Thursday, March 13, 2008

Alexandre Dumas: The Last Cavalier

As a long time fan of Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.) I was excited to hear of an English translation of a long lost novel – The Last Cavalier. With the subtitle – Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napolean – I anticipated a 19th century D’Artagnan running around doing brave, foolish, and occasionally humorous things. I expected another swashbuckling adventure full of action, political intrigue, and maybe even a little “out of reach” romance.

I could not have been more wrong!

Part I, titled “Bonaparte” is essentially about Napoleon Bonaparte consolidating his power, transforming himself from First Consul (for life) to Emperor. It mostly tells the story of how he captures and executes enemies from both the Royalist resistance and revolutionary Republicans.

The book is full of strange diversions. It starts with two chapters dealing with Josephine Bonaparte’s debts. Those debts have no role further in the book – why do we lead with them? We have chapters dealing with who wears what to various balls, and even more strangely, who is qualified to dance which dances. The overall story of Bonaparte’s consolidation of power is interesting, if you discount the diversions. But it also assumes a more detailed knowledge of French history than I have.

A particularly interesting character is Joseph Fouché, Misister of Police. He maintains a network of spies, and seems to know everything. When Bonaparte tries to get rid of him as too independent, he secretly mounts a deliberately clumsy resistance, to discredit his successor.

Our supposed hero, Hector de Saite-Hermine, appears with a speaking role a little over 80 pages into the novel. Then he spends three or four chapters telling the story of the execution of his father and two older brothers, but nothing about himself. He drops in and out briefly for the next hundred pages or so, but not in any substantive role. Although in this section he wins and loses the love that attaches a tragic mystique to the rest of his life.

Part II, titled “Napoleon” is a story about Count Sainte-Hermine. But he is no longer using that name. Now he mostly goes by the name “René”. René can do no wrong. He is the best shot, the strongest man, the best swordsman, the most generous, the most gentlemanly. Everyone loves him – men and women. Except Napoleon. (If he appeared in more books, I would tire of him – just as I tired of Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt.)

The second part does include a lot of swashbuckling adventure. But it also suffers from long diversions. René becomes a seaman on a corsair – or privateer. He joins his ship in Saint-Malo, so we have to drop back to 1100 to gather the history of the town. His adventures take him to Île de France, so we must drop back to the 1400’s to hear it’s story.

René kills tigers, panthers, alligators, and pythons in Burma with such abandon, it is obvious that Dumas comes from an earlier time. There is clearly no concern for endangered species - or for that matter, for non-European humans.

René returns from the Indian Ocean in time to join the regular navy and fight in the battle of Trafalgar. He even gets credit for the shot that kills Admiral Nelson.

René moves on to land based adventures in Southern Italy, but now he takes on the name Count Leo. Since his route takes him along the Appian Way, we learn of virtually every Roman buried along that highway. Again he gets credit for major victories for Napoleon’s forces, and wins the respect of Napoleon’s brother and generals – and any women who happen to be around.

Count Leo was close to the end of a particular challenge when Dumas died. So the editor of this edition wrote enough to wrap up the story line. It satisfies the story, but does not quite ring true to Dumas.

Finally, we get a few chapters with our hero, back to the René name, in Venice on the eve of an attack from Austria. He wins the hearts of the women and leaders, and I’m sure he would have comported himself admirably. But no one wrote this story.

I remember years ago reading The Count of Monte Cristo and not being able to put it down. Whereas, The Last Cavalier was eminently put-downable. So what’s the difference? This new book was translated by a true Dumas scholar. Perhaps he kept all the trivia when translators of the other books may have left stuff out. I read The Three Musketeers in both English and the original French. But maybe my French was bad enough that I skimmed past trivia. Or maybe Dumas would have cleaned it up for a full publication.

It’s been close to 40 years since I last read Dumas. I probably need to try one of the older books to see if they really are as exciting as I remember.

1 comment: said...

Well, it sounds like the book had its share of adventure, intrigue, and romance -- but it was masked with too much peripheral detail. I like your theory that Dumas, were he around, would have edited this better. Or that other translators would have done more editing.

I hope you go back and read one of the earlier books, so you can get us past this suspense!