Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Death and glory!

Finally I finished Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask. It's very funny, except for that almost everybody dies.

For example, as far as funny goes, when a messenger arrives for the governor of the Bastille at some ungodly hour and he is finally granted entrance,
addressing Aramis, [the governor] added in a lower tone of voice, 'Do you know what it is? I warrant it is something about as interesting as this: "Keep fire away from you powder magazine," or, "Keep an eye on so-and-so; he is an expert gaol-breaker."'


And on it goes sarcastically about, essentially, the stupidity of office memos.

Dumas also imagines some witty exchanges among poets and artists — friends of the court — including Molière and La Fontaine.

I was inspired to spend time with Dumas after reading Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Queen of the South, which refers quite a bit to The Count of Monte Cristo, which I haven't read and which would've been a more appropriate follow-up reading candidate, but somehow I found myself face to face with The Man instead (I'd read The Three Musketeers year ago). So here we are.

My reading of the book got off to a difficult start, if not exactly a slow one. The political and romantic machinations amid which I found myself were so fast and furious that I was wishing for diagrams to plot out the characters' relationships to one another. I was plagued with questions such as, "Who's this Raoul fellow?"

The introduction alerted me to the proper sequence of Musketeer stories: The Man in the Iron Mask is but one section, with a disputed starting point, of The Vicomte de Bragelonne — none other than the aforementioned Raoul, son(!?) of Athos — which was the serialized follow-up to The Three Musketeers and its sequel, Twenty Years After, the latter of which I've not read and familiarity with which might've eased my entrance into the intrigue.

One of Dumas's biographers, André Maurois, is quoted as saying:
"Does Dumas make us think? Not very often. Dream? Never. Go on turning the pages? Always."

And so I turned some 600 pages.

I can't believe everyone dies. Everyone except Aramis. And Aramis should've died. It was his doing that caused so much misfortune to befall so many around him. And him a man of God! It's distasteful to watch a musketeer become this. Does Aramis have more adventures, I wonder. I hope he dies a miserable death. I'd like to read about it.

And d'Artagnan! Was it worth it? How did your ambition come to be stripped of your honour and integrity, to be so naked. Oh, d'Artagnan, you disappoint me. (I used to have such a crush on you.) You had the death you deserve.

Their glory days are so far behind them.

Did you see the movie? With those gloriously cast aging musketeers? The book is nothing like that. The movie picks up a plot point that in my edition begins on page 178 (of 616) and carries on for maybe two hundred pages, but it's difficult to measure precisely because the movie goes off to resolve that plot in a wildly different (if still thrillingly entertaining) manner. (That bit where the 4 of them charge the line of musketeers at the Bastille and they're shocked when the smoke clears to find themselves still standing — I love that scene. But this scene is not to be found in the book; I don't think the 4 of them are ever even together on the same page in the book.)

The story is so much more than who is on the throne of France, or to whom it rightly belongs. If anything it lends import to the the tiniest gestures, merest glances, careless words, and romantic whims that affect matters of state.

To this end I find the title odd and misleading, as the title character is on stage for merely a few scenes, his only purpose to reassert the question of the kingliness of the king. Which is a great question. While the theory regarding the identity of the mysterious prisoner in the Bastille is dramatic, Dumas could've effected the plot bits of treason and exile with equally conspiratorial and less far-fetched devices to ensure the coming of age — solidification — of the king. Whatever.

I just hope they keep discovering more Dumas manuscripts. I eat this stuff up.
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