Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Monday Classic: Twenty Years After

Now here's a Monday classic that is in fact a classic according to Oxford University Press*, but which you'll never find on any high school reading list, anywhere.  I attribute this to the fact that Twenty Years After, Alexandre Dumas's first sequel to The Three Musketeers, is as exciting as any book could be and only marginally depressing, unless you're particularly attached to Charles I's head**.

Twenty Years After picks up precisely where you would expect it to, in chronological relation to The Three Musketeers.  D'Artagnan, now serving Cardinal Mazarin (the great Cardinal Richelieu's successor), is given a mission: to find his three friends and bring them into the Cardinal's service.  There's quite a bit more going on; Paris is in turmoil, as it seems as if Paris has always been.  I see no reason to give a plot summary, as Dumas is so much more fun when you read his books without any spoilers.  No summary could do his intricate plotting justice.

What I will say, though, is that Twenty Years After is a true sequel to the great Musketeers, not only in its content (the major villain in Twenty Years After is intimately connected to the villain of the previous book, and the political intrigue is both involved and deadly), but also in its tone.  While our heroes have grown older, and in some cases wiser, they are nonetheless as ready to draw swords or to climb up to a lady's bedroom in the middle of the night as they ever were.  Dumas is also the master of drawn-out revenge and poetic justice, a talent he most perfectly displays in The Count of Monte Cristo but from which he gets plenty of mileage in both The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

I don't think I need to recommend Dumas to those who already enjoy a good sword fight with plenty of aristocratic French insults thrown in.  Cloaks are thrown back, hats are shot off with pistols, all kinds of limbs are run through; I can never get enough of this.  For any of my readers who feel the same, I'd be preaching to the converted.  And if any of my readers aren't fans of this style, then there's nothing I can say except, please do enjoy the new Philip Roth, since someone has to.  Dumas can be more than a little melodramatic at times; characters turn purple with rage and bite their handkerchiefs to pieces in moments of great emotion (no, I'm not making this up).  This might be a drawback for some, but I'm about to tell you why it shouldn't be.

Paradoxically, Dumas is to my knowledge both the greatest writer of melodrama and also one of the best writers of true, heart-wrenching drama ever to pen a novel (and sometimes on the same page).  I attribute this to characterization.  In The Three Musketeers and its sequels, d'Artagnan and the eponymous three are consistently dramatic, rather than melodramatic.  Even in moments when you should be rolling your eyes at the over-the-top quality of it all, they hold you spellbound, while secondary characters often go noticeably over the top at the drop of a chewed-up handkerchief.  I don't know if the contrast is simply down to Dumas's investment in these characters, or if he actually thought about how he would write them differently from their supporting cast.  Honestly, I would vote for a combination of both.  But anyone who dismisses Dumas as a writer of melodramatic historical potboilers should think again.

In that vein, I'd like to comment on one of the most striking aspects of Twenty Years After, a quality which is also possessed by all of Dumas's best works.  Dumas managed to consistently write thrilling, often funny stories which also have a melancholic feel running all the way through.  This sadness of event and theme, which appears in The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, is given full rein in the final book, Ten Years Later, which is generally published (including by Oxford World's Classics) as three books: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man in the Iron Mask.

In last week's Monday classic post on David Copperfield I challenged my readers to prove they were not Cylons by reading A Tale of Two Cities.  Tears at the closing lines = you are human.  A reader of mine suggested Old Yeller as an equivalent barometer of humanity, which is fair enough.  The last few chapters of The Man in the Iron Mask are on much the same level.  The first time I read that book, I was wearing my glasses, and they were so fogged and dripping with tears that I could only read about three sentences at a time before cleaning them yet again.  The Man in the Iron Mask still has the same effect on me to this day, after an estimated ten readings over the last sixteen years.  Twenty Years After, which I've read at least as many times, is still just as delightfully suspenseful (yes, even knowing what happens, there's suspense - it's the magic of Dumas) and touching as it always was.  Five stars overall and in its genre.

* The best current paperback editions of almost any Dumas novels are those put out by Oxford World's Classics.  They reprint older translations, and while I know that there are people out there with a strange mania for new and modern translations . . . think about this for a moment, everyone.  If you were writing something now, in contemporary French, would you think a translation into English made by someone idiomatically familiar with contemporary French would be better than a translation made by someone magically imported from 1845?  The reverse holds true as well.  The Dumas translations done in the 19th century are just plain better.

My favorite translation of The Three Musketeers is currently being published by Dover, and I highly recommend it as an introduction to Dumas.

** After 1649, Charles I wasn't either, unfortunately for him.

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