and provocateur Joe Orton in the early 1960s. The guerilla-art-prank involved altering covers and jackets of dozens of library books so as to shock the unwitting patrons. Orton did some time for his crime. The squares just didn’t get it, man!

(Of course, now that the dude is safely dead, the defaced books are proudly displayed in a gallery of the library. And so it goes.)

I couldn’t resist adding the “Clouds of Witness” defacement.

ABOVE: One of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers!