Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hurrah for Dumas!

Really. Dumas is wonderful. And great in bed.

I did finally finish The Last Cavalier late last year.

The first couple hundred pages moved swiftly, full of Napoleonic politics I couldn't always follow, but intensely gripping nonetheless. So much was I glutted, and confused, I had to take a break for a few weeks.

I hesitated to pick it up again — Dumas had exhausted me — but I did. To this point, the last cavalier, Count de Saint-Hermine, was a figure in the shadows as a Royalist and a potential threat to Napoleon, and about to marry into his circle, but circumstance whisked him away and he was left to languish in prison for a few years. On page 348, he is finally released, and with part 2, the adventure really begins.

Pirates, tigers, pythons, sharks. A girl who dies of love for him. Three hundred pages of completely unbelievable wild exploits. Dumas kept me up late; I rose sleepily cranky, dying to know what happens next.

I have 2 gripes:

1. The English translation is in desperate need of proofreading. I usually manage to turn off this part of my brain when reading for pleasure; it's rare that a typo pulls me out the fictional world I'm immersed in. Here I counted dozens of errors, and the magic of the story surely kept as many more from being noticed. A shame, for a manuscript whose publication is being marketed as important.

2. All who set out on this reading know the novel was "unfinished," that it might be in need of some editing, of tightening, of tying up loose ends. The volume is published with an appendix containing 3 chapters written by Dumas that don't directly follow from where the serial breaks off. That's fine; that's what happens when you die before you're finished. However, editor Claude Schopp took it upon himself to supply a conclusion to the episode that left us hanging. Scholar though he may be, familiar with all Dumas's phrasings and likely able to map all his plot developments and provide a very educated guess about where they might lead (besides being in possession of Dumas's notes), I think his 9-page addition was neither necessary nor right.

But. Great book. Delightful.

The characters in their exploits sometimes approach caricature. Their moral dimensions are at times simplistic, but there is no action taken devoid of one. Ultimately there's such fullness in Dumas's people, such joie de vivre in the telling, there is de la vie in what's told.

One thing that struck me. Dumas's character descriptions — of our beloved Count, but also of Napoleon, of Nelson, of advisors and friends — very often include a reference to age, expressing an awe that someone could accomplish so much, live so many adventures, command such respect and responsibility at so young an age. All so young! I notice, maybe, because I am becoming somewhat age-sensitive, marvelling at what others achieve by age 25 or 30. I suppose it's only natural old-man Dumas might obsess over such details, suprisingly only because he himself produced so much in his lifetime.

Some introductory comments.

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