Tuesday, March 29, 2011
The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
Alexandre Dumas is probably my favorite 19th century author. Unlike some authors of the era Dumas wrote what I call 'pure' novels and didn't delve into tangents in discussing politics, religion, or other social issues of the day. Look no further than Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo who were masters at these tangents within their novels. Dumas was a writer of fiction and kept it that way. I like his works the more for it.
I read The Count of Monte Cristo just over three years ago immediately after finishing War and Peace. It is a novel I just loved from the first to last and is probably Dumas' finest work. Interestingly it is a more complex book to read than The Three Musketeers, and far longer as it was split into two seven hundred page books. But it still show cases Dumas' clear writing style which is easy to get into and enjoy.
What I like about Musketeers is that it is easier to read than most novels of the era. Dumas didn't bog his narratives down with complex sentence structure that the like of Charles Dickens did. Dickens is a great writer but his complex style can be a hindrance to the story. I find I have to be in a very settled state of mind to fully concentrate with his writing. Whereas with Dumas his sentence structure is less complex, and yet, like Dickens, he can fit so much into just the one sentence! He just does it with more economy of words.
This is not to say that Dumas is a simplistic writer because he had a very distinctive way of writing his novels. In Musketeers there are many passages that mirror William Shakespeare. What I mean by that is in a play Shakespeare had to describe so much within the words of the actors. Scenery, castles, furniture, people,etc, were described not in text but in word, and of course when you see a Shakespeare play there are very few props as the actors are describing what is around them. It is up to the audience to imagine what the actors are portraying. It is in essence the Shakespearean eras version of a modern film makers use of CGI.
Dumas in Musketeers takes this technique and novelises it. He brilliantly uses the characters speech and words to describe their surroundings and props. Instead of writing, the four went to the castle, one character would say, 'now let us retire to the castle yonder'. The spoken line lets the reader know there is a castle nearby and the four are going to it. This technique provides an economy of words and is an enjoyable reading experience. I love the technique, and it is what I took most away from from the book.
The other thing so noticeable about Musketeers, as it is with The Count of Monte Cristo, is the way the characters speak to each other. It is all politeness, even to enemies. To my modern sensibilities it was quite quaint!! Speech has moved on and been dumbed down so much it was a joy to read the by gone eras way of communicating. At times their speech was a bit long winded, and again shows the difference in the use of speech from our modern usage. Whereas an author today would take a paragraph to make a statement or describe something, Dumas would take four or five to describe the same thing!! It is indicative of the era, and whilst frustrating at times it was the style of the times and must be read as such.
It is not to say that Musketeers drags because of the long windedness of some passages. It moves along at a very good clip and I was able to average about forty pages a hour comfortably. Not once did I find a part I slogged through. After I put the book down I was amazed at how much I had read compared to how much I thought I had. The narrative is swift and with the amount of speech involved many pages can be read quite quickly compared to a dense page of complex descriptions. This again comes back to the writing style. It is a long book and yet it can be read very quickly which is an acknowledgement to the crisp writing of Dumas. It is a classic example of less being more!!
The plot is very easy to follow and doesn't get bogged down in too much sub-plot or tangents. For a 19th century novel it is relatively clear and concise compared to many of the era. An interesting thing to note is the short list of characters. There are only fifteen named. Any others are referred to by rank or as nameless civilians or soldiers ( as those at the siege of La Rochelle ). This brevity is great compared to say War and peace that has over two hundred different characters. It all helps to the pacing of the novel as the reader doesn't have to search back constantly to remember a character that hasn't been mentioned for some time.
Hollywood has made many adaptations of this novel and they have all been a disgrace. They all pick up on the sword fights and costumes, but at detriment to the plot. It isn't a difficult plot to follow and would be quite an easy novel to adapt.
In some ways Musketeers has dated especially in regards to women. Dumas portrays the fair sex as delicate, sweet natured, maidens who faint and swoon at anything even mildly unpleasant. They are afraid of heights and....well almost everything! In essence they are completely useless!! It is to our modern eyes quite laughable and I wonder how a modern woman who reads it feels. It is quaint and indicative of 'ladies' of the time, but I'm glad woman aren't like that any more!!