Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Knight of Maison-Rouge by Alexandre Dumas; tr. by Julie Rose

"A novel of Marie Antoinette," this book is subtitled, and although she is not quite a main character, the scenes centering on the imprisoned Queen of France are the most vivid and interesting of the tale. I have tried Dumas before, and have unfortunately found, in The Three Musketeers for example, that his endless action, his swordfight-on-every-page style, is not to my taste. He seems to have had a penchant for mysterious figures skulking through the back alleys of historical romances too, pulling strings, being hugely important, and evading capture while never descending to the level of actual human beings themselves. In The Three Musketeers it's "Milady," who I think has somebody killed at a riverside toward the end; in The Knight of Maison Rouge it is the eponymous but disguised hero, who has devoted himself to rescuing Marie Antoinette from her jailers and is also the guardian of the aristocratic heroine aiding him, who falls in love herself with the young republican Revolutionary Maurice, who ought not to want to be remotely involved with rescuing queens or aristocrats, and who is the real hero of the story.

A bit confusing. As it's a French tale, of course the young beautiful heroine is already married, to the stolid and unforgiving M. Dixmer. Passionate denunciations are always coldly polite ("you shall be punished, Madame!"). Meanwhile Maurice has a trusty friend, Lorin, who is also a good revolutionary but ends up throwing in his lot with the Queen's would-be saviors, and declaims poems on the spot to make light of any occasion. Among the fictional characters of tumultuous eighteenth century Paris there is the dreadful real life jailer, Simon, who coached Marie Antoinette's son to sing hideous songs about her after they had been separated; there is the real-life executioner, Sanson, who operated the guillotine so efficiently; and there are a number of real life prosecutors, politicians, and chiefs of police, whom -- it is faintly chilling to realize -- did have and did use real power to overturn all social order and imprison and kill those who disagreed with them.

The translation jars a little. Did Dumas, in the 1840s, really use expressions which can be faithfully translated as "flew the coop" or "pronto"? They contribute to an overall jerky feeling in the prose and dialogue. The book's foreward explains that Dumas wrote most of his novels as newspaper serials in collaboration with one Auguste Maquet, and that does explain a lot. The vivid, interesting scenes -- the Queen in prison, the Queen trying to meet her saviors halfway as they attempt heroic feats to break her out -- perhaps came from the hand of the master. The master, perhaps, was also capable of honest insight into the Majesty he obviously respected:

"...soon, in her dream, bars and bolts fell away; she saw herself in the middle of a great army, somber and pitiless; she ordered the flames to burn, the blades to shoot out of their sheaths; she took her revenge on a people who were not, in the end, her own."

The more labored parts ("Maison-Rouge! Oh! Miserable wretch that I am not to have killed both of them!") perhaps came from the junior partner.

It's a beautiful looking book, but in the end it makes most sense as something fun which Parisians in 1845 amused themselves with -- only half a century after the terrifying events, however! -- as they flipped through the papers and sipped their morning coffee. A compliment to their taste in ephemera, certainly. After that it must have gone to wrap fish, as the saying goes, which is no doubt what the honest Dumas expected. For me, my copy is going back to the local library's used book sale, so that someone else can pick it up for a dollar and enjoy it too.

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