My first book review of 2016 comes in the form of a classic. It’s sad really to find myself half way through the year and only now just finishing a book I first picked up on a trip to Berlin in January. Naturally my final year of college kept me busy, while on top of that the scales of writing vs. reading have been stacked heavily against the latter of late. Perhaps what makes this minor problem feel all the more heavy to me is this long venture in reading has ultimately turned up very little at all.
I had high aspirations for The Three Musketeers. Growing up, the many film adaptations were firm favourites of mine. It’s hard as a young boy not to be enamoured with tales of dashing bravery or unwavering loyalty in the face of overwhelming odds. The musketeers symbolised everything we come to associate with the age old concept of the “gentleman”, and though this persona is now rather dated, there’s still parts of it you can admire.
Reading the first few chapters on a bus to Shannon airport, I was immediately struck by the shaky translation of Alexandre Dumas’ original French text. The sentences were stilted, the dialogue was jarring, and by God more than once I had to shake my head at the use of the word “ejaculated” in the place of “said”. I brushed by this though, and determined that for the sake of the story I knew, I would persevere. And to be fair, for the first 100-150 pages, this paid off. D’Artagnan, a young gascon, travels to the French capital pursuing his dream of joining the ranks of the musketeers. Paris is rife with conspiracy, as the powerful cardinal makes plays against the Queen, Anne of Austria. She is rumoured to have an intimate engagement with the Duke of Buckingham, and with France and England on the brink of war, this makes such secrets all the more deadly.
D’Artagnan becomes embroiled with all of this, and alongside his new acquaintances Athos, Portos and Aramis, fight to protect their monarchy. It’s a romantic tale, where the comradery among friends is as much revered as the love D’Artagnan has for his leading lady.
The first half of the book uses all these strengths well, and at that point I would have been writing a very different review. But I can’t write that review, and the further I pushed myself into this book, the clearer that became.
The death of Alexandre Dumas’ crowning jewel is multi-factorial. Firstly, his obsession with the most mundane detail is distracting. Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the financial state of the main characters. It almost felt like the author had some unresolved financial woes himself and just had to channel them into something. I should be leaving this novel with a fine appreciation of his literature, not a working understanding of 17th century French coinage.
Secondly, the characterisation often misses the mark. I was led to believe the musketeers would embody that fabled chivalry that is often renowned in Medieval lore. Instead the main characters often come off as little more than a gang of juvenile drunks with little regard for anything around them. Dumas may be one of France’s most celebrated writers, but he didn’t exactly paint women or foreign nationals in a pretty light by any stretch of the imagination. What made all this characterisation worse was how Dumas seemed so blissfully unaware of the people he’d created. He often would remark how “D’Artagnan knew better than to be rash”, even though his protagonist spent much of the novel picking fights and carrying out what many would call straight up murder.
The classic also failed to deliver any decisive moves in relation to the plot. The first fifty pages seemed punchy and to the point. The next hundred achieved what I considered “the story”, and then having managed that, Dumas spent a couple hundred pages just faffing about really. The characters spent as much time choosing wine as they did defending the realm, while characters who’d received the “fleshing out” procedure during the first act, if I may call it that, just seemed to vanish into thin air.
I would later read Dumas released the novel as a series of news comics, which makes perfect sense considering how broken the overall narrative is and how the characters never seem to really grow at all. Athos, who receives a dark backstory about page 400, is perhaps the only character worth reading the novel for. Aramis started off the story with a lot of promise, but he was largely confined to the background as D’Artagnan took centre stage. The same can be said of Porthos, though whatever brief glimpses we did get of him suggested that might not have been a bad thing.
And yet the overall conclusion is the same.
I was promised “All for one”, and though I’ll have fond memories of buying this book on the other side of the world, for me the Musketeers might be better off hanging up their hats.