Monday, April 18, 2011

The Man In The Iron Mask - Alexandre Dumas

 I've finally done it!! Yes I've finally finished The Man in the Iron Mask!! It has taken me almost a fortnight but last night I polished off the last seventy pages. I have either read big chunks of it in the order of one hundred and fifty pages at a time, or else nothing at all. Now the issue of writing a review rears its head,  it will be more difficult to achieve than actually reading the novel!

 In many respects reading this novel has been a mistake. It is the last of the musketeer books Dumas wrote, and it is thirty five years between The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask. These two titles are the best known of the five musketeer books Dumas wrote but I wish I had the other volumes to have read them in their correct order. To jump from Musketeers to Mask I found prejudiced my initial view of the last novel. When I started these two books I did not realise they were a continuation and had always regarded them as stand alone novels. To read them as such is the wrong way to approach them as I found to my dismay.

 The main problem with jumping from Musketeers to Mask is the vast gap in the ages of the characters. They go from twenty year old boys in Musketeers to mid-fifties in Mask. That is a huge age gap and when I started to read Mask it was not what I was expecting. It took me some time to adjust from the youthfulness of Musketeers to the almost elder-statesmanship of the four protagonists. This is what I mean by wishing I had read the intervening novels to see the four grow and develop. If I had then Mask would have made more sense, and I could have approached it differently. Differently meaning in taking it in its proper context.
 What I'm saying is the leap from the first to last book in the series will inevitably prejudice the impression of the last book. If you expect a continuation of the musketeers youthful adventures you will be sadly let down. After finishing Mask I appreciated more how Dumas had written five books showing the development of the four over thirty five years and I garnished a lot of respect for him in doing so. Again it lead me to regret not having the middle books to read and follow the four as they grew from youthful exuberance to thoughtful adulthood. To say Mask is no Musketeers is in many respects comparing apples with oranges. The characters may be the same but their positions in society have changed as has their age.

 Dumas has shown his skill as a writer with the musketeer books. The first novel is the more enjoyable read, but Dumas has cleverly captured the essence of youth, care free, exuberant, and with plenty of life to come. In the last novel he shows these same four as elder men who have reaped the rewards of life from their youth. Clever stuff and if you see that in Mask then I think you have got Dumas' aim of the novel. He could have written a whole series of novels of youthful adventures of the four but somehow detailing the rise and then death of the four was more skillful. Mask isn't the enjoyable romp of Musketeers but it isn't meant to be.

 I actually liked this growth of the characters even though Mask hasn't the youthful zeal of Musketeers. Dumas has written superbly the trials and tribulations of the four as elder men in higher society, with the political plots and intrigues of the French Court . As young musketeers the four had not risen to that station in life but in Mask they had and this is the key to its understanding. They aren't the young men of old any more and the book mirrors their age and where they are in life.

 One problem though arises from the all the plots and intrigues as Mask is somewhat overly complex. Musketeers had plots and intrigues but was much easier to read and follow. I found Mask difficult to follow at times as far too much was going on, and it made it hard to follow each intrigue. Sometimes a particular plot would drop out of the narrative only to re-appear later, which made it difficult to pick up again and fit into what was being read at the time. Also Dumas is much more long winded in Mask than Musketeers. It may be to show how as the four have risen they have to use luggage skills better within politics, but it made for some frustrating reading as Dumas went on and on about things seemingly in tangent to the plot.

 Long windedness is certainly indicative of the era. At times it is a real pain, but it also took great skill as a writer to achieve, and whilst it doesn't make sense at times the reading of it only emphasizes the skill needed to write it. This highlights the major difference between modern writers and those of old, namely their abilities. As an example in one part of Mask Aramis is telling Fouquet how he switched the king with his brother. A modern writer would have it told in two paragraphs. Dumas has it told in four pages!! It is beautiful writing and very skillful but sometimes you feel yourself saying' get on with it'!! It is a symptom of being from a modern era of things being quick, easy, and with no time to waste. Dumas' long writing style doesn't fit our modern sensibilities. I find I have to be in the right mood for this type of writing for if I'm not then I find it quite unreadable.

 So did I enjoy this novel? Well yes, and of course no. No because I went into under the false impression of it being in tone of The Three Musketeers. When I clicked to it all I was at the point of dis-liking it. Luckily when I realised the mistake of not having read the previous three books I was able to see Mask in its light as a life long continuation of the four protagonist. In some ways I wish I had known more about what to expect as I would have approached it in a different way. If you want the Three Musketeers then you won't find it in Mask as that era of the four is well and truly over. What did I enjoy? The writing style even though too long at times and how the four have all grown in to latter life with all the rewards of service. The whole book is intrigue heavy and at times difficult to follow so it isn't a 'fun ' novel like Musketeers. It is no wonder then my favorite part is towards the end where Aramis and Porthos are in the grotto and fighting the king's men on Belle-isle.

 Actually the best part of the book is the last quarter as Dumas slowly kills off the four. Their deaths were a result of the plotting and intriguing, and when that is out of the way the novel becomes more interesting as it leads to the deaths of our heroes. It is unusual to have the heroes of a series killed off but Dumas done it well in bringing the life of the four to an end. He could have had them all die graceful in old age but he didn't. Porthos is crushed by a rock, Athos dies in bed a broken man due to the death of his beloved son, and d'Artagnan dies on the battlefield just as he receives his field marshals baton. Aramis' fate is unknown. I liked the ending as it defied all expectations of the fours fate. No happy endings here and Dumas must be commended for the un-conventional ending of the four.

 In conclusion The Man in the Iron Mask is no Three Musketeers, but it isn't meant to be. The Three Musketeers as a novel is the start of a series and as a stand alone novel can be read by itself without prejudice from the following books. If you jump from Musketeers to Mask then you have missed out a huge chunk of the four characters lives and the novel will be a disappointment. If you expect more sword play then you won't get because the characters are into their mid-fifties and well beyond that point in life. If you do make the jump them prepare yourself for the difference and approach this, the last novel, as a finale, because ultimately that is what it is. If you can read the three middle novels. I believe they aren't of the quality of the first and last but Mask will make more sense if you do. I personally would liked to have read them but just didn't have copies immediately available. They may not be as renowned as their more famous brothers but Dumas is a fine writer and they would still have been well worth reading.

 My advice then is too either forgo The Man in the Iron Mask and just bask in the glow of The Three Musketeers. If you do read The Man in the Iron Mask then be prepared for the fact it isn't a direct follow on from Musketeers. If you can read the three middle novels, after all it is a series and I'm a believer in reading all the books in a series to understand the plot developments of the writer. Dumas developed the four characters over thirty five years of their lives and to read all five novels is to see them grow from youthful exuberance to elder men of high station, and their subsequent demise. Whatever your feelings of the last novel Dumas has created some of the great characters of literature, and in particular in The Three Musketeers, one of the truly great, memorable, and fun, swashbuckling novels ever.

 I believe there was actually a man in prison with a mask but it wasn't iron but of velvet. I can't find out much more I'm afraid, like when, and who he was, etc, but it is from this prisoner that Dumas reportedly got the idea  for the king's incarcerated twin brother in The Man in the Iron Mask.

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