More about Counts! They used to CONtrol “countys”. The English word Count is French Comte; Spanish Conde; Italian Conte; Turkish Kont; Irish, er, “Cunta” (be careful how you pronounce it.) It has Latin roots in “Companion,” as in Companion to an Emperor, leader of a military Company. Its Saxon / British equivalent is “Earl” but, interestingly, there is no such thing as an “Earless” : An Earl’s wife is called a Countess.
And here I am reading “Count Robert of Paris,” one of Walter Scott’s “lesser, latter” novels. This is an epic of unfulfilled ambition, about the first Crusade and the declining days of the Byzantine empire (torn between burgeoning Christendom and the Ottoman Turks). It is not much read today, and unjustly considered his worst. Scott himself referred to the novel as “no better than mended China” and struggled through its composition; the two strokes he suffered while writing it didn’t help. If “Count Robert of Paris” is his “worst,” I must delve deeper into Scott’s novels, because this is a novel of great interest and fascinating oddities, with an undeniable creative genius commanding things. The bad reputation is only relative to his earlier successes. As a critic once quipped: “Everyone who has NOT read ‘Count Robert of Paris’ knows it to be unreadable.”
“Count Robert of Paris” takes off from a minor historical event, in which the titular Count, an “uncouth” Frank leader, interrupted diplomatic negotiations between his troops and the refined Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus by casually – and sacrilegiously- sitting on the Emperor’s vacant throne. Scott sees the moment as emblematic of the complex crucible that led to the Crusades: Greeks, Romans, Turks, Normans, Saxons, Ethiopians, all clash and collude throughout the novel, as they do in “The Alexiad,” the historical chronicle on which Scott relies. (He also indulges in, as Isaac Asimov would put it, “a little bit of cribbin’ / from the works of Edward Gibbon.”)
“The Alexiad” has the distinction of being the rare historical epic written by a woman: the “born-and-bred-to-the-purple” Princess Anna Comnena. Priceless to historians, “The Alexiad” looks at the first Crusade through the eyes of the Byzantine elite. Sure, it comes with some obvious partiality- a daughter is praising her Imperial father’s military deeds and all. But it’s also laden with wisdom and flights of philosophical “poesy”:
“The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration; as the playwright says, it ‘brings to light that which was unseen and shrouds from us that which was manifest’. Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of Time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.”
Anna Comnena figures prominently in “Count Robert of Paris,” but as with every other player in the story, we’re given a deft portrait instead of a moving picture. Scott assembles quite a few interesting characters aside from Anna: Emperor Alexius; Count Robert; Brenhilda, Robert’s Xena-like warrior wife; Hereward, the Anglo-Saxon hero and true protagonist of the novel; Agelastes, the treacherous philosopher; Diogenes, the even more philosophical slave… But Scott seems uncertain of what he wants the characters to DO: only Sylvan the Smart, Killer Orangutan can be said to truly ACT, rather than “witness” or “plot”. Things build up at length only to end abruptly and inconclusively. It all feels like a prologue to a brand new stage in Scott’s career. Instead, we were left with a botched epilogue.
Scott is not talked about enough these days, outside of hard-core fans of the historical adventure novel such as meself, and he is largely absent from the current curriculum, (unless you’re in Edinburgh.) Even the once seemingly perennial popularity of “Ivanhoe” has waned. The most eminent “man of letters” of his time, his overwrought style now seems archaic to most, and his love of dialect can easily turn off non-linguists and slow otherwise interesting novels to a crawl. (Here “Count of Robert of Paris” accidentally succeeds by being uncharacteristically set in ancient Constantinople. None of the folksy Scottish nonsense that made some passages of “The Astrologer” darn near unreadable for me.)
But what at first might feel belabored ends up seeming playful and engaging. If you can accept that his characters will never converse when they can speechify, then you’ll be fine. He remains one of the all-time great novelists, in the “big” sense of the word : capable of creating a world peopled by memorable men and women of varying natures, and setting them off against each other while having sympathy for his characters. Pamphleteers write about good guys vs. bad guys. Novelists write about people who want one thing vs. people who want another thing.
He even has sympathy for Sylvan the Smart, Killer Orangutan! Did I mention him? Let’s mention him again! (This was 10 years before Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”… and a century before Edgar Wallace’s “The Avenger”.)
RATING: COOL at points; ambitious throughout; unsatisfying overall. But honestly, the killer orangutan was enough of a selling point for me.