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.




Captains Courageous # 3 : Paul Feval – “Captain Phantom”

ABOVE: Ghost Rider

Another French historical romance marked by heroic captaineering (just like Michel Zevaco’s “The Captain” and Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse”) Paul Feval’s “Captain Phantom” is set largely in Spain and chronicles a colorful multinational conflict: Napoleon’s Peninsular War of the early 1800s, in which Spain, England, Scotland, Portugal and France all got to unfurl flags as they wrestled for control of Iberia.

The prolific Paul Feval is a great French romancier who staked out a little piece of my adventure-loving heart growing up, (with seeming perennials like “Le Bossu” and “Les Habits Noirs”), but who has practically no claim to fame in the U.S. (Although Feval is just now being reconsidered as an unlikely early branch in the fantasy and horror family tree, thanks to novels like “The Vampire Countess,” and “The Village of the Vampires” – which were written decades before Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”)


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,” (a novel that, 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.


#Yesallwomeninthe1600s : Theophile Gautier – “Captain Fracasse”

The Internet may have discovered sexual harassment last month, (and may abandon itself to some new wave of outrage next month) but women have been subject to pretty odious, relentless persecution throughout the sad, sexist annals of human history. Theophile Gautier’s “Captain Fracasse” is set in the France of Louis XIII (1601-1643, a. k. a. “Musketeer time”) and yet it works hard to answer a question that has plagued the female of the species from times immemorial: What are you supposed to do when some deluded dude just won’t take “no” for an answer?

According to Gautier, you get ANOTHER big, strong guy to stab the perv in the lung. It’s not the best feminist answer, but who can argue with results?

ABOVE: No means no!

In the 1820s, most of the literary luminaries of French Romanticism managed to cram themselves into Victor Hugo’s drawing room, in what was known as the Cenacle: Dumas, Musset, Balzac, Sainte-Beuve, Prosper Merimee…  Theophile Gautier was there, but he was wild enough to spin off the circle into his own satellite. The Petit Cenacle was termed thusly half in affection, half in acknowledgment that its irreverent, borderline Bohemian members (Nerval, Petrus Borel)  would not achieve quite the same level of glory as the parent congregation. Gautier had many achievements as poet and critic, though, including his popularization of the “Art for Art Sake’s” doctrine; he wrote an early vampire story in “La Morte Amoureuse,” and what may be the first big tale about mummies, “Le Roman de la Momie.”

ABOVE: With a pretty mustache like that? Of course Gautier knew about sexual harassment!

But Gautier’s most lasting success has been “Captain Fracasse,” a cloak-and-dagger romance that had several film adaptations last century, (one directed by Abel Gance in much the same style as “The Tower of Nesle.”)

ABOVE: I will defend the honor of this golden vagina!

The young Baron de Sigognac is living on reduced means in his dilapidated mansion when a band of traveling players shows up looking for shelter. It takes little more than a pleasant dinner to convince Sigognac to join the colorful thespians in their journey, and soon he adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse. That’s a pun worth explaining: “fracasser” means to smash things, to break down ; a “fracasse” would be a fray, a big mess of a fight; it also implies a debacle, a failure. Captain Disaster would be an appropriate translation.

Sigognac has fallen in love, (a proper, respectful, requited love), with Isabelle, the ingenue of the crew. Isabelle is modest, sweet, perfect and boring in every way, and it takes only the briefest mention of her absent parents to suggest to us that she must have noble blood and may well turn out to be Louis XIII’s hidden daughter by the novel’s conclusion. She has eyes for no one but Sigognac, but has attracted the unwanted attention of the Duke of Vallombreuse. Vallombreuse is a despicable cad who one imagines carrying a pouch of roofies under his cloak, getting pumped up for his date rape by listening to whatever was the 1600s version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” ( probably Bach’s “Tocatta in A Minor – Molto Molestoso.” )

ABOVE: “I know you want it… Must wanna get nasty… But you’re a good girl…. heyheyhey!”

Vallombreuse can’t quite believe Isabelle isn’t giving it up, even after he’s basically hurled diamonds at her face, so he does what any sensible gentleman in the 17th century would do: he contracts brigands to murder Captain Fracasse, and then abducts Isabelle. I know what you’re thinking: Surely Isabelle is seduced by this earnest display of affection? After all, few suitors are willing to go that extra-mile that involves killing and kidnapping!

But the unappreciative Isabelle is inexplicably angered by Vallombreuse’s maneuvers. Vallombreuse is of course too noble to actually reduce himself to the role of rapist, (or else Gautier is too shy to go there). The duke simply locks the actress in a room and waits for her mood to be more favorable.

This isn’t “Clarissa,” not entirely, but the situation will be familiar to readers of Samuel Richardson. It’s something to reflect on that, at one point in time, being abducted and brow-beaten into sex wasn’t a freak criminal situation but a relatable trope, something to contend with and prepare for: since women were more or less sequestered in the patriarchal home waiting for marriages in which they had limited say, both unwanted abductions and desirable elopements functioned through similar mechanisms.

Meanwhile, Captain Fracasse shows his would-be killers his fancy fencing moves, wins the fight, and goes to the rescue of Isabelle. The modern reader may dismiss Isabelle as a damsel in distress, in that she doesn’t save herself from the situation – but isn’t that yet another form of victim blaming? (“Why wasn’t she strong and empowered? It’s like she was asking for it!”) It doesn’t matter if she isn’t strong and empowered; most PEOPLE, men or women, aren’t particularly strong or empowered outside of our psycho-therapeutic parlance. It’s irrelevant: weakness doesn’t justify abuse.

So what matters is that Fracasse arrives and puts his sword through the Duke of Vallombreuse’s left lung.

Up to this point, “Captain Fracasse” has been a fine romance. The characters are stock, (literally, in the case of the theater troupe.) The history is non-existent, (notice I can’t tell you where exactly in the 40 years of Louis XIII’s reign it takes place, and I doubt Gautier could either.) It lacks the wit or drama of a Dumas, the mad over-plotting of a Zevaco, or the relatively fleshed out personalities of a Feval, but  it has charm and heart, specially whenever Gautier details the family life of the theater people.

ABOVE: Fracasse and the troupe

… But after the sword fight between Vallombreuse and Fracasse the whole set-up crumbles. It’s the worst sort of crumbling, the slow-motion, brick-by-brick un-mantling of the facade that has you looking at your watch wondering how long it can possibly take for a building to collapse. It’s not even crumbling, really; it’s deterioration.


Most stories wrap-up after the villain is eliminated and the lovers reunited. “Captain Fracasse” does too, but the wrapping is done very, very slowly by arthritic hands. After Vallombreuse is defeated, his father shows up, to reveal that Isabelle is actually Vallombreuse’s sister and therefore the near rape was 100 times creepier. That means Isabel and Captain Fracasse can marry, since she’s now nobility and no longer a paint-faced, hell-bound theater leper. Then we’re forced to watch with a profound lack of interest while Vallombreuse struggles between life and death (with Isabelle and Fracasse watching tenderly over him!) It’s not exactly Little Nell’s death, let me tell you; the reader will more likely feel alarmed by the possibility that the mustache-twirling douche might LIVE.

Which he does, and what follows is beyond absurd. Let me condense:

VALLOMBREUSE: “Oooh, that sword in the lung has changed my outlook in life. I woke up from my coma respecting women and their right to sexual autonomy!”

FRACASSE: “And also my right to not be murdered?”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Of course, you big lug! You’re family now!”

ISABELLE: “OOOH! I love you, brother! You are the best brother a sister could ever have! Give me a big hug!”

*they hug*

ISABELLE: “Oooh. That’s a tight hug. Ok, brother, you can stop hugging now. Let go. Stop. Stop now. STOP!!!”

VALLOMBREUSE: “Pardon moi, sister! Garcons will be garcons!”

FRACASSE: “Ay ay ay. Thanksgivings are gonna be awkward!”

*The three of men chortle merrily.*


ABOVE: DUDE. She ain’t even conscious. That ain’t right.

RATING : COOL! for the early sections, SHRUG for the denouement.