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.



Nothing Like a Dame : Alexandre Dumas – “La Dame de Monsoreau” or “Chicot the Jester”

Alexande Dumas’ (and Auguste Maquet’s) “La Dame de Monsoreau” picks up six years after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre from “Queen Margot”. Catherine of Medici’s pervasive influence still contaminates the body politic like a traceless poison. Her son, Henry III, a king as devted to his prayers as he is to his young strapping friends (the so-called “mignons”), sees his throne threatened by two Dukes, (D’Anjou and De Guise) not to mention his namesake of Navarre, (who, spoilers, will in time step up to the role of Henry IV, since Henry III is “the last Valois”.)

But this is one of Dumas’ most accomplished romances, so those Wars of Religion, in which the devout happily murdered their brethren  at the drop of a Pater Noster, take a backseat to the love story of Bussy D’Amboisse, (proud and heroic), and beautiful Diane de Meridor, the titular dame. A series of dastardly abductions and attempts upon Diane’s virtue have resulted in a forced, exceedingly unhappy marriage between her  and the despicable and decrepit Count of Monsoreau, whose all-encompassing jealousy is, if we’re to be fair, more than justified. Bussy is too honorable to pursue a married woman; should the Count of Monsoreau catch a sword to the chest in a duel, though, then the widow will be up for grabs, so almost every male character in the novel is out to court Lady Di and stab Monsoreau – except King Henry III, who was “immune to the delights of the gentler sex”, if Dumas’ portrait has any accuracy to it, (not always a given.)

Both of those plot threads, the historical and the romantic, present Dumas in fine form, nimbly swinging back and forth between scenes of romantic melodrama and heightened courtly tension. But it’s something else that propels “La Dame de Monsoreau” to the front ranks of Dumas’ histories: the portrait of Chicot the Jester. Now, whether Chicot belongs more to Dumas or Maquet is worth arguing about (my own theories lean to the latter.) But less arguable is that the novel’s alternate title, “Chicot the Jester,” is fully earned.

Chicot, irrepressible prankster and soldier of absurdism, is the King’s official stand-up comedian, and unofficial counsellor. The real Chicot inherited his role from the equally famous Triboulet, but no dwarf or hunchback was he: out of the famous court jesters, Chicot was the only one authorized to carry a rapier, at a time when bearing arms was no constitutional right but a King-given honor. Equally apt at literal and metaphorical ripostes, Chicot earned general admiration, and poets of the time dedicated ballads to him:

“Chicot was once a fool, and like a fool would prance,

But lately he’s become the wisest man in France,

Punching with his punchlines everything in sight:

When the kings are wrong, the buffoons are right.”

The Valois trilogy continues with “The Forty-Five.”




Detective, Monk : Umberto Eco – “The Name of the Rose”

“In (those) years… there was a widespread conviction that one should write only out of a commitment to the present, in order to change the world. Now, after ten years or more, the man of letters (restored to his loftiest dignity) can happily write out of pure love of writing.”


Umberto Eco died recently; his seven novels and countless essays are there as testimony of his pure love for writing. His work blended the most challenging of intellectual assaults with an ability to entertain: when he wrote “The Name of the Rose” he seemed to know exactly how many pages in Latin readers could withstand before flinging the book away. That book’s worldwide success could hardly be repeated, (there’s no film of “Foucault’s Pendulum” starring Sean Connery) but Eco’s literary influence never waned. It’s beyond me to comment on his work on his achievements as a critic of eminence, but I’m re-reading his novels chronologically. Obits often compels us to do these things.

It’s not a hard task, no dry slow slog through some academic’s arid pronouncements. Eco drew zestfully from all sorts of cultural wells, and though nothing of mixing the waters. In “The Name of the Rose,” when he names his detective monk William Baskerville, you smile at the nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Eco could allude to Alexandre Dumas (the poisoned-book twist is taken from “Queen Margot”; the intro owes to the preface from “The Three Musketeers”) or to Jorge Luis Borges (the character of the blind librarian Jorge de Burgos; any number of allusions to mirrors and labyrinths and mysterious manuscripts). And he could be frequently funny: it’s what made all that erudition palatable. He knew semiotics and semen come from the same source. No matter how grizzly the murders related in this most literate of whodunits, there’s a sardonic vein of humor running throughout: when its philosophically-inclined clergymen heatedly argue theological minutiae- in linguam Latinam as often as not- they can be penetratingly brilliant one moment, and then wind up resembling children busy debating the relative merits of Batman vs. The Joker at the playground.



A Very Long Engagement : Alessandro Manzoni – “The Betrothed”

ABOVE: Betrothed, Bewildered, Bebothered Part 2.

Completely unrelated to Walter Scott’s “The Betrothed”.

Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” for quite a while trailed only Bocaccio’s “The Decameron” and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” as one of Italy’s most beloved and significant works of literature. Written in the 1820’s and fixed up in the 1840’s, “I Promessi Sposi” is a historical novel set in 1628, (or, as I invariably think of it when Cardinal Richelieu gets referenced, “Musketeer Times.”) Does it deserve its fame as the greatest Italian novel? Pope Francis apparently loves it and recommends it to young couples about to marry.

Pope Francis ain’t the most reliable of literary judges, but it’s easy to see why he likes it. A novel best understood in Catholic contexts, the thick of it is dedicated to the activities of clergy of varying ethical fiber, and Manzoni does a decent job of portraying both religious leaders of actual morals, and the, shall we say, more dubious ones. I’m sure the Pope has met both kind frequently, and I can quite understand why he gets a chuckle out of this. The problem with Pope Francis’ admiration is that “The Betrothed” masquerades as a primer on how to be a good faithful Catholic, but it is actually an accidental satire on the so-called sanctity of marriage, and on the absurdity of taking abstinence to the verge of stupidity, (to the benefit of operatic drama).

Renzo and Lucia love each other and are about to be happily wed, but of course they mustn’t have fun with each other, not before marriage. It’s pretty clear that Renzo has been unsuccessfully begging for some pre-marital affection:

“For pity’s sake, do not talk thus; do not talk so fiercely!” said Lucia imploringly.
“You to implore me!” said he, somewhat appeased. “You! who will do nothing for me! What proof do you give me of your affection? Have I not supplicated in vain? Have I been able to obtain——”
“Yes, yes,” replied Lucia, hastily.

Lucia’s prudish ways catch the eye of a dastardly, mustache-twirling local proto-Mafioso, who intimidates a corrupt local priest into refusing to officiate the ceremony. The villain, the Spaniard Don Rodrigo, wants to “seduce” (rape, we call it now) the girl but, good religious person that he is, he’s only interested in raping her if she’s still an unmarried virgin. (Is Lucia a symbol of chaste Italy? Rodrigo of foreign occupation? Perhaps.) Much unnecessary pain and drama happens for a couple of years, all of which would have easily been averted if Renzo and Lucia had done what was natural and holy and sexy in the first place. Also, they should have told the pervy villain and the worthless priest to, pardon my Italian, “Vaffanculo!”

ABOVE: Manzoni, man!

Renzo is as generic a “handsome young man” as they come, and all I can say about the damsel in distress here is that Lucia is a pretty name. Their chemistry is unimportant since they’re separated throughout, (“The Betrothed” has mockingly been called a romance without romance.) The novel’s literary merits lie in the characterizations of the many peripheral characters: the cowardly Don Abbondio who’ll do anything to avoid his priestly duties; the saintly Fra Cristoforo who might as well come with a tacked-on halo. The thing is, while Don Abbondio is a great comic creation that would have done fine in a Dickens novel, the admirable priests are a little too admirable for their own good, and seem to have been thrown there to distract the more devout readers from Manzoni’s real marks: the questionable mores of a place where the good, poor people are bound into misery by Catholic strictures, while the bad, rich people do as they please because they’re in control of how the Church functions in the first place. (Shhh, don’t tell the Pope that this a perfectly accurate reading of the novel.)

“Thus goes the world, or rather, thus it went in the seventeenth century.

“The Betrothed” is very enjoyable throughout; in particular, its depiction of the plague in Milan in 1630 stands out as a vivid, chilling journalistic detour. It would sit decently alongside Walter Scott and mid-tier Dumas, but in translation it has neither the verbal authority of the former nor the suspenseful plotting of the latter. This is all different in the Italian original, where the novel is a seminal unifying work: what Italian literary language should sound like was still in dispute until Manzoni came along. While the novel earns its reputation, this is less a comment on its quality or popularity, than it is a comment on the state of Italian literature in the 19th century. (I would suggest that Carlo Collodi’s “Pinochio” is actually the best-KNOWN Italian novel worldwide, but obviously we can blame that on a Mr. Disney.)

RATING : MASTERPIECE in Italiano, but really COOL in English.


Just found a hilarious review by Edgar Allan Poe of “The Betrothed”, in which he also evokes Scott and manages to tear a dark and stormy hole on Bulwer Lytton. Poor Bulwer Lytton. (Is there a collected edition of Poe’s criticism out there? I want it now.)