Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Happy Birthday Alexandre Dumas! Thanks, for the Memories

The British Library reminded me, via tweet, that today is the birthday of Alexandre Dumas, the literary nova who gave the world the great paean to friendship, The Three Musketeers. I wrote this post about my love of the books several years ago, but the British Library thought it was good to take it down off the shelf today in Dumas's honor .

I watched a little of Richard Lester's 1974 The Three Musketeers the other evening, and it proved to be a powerful cinematic madeleine for me.

There’s nothing quite like a teenage passion, especially when it’s the discovery of a book or a film that recognizes your own DNA. The passion that made my heart sing at that simpler time in my life was the world of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan.

Now no eye rolling out there.

Oh, I had visited with Sir Walter Scott, read the obligatory Victor Hugo, and danced a little with Sabatini. But nothing got under my skin the way Alexandre Dumas did with his novel The Three Musketeers and its sequels Twenty Years After and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (or Ten Years Later).

I was self aware enough in high school to be a little concerned that I might be Miniver Cheever.
          Mivinver loved the days of old
          When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
           The vision of a warrior bold
          Would set him dancing.


Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Or, as Joni Mitchell explains it, “All Romantics meet the same fate some day,
Cynical and drunk, and boring someone in some dark café”

So I knew I was at risk, but reading the Musketeers was so exciting I couldn’t help myself.

It’s Dumas’s strength of voice. He moves the story along so easily, primarily through those masterful character pictures. We watch Entourage now, but what is that but an updating of this seminal story about the effect that true friends, real fellow travelers have on each other’s lives.

Steed had an interesting point about the Man in the Iron Mask film, that it was the old actor guard--Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne, John Malkovich-- bowing, literally, to Leo DiCaprio, the new king. Dumas never wrote a novel with that title. It’s actually one plot line in the gargantuan Vicomte de Bragelonne that was published as a freestanding book. One of my earliest, deeply literary experiences was finding the entire 9 volumes of Vicomte in the Hofstra library when my older brother was there. He took them out for me one by one, and I needed to use folio scissors to open many of the pages. I felt like I had found a portal into the “world of literature.”

Get the Damn Motto Right
And so I have a serious fan’s sense of privilege when it comes to anything related to Dumas. Claude Schopp may be the preeminent Dumas scholar, but I’m his amateur counterpart.

And I must state, unequivocally, that the famous Musketeer quotation is

ALL for one, one for all.

Not the other way around. It comes at the end of chapter 9, and it’s D’Artagnan’s line, whether he says it in English or in French.

“And now, gentlemen,” said D’Artagnan, without stopping to explain his conduct to Porthos, “All for one, one for all--that is our motto, is it not?”

“And yet--” said Porthos.

“Hold out your hand and swear!” cried Athos and Aramis at once.

Overcome by example, grumbling to himself, nevertheless, Porthos stretched out his hand, and the four friends repeated with one voice the formula dictated by D’Artagnan:

“All for one, one for all.”
I have seen it wrong everywhere, even in a WSJ article about the novel! Although I must say the fanfic community gets it right, and a Fraiser episode did too.

In November 2002 Dumas’s remains were disinterred from his home village and moved to the Pantheon where he rightfully took his place with France’s literary giants. His casket was draped with a blue covering, and there it said “Tous pour un, un pour tous.” Pictured above.

The French may get a lot wrong, but they are not going to get this detail wrong. This should put to rest any lingering confusion.

And Now “The Plot Thickens”

Even with all these deep connections I have to this writer, to these characters, my grandmother made it even more special.

Toward the end of her 93 years on earth, she was getting fuzzy about things. Not Alzheimer’s, just some hardening of the arteries. One day Grammy was talking to my mother, who was her sole caretaker, telling her that she had had a husband who was a mailman “who came home every day.”

My mother said, “Yes, I know Mom. Your husband was my father.”

Grammy looked at my mother with her bright, bright eyes, then dropped her head down, and with a little shake and smile, said “The plot thickens.”

It was one of the funniest family moments of all time.

And it is the title of Chapter 11 of The Three Musketeers, as Cardinal Richelieu's machinations unfold and we get closer to meeting the great villainess Milady. Dumas isn’t particularly credited with coining this phrase, but I couldn’t find an earlier citation for it. The French is L'intrigue se noue. 

 It is a rare teenage passion that gains more resonance as time goes by.

My own remembrance of my past love for this world has led me to order the new translation of 3M by Russian translator expert Richard Pevear that came out in 2006.

As for the length of this post, it must have something to do with that madeleine metaphor. I guess you evoke it at your own risk.

5 comments:

lamar said...

My high school library didn't have the Three Musketeers. I remember looking for it, and then stumping a librarian when I couldn't find it. And so I have never read it. I'd love to hear how you like the Pevear translation, or if you recommend another one.

Jeremy said...

That's where "the plot thickens ..." comes from? Who knew? You have made my holiday cocktail season. Please, the original French.

M.A.Peel said...

lamar, assez bizarre! Although it's true that Dumas has suffered not being taken seriously as great literature, as not being the equal of Victor Hugo. It's why he didn't make it to the Pantheon until 2002. Jacques Chirac made a very moving speech at that ceremony. Here's the link to the bbc coverage:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/europe/2531617.stm

I have the Bantam Classic version, Lowell Blair translator. Some of the language is a little clunky, but for me, it doesn't detract. I am very interested though in comparing it to the Pevear.

jeremy, yes, I happen to have the French version here. It's L'intrigue se noue. Hope you'll also use the cocktail circuit to proselytize about the motto. I saw My Favorite Year on TCM over the weekend, and it's wrong, repeatedly, there. I should start a list....

Mr. Peel said...

"Stan! I'm not gonna let you do the Boss Hijack sketch!"

Benjy Stone knew a lot about comedy, but something tells me he wasn't worried about such inaccuracies.

Anyway, I really loved this post.

M.A.Peel said...

Mr. Peel, it's nice to have such engaging readers.