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”

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“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.

RATNG: COOL!

 

Lit Up : M. L. Stedman – “The Light Between Oceans”; Anthony Doerr – “All the Light We Cannot See”

ABOVE: “I’m going to show you my lighthouse. Yeah, that’s my name for it.”

A lighthouse in post-WW1 Australia provides the picturesque excuse for M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans.” Now, this is a very pretty romance, for the most part; a Nicholas Sparks pot-boiler solemnized by history and setting. The premise is genuinely good: Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife, Isabel, are still mourning over her inability to bear a pregnancy to term. They stumble upon a dying man and a baby, presumable the dying man’s daughter. The couple then makes an ethically questionable choice that is justified by their grief and their location: they keep the baby and raise it as their own.

The baby, of course, belongs to a family that knows as much about grief and loss as the couple.

The first two thirds are absorbing: lyrical language, sympathetic characters, enough Aussie-ness to make the foreign reader feel like they’re getting their educational worth…That will do for most readers. But the resolution disappointed me.

SPOILERS:

A tear-jerker should accept its intentions. Even at their little-girl-killing worst, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens had the courage of their convictions. But “The Light Between Oceans” half-asses its tear-jerking. We’re promised melodrama of nearly operatic power. Instead, we get a climax that is nearly undone by a triple set of flaws.

First: An element is introduced for cheap suspense- and it does not pay off. (It is hinted again and again that Australia’s wild life, in particular snakes-in-Eden and scorpions, will bring about a deadly denouement. They don’t, and it pisses off the Anton Chekhov in me.)

ABOVE: They even put the frikkin scorpion in the cover!

Second: The potentially horrifying climax is built upon the frustrating, clichéd, ridiculous contrivance of people refusing to tell a simple truth out of proud reticence EVEN IF IT MEANS KILLING SOMEONE THEY LOVE.

Third: Let’s say we accept the melodrama and we’re biting our fingernails over it. I half did! But THEN- it all comes to naught. Without further spoiling: imagine if a novel’s final act was about how a husband refused to give his wife an alibi because he was upset about a cold soup, so he puts her in a position to be given the death sentence- and then a judge was like: “Eh, let’s give her two months community service instead. Oh, and the couple should make up.” VERY DEFLATING.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH


“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.
—Joseph Goebbels”

ABOVE: All the poetry we cannot grasp

Anthony Doerr’s WWII novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” ticks off any number of crowd-pleasing melodramatic tropes on its way to some eventual Oscar-bait cinematic adaptation two or three years down the line. Pulitzer prize winners have rarely been this mild and conservative, (“Did you know that Nazis suck?” might very well be its most provocative statement.) I’m a sucker for this stuff, (how can I resist the fact that Marie Laure, a blind French girl, is a Braille-reading fan of both Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas?). But I’m hating on it because nearly universal praise should always be punctured a little.  Doerr can endure my insignificant hate. This IS a lovely novel, a delicate novel, but surely these are times when Pulitzer prizes should go to sturdier stuff, not to lovely and delicate novels about little blind French girls and sweet German boys forced into the horrors of war!  (The National Book Award did indeed go to “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which caused an uproar among the very, very small circle of people who care about such things.) “All The Light we Cannot See” is a very conventional, respectable novel, is what I’m saying. But, I mean. WWII? Again? It’s kind of playing it  safe, isn’t it?

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

 

 

 

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.

MEAN ANIMALS: LEECHES.

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.

BIZARRE MOMENT: DID I MENTION THE LEECHES?

DIALOGUE GEM:

“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.”

RATING: Kinda COOL!

Haitian Butterfly : M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel – “Rope”

“Everywhere in the world, the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit, indifferent to all risks. He drops anchor at random.”- Giaccomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” as quoted on the liner notes to Weezer’s “Pinkerton.”

The tale of the invading Yank who impregnates the naïve native only to abandon her to the painful consequences goes back much farther than Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” It is, after all, a stark symbol of colonialism’s callous penetration made palatable by the operatic melodrama. It’s a story that can inspire both Boublil and Schomberg’s “Miss Saigon” and Weezer’s “Pinkerton”; it lends itself to revisiting and re-setting.

M. Ketsia Theodore-Pharel’s “Rope” takes the basic “Butterfly” concept and sets it not in the East, but much closer to American shores: Haiti in the 20s and 40s. It’s useful to know that in 1915, U.S. Marines occupied Port-Au-Prince in efforts to a) punish the popular lynching of U.S.-friendly dictator Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, b) protect the interests of the Haitian-American Sugar Company and c) keep the dreaded Imperial Huns’ supposed claws out of the Caribbean, roughly in that order.

Colvin Donner is one of those Marines, a rapist and an expert tracker whose grand achievement is to take care of the hanging of Chango Champagne Pepla, a legendary rebel “caco.” The hanging takes place with the novel’s titular rope, one that holds a curse which changes Colvin’s life, and leads him, curiously enough, to evangelism. Cut to 1945: that rope ties together the lives of Colvin; his son, Robert Donner; and the “Butterfly” of this tale, Moiselle, a girl who, like many before and after, believes that marrying a foreigner is the only ticket out of a limited Third World life.

Haiti’s society of the period is envisioned vibrantly: this is a locale where seemingly strict racial and class lines are frequently crossed; so are the lines between the mundane and the magical. The action scenes in “Rope” are as brutal as the romance between Donner and Moiselle is tender, (but is it a plot spoiler to mention it is doomed?) One only wishes Theodore-Pharel had provided more context to fill in the historical background; a certain familiarity with Haiti is assumed, and those who don’t necessarily know a lot about that country’s history beyond Toussaint Louverture and Papa Doc Duvalier (guilty!) might feel compelled to seek additional info elsewhere. It doesn’t matter: abundant plot twists (and knots) will entertain the rest, as the novel unfolds to its sequel-setting conclusion. “Rope” appears to be the first in a purported “Grace Donner” trilogy.

RATING: COOL!