No One Fights Like Gascons : Alexandre Dumas – “The 45 Guardsmen”

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ABOVE: The Three Musketeers have really let themselves go.

It’s easy to get attached to three or four musketeers; when we’re talking 45 of them, things get a little more challenging, which is why Alexandre Dumas’ “The 45” (often published in English as “The Forty-Five Guardsmen”) is by far the less popular entry in the Valois trilogy, even though it contains all the winning elements of the previous novels, ( “Queen Margot” and “La Dame de Monsoreau”.) Realistically, it’s a steep learning curve for the unconvinced or uninitiated: not counting all the returning royals and nobles from the saga (the Three Henrys, as well as Catherine de Medici and dear Queen Margot) we’re also introduced to over 20 principal characters in the first couple of chapters… and that’s before the 45 titular swashbucklers even show up! (Dumas himself points out that each of them have fascinating stories to tell, but ain’t nobody got time for THAT.)

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ABOVE: “FORTY-FIVE GUARDS?! In one night?! Well, I’m afraid the engagement is off, Monsieur.”

The 45 guardsmen were largely Gascons hired to protect Henry III, and so Dumas gets ample room to praise the bravado and braggadocio that he identifies as a trademarks of the natives of the Gascony, the French region that extends from below Bordeaux almost to Basque Country. It would almost be ethnic stereotyping, but he’s fond of Gascons, it’s clear, since he gave the place what’s easily its most famous fictional son: D’Artagnan.

Unfortunately, there’s no D’Artagnan here, since this all happens some 40 years before “Musketeer Times”, in the 1580s, toward the end of those Wars of Religion that saw the three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry of Lorraine, and Henry of Navarre) fight each other, presumably propelled by the creed that “there can be only one.” Meanwhile, in case one wasn’t confused enough, a FOURTH Henry, Henry de Joyeuse, starts stalking demonstrating his love for Diane de Meridor, the Lady of Monsoreau.

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ABOVE: Guess which of the Henrys this is!


Toward the second half of the narrative, both Diane and the returning Chicot the Jester try to elbow their way to the foreground of the narrative, but this is hard to do with so many other characters blocking their way.  The novel itself fails to push its way to the forefront of Dumas’ oeuvre. “The 45” is not recommendable as any kind of entry-point to the world of Dumas: it’s too busy with plot and intrigue (there’s at least four main storylines in here). It also feels unfinished; it’s reputed to be a bridge between “Monsoreau” and a never-written fourth book that would string together all the narrative strands of the Valois trilogy. For something like a satisfying wrap, you’ll have to follow Chicot to his cameo in Auguste Maquet’s “la Belle Gabrielle.”

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ABOVE: “Hmmm, I appreciate the rescue and all, but there’s no need to squeeze my boob that hard.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH forthe fans; a confused SHRUG for newcomers to the Valois books.


Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”


“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”













Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.



Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road? : L. Frank Baum – “The Emerald City of Oz” (Oz #6)

The Road to Oz is paved with L. Frank Baum’s cruel intentions. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could barely restrain his murderous tendencies toward Sherlock Holmes, Baum hates Oz, and his desperate need to  wipe out the land is manifest in “The Emerald City of Oz,” the sixth book in the series, published in 1910.

The Emerald City of Oz

ABOVE: Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

There’s two stories here.

On the one hand, you have the Nome King, Roquat the Red, who is recruiting an army of discontents to tunnel his way to Oz in order to destroy the city. (Roquat’s need to put an end to the land for no real reason other than “its presence bugs me” parallels Baum’s own urge.)

On the other hand, you have Dorothy’s symmetrically-opposed journey, one in which Baum displays one outburst of creativity, not unlike that of the supposed re-gathering of energy that precedes death. Wonder follows nonsensical wonder as we meet living paper dolls and pastries; kangaroos without mittens; zebras that argue geometry with crabs; Rigmaroles and Flutterbudgets; jigsaw puzzles that attempt to assemble themselves. One utters this admirable bit of wisdom:

“Madam, you have perhaps noticed that every person has some peculiarity. Mine is to scatter myself. What your own peculiarity is I will not venture to say; but I shall never find fault with you, whatever you do.”

ABOVE: She meant to say, “I’m the Kook.”


Baum unleashes a barrage of painful puns as we get to the land of Utensia, where kitchen utensils live as if in anticipation of future Pixar movies. Sample:

“Why is the colander the High Priest?”
“He’s the holiest thing we have in the kingdom.”

None of the encounters add anything to the plot; the author is simply unloading every half-formed, Oz-related ideas on the way to a conclusion of intense finality, one that shuts off all possibility for sequels:

Of course, after a three-year hiatus, L. Frank Baum said: “Screw it. Papa needs a brand new Ford Model T. Oz, here we go again!” 8 more books followed.




Can’t Spell Rome Without Emo : Stendhal – “Rome, Naples, and Florence”

“I would like, after having seen Italy, to drink the waters of Lethe at Naples, then forget it all so I could restart my journey. That’s how I want to spend the rest of my days.” – Stendhal.

ABOVE: There’s a good chance that’s actually a painting about Greece.

Few writers get a neurological condition named after them. Henri-Marie Beyle gave the world a name for what happens when one is excessively moved by a work of art, (a transcendental painting, a stirring tune, architecture at its finest): The Stendhal Syndrome. Everything shakes Stendhal to the core in “Rome, Naples and Florence,” his travel diary. He’s always half in ecstasy, whether he’s attending long-forgotten operas , growing ponderous about the ruins of Pompey, walking around the urbs aeterna, or simply flirting with the girls in Milan (most of the book takes place there, title be damned.). To stumble upon “Rome, Naples, and Florence” is like being privy to a confessional blog from two centuries ago, one written by an eloquent but decidedly emo young traveler.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH, read mostly for inspiration, (working on a story partially set in Italy.)

Captains Courageous # 4 : Emilio Salgari – “Captain Tempest”

(Re-read from childhood.)

Literature does not care for lieutenants and rarely for generals, but captains were saluted for most of the 19th century. Emilio Salgari’s “Captain Tempest” is the first in a two-volume cycle, (along with “The Lion of Damascus”). Plot-wise, it sticks to Salgari’s heroic formula, with one notable twist that finds the author at his most “progressive”: the titular captain is actually a cross-dressing Neapolitan woman, Leonora of Eboli, out to rescue a mansel-in-distress, the Vicomte de Hussiere, from the claws of the Islamic Estate, or its 16th century equivalent.

EXOTIC SETTING: 1571, Venetian Cyprus,  under siege from the Turkish forces of Mustafa Pasha.

TOPICS OF INTEREST: That old “Christians vs. Muslims” trope. One thing that Salgari’s novels have, and this I also valued in Jules Verne, is that for all the crude national stereotypes, the characters are more into globalization than into parochialism. Here, we have Neapolitan, Venetian, Cyprian, Turk, French, Greek, Polish, Arab, and Hindu characters fighting side by side and throwing slurs at each other with cosmopolitan abandonment.

HEROES: Captain Tempest, a heroic woman who has joined the Venetian resistance in drag; the imprisoned Vicomte de Hussiere; and Muley-el-Kadel, the handsome Muslim warrior who makes the Vicomte de Hussiere look extra loserish by comparison.

SIDEKICK: El-Kadur, the converted Turk who repeatedly offers to kill himself for the sake of pretty Captain Tempest; a large number of Venetians, Greeks, and Arabs who vow to do the same.

VILLAINS: Haradja, the curvy, capricious, blood-thirsty daughter of a Baja who only cares about the Coran when absolutely convenient to her plans, and who falls for both Muley and Leonor, (neither of those romances work out for Haradja, which is kinda surprising, because Salgari writes her as a genuinely hot femme fatale); Slaczinski, a coat-turning Polack.

ACTION SCENE: The siege of Famagusta is a marvel of a massacre; several thrilling scimitar fights; burning, exploding galleys.


TORTURE SCENE: The torture scene in this is one of Salgari’s creepiest: Christian prisoners are forced to earn their keep by turning into leech-fishers, an occupation that involves sinking into a swamp until their leech-covered bodies are allowed to emerge and valuable leeches are plucked from their wounded flesh. This exciting activity continues until the exsanguinated prisoners stop becoming attractive to the leeches.



“Lay down your swords, you dogs! Don’t you see this man is a Christian, like us? We are not murderers! We only kill people from different races or religions!”

CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “I knew that the Turks were God-forsaken savages; but little did I know that Polacks were even closer to the animal state.”