Alexandre Dumas père was, in real life, a character as colorful as his heroes. He was the son of Napoleon’s famous mulatto general, Dumas, became a successful playwright, had numerous mistresses, took part in the revolution of 1830, spent extravagantly, built the Chateau de Monte-Cristo, and fled to Belgium to escape his creditors. Of his two illegitimate children, Alexandre Dumas fils also became a noted author. Dumas is best known for his historical romances, beginning with The Three Musketeers, a perennial favorite that today is still a rollicking story that has spawned film adaptations and a host of imitators.
I actually have been interested in reading Dumas’ masterpiece for some time, simply because I knew it was the starting point for Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards (as, in fact Dumas’ works have provided the core for Brust’s own Khaavren Romances). Brust’s affectionate parody is delightful (and terrifically sophisticated — one of those works that becomes more rewarding and more entertaining the more you know about literature in general), and sparked my interest in its ostensible source.
The story is pretty well-known, but like so many classic works adapted for popular culture, may need some reminding as to details, for which I recommend the reader read the book — it’s a fast read, and the translation I used is rendered into smooth modern English. And frankly, too much happens for me to devote space in a review trying to outline it for you. Suffice it to say that it concerns the adventures of d’Artagnan, a young and impoverished Gascon of noble birth, as he first journeys to Paris to seek his fortune and then becomes first a King’s Guard and then a Musketeer. It is the time of Louis XIII, a fairly ineffectual king; Cardinal Richelieu, the real power in the realm; the Duke of Buckingham, who is in love with Queen Anne of France and is France’s bitter enemy: in short, an arena for intrigue, seduction, dueling, and lively adventures involving characters from all walks of life.
D’Artagnan’s friends, Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, already Musketeers when he meets them, are an odd group; in fact, all the personnel display quirks and mannerisms that make them into strongly individual characters. There is throughout a noticeable zest for experience, and, true to the form, everything is a little bit bigger than life.
There is also a certain element of innocence in this novel — although Dumas was not very careful about historical accuracy (meaning he didn’t really bother with it at all), one does get the sense of an earlier time, when life was much freer and more risky than anything we’re used to and people were, perhaps, a little less complicated. I can’t help but feel that there is also an element of satire in this story, if for no other reason than Dumas’ repeated observations that people in the period of the story (the 17th century) did not have the same standards as the people in his time (the 19th century) — certainly a means of holding up the behavior of one period or the other for comment, and given the course of Dumas’ own life (and, thinking about it, the difference between expressed ideals and real behavior in the 19th century), I’m not sure the comment was about the 17th century.
About the translation: those who have run across Brust’s parodies, or perhaps other renderings of Dumas’ works, may be hesitant about the language, seeing in their minds’ eyes a forest of arcane constructions and paralyzing formality, punctuated by flocks of “Zounds!” and “Egads!” I found this translation to be fluent and easy to read, with little in the way of archaisms (which often become somewhat self-conscious in a modern translation) or bizarre usages. In fact, one thing that Brust did in his stories was to pull out all the stops in his rendering of dialogue, so that exchanges between the characters in The Phoenix Guards or Five Hundred years After become very funny in themselves simply because of the broad exaggeration of “period” usages that becomes a running joke.
This is also a book that’s hard to put down — it moves very fast, with plot wrinkle after plot wrinkle. And it’s fun.
(Bantam Books, 1984)