December 05, 2006

One for all

Maybe Greg Sandow is trying to liven up his comment thread. Maybe he's being satirical. Maybe he's deliberately exaggerating to make a point. I hope so, because I'd hate to think that he actually believes this:
I've been reading the new translation of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. And that book, classic as it is, doesn't have half the thought or emotional depth of Casino Royale.
I don't hold any particular brief for old literature just because it's old (Bulwer-Lytton cured me of that), but Dumas is magical in a way that I don't think any movie can even come close to. (Lawrence of Arabia maybe. Maybe.)

So what gives? I mean, Greg's not a dumb guy. I rather suspect that he's unwittingly reflecting the modern bias that only dark and serious things can be profound, that unless you heavily underscore a character's conflicted and troubled soul, your characterization is shallow by virtue of the sin of omission. The Three Musketeers is most definitely not serious or dark; and yet it is also deeply thoughtful and profound. The problem for modern readers is that Dumas (with his ghostwriter, Auguste Maquet) is pulling a masterful bait-and-switch from the very beginning. Here's how he opens the book:
On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of The Romance of the Rose was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it.
We may not be familiar with the siege of the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle, but Dumas's readers would have been. It's like he's comparing the town to Stalingrad in World War II. Stern, serious stuff, in other words. So what's everybody worked up about?
It was a Bearn pony, from twelve to fourteen years old, yellow in his hide, without a hair in his tail, but not without windgalls on his legs, which, though going with his head lower than his knees, rendering a martingale quite unnecessary, contrived nevertheless to perform his eight leagues a day. Unfortunately, the qualities of this horse were so well concealed under his strange-colored hide and his unaccountable gait, that at a time when everybody was a connoisseur in horseflesh, the appearance of the aforesaid pony at Meung—which place he had entered about a quarter of an hour before, by the gate of Beaugency—produced an unfavorable feeling, which extended to his rider.
Dumas is undercutting the swashbuckling surface of his story from the get-go. He name-drops both a masterpiece of Medieval literature and one of the most dramatic military spectacles of French history in order to stage-manage the entrance of a funny horse. This style permeates the book: the most quotidian details are put in high melodramatic relief, while the most telling observations are nonchalantly tossed off. The horse belongs to the young D'Artagnan; his father has entrusted the beast to him with the instructions to always keep it and treat it as a member of the family. Here's what happens:
[D'Artagnan] then drew two crowns majestically from his purse and gave them to the host, who accompanied him, cap in hand, to the gate, and remounted his yellow horse, which bore him without any further accident to the gate of St. Antoine at Paris, where his owner sold him for three crowns, which was a very good price, considering that d'Artagnan had ridden him hard during the last stage.
Your modern psychologically astute novelist would have underlined the hell out of this scene, reminding us of the father's promise, making the buyer more mercenary, probably throwing in a poignant portrait of the old horse to boot. Dumas doesn't even bother to give the event its own sentence. He just shrugs: young people—whaddya gonna do? But he knows that we know, that we'll pick up on this little detail, that D'Artagnan's journey from the impetuousness of youth to the bittersweet wisdom of adulthood is now set up as the main engine of the book.

The other thing about Dumas that throws off readers accustomed to Bruckheimer-esque narratives is his sheer leisureliness. Once all four protagonists are off and running, the most thrusting action scenes are rendered at a casual gait, with plenty of attention paid to the verbal and emotional byplay between the actors. That's because the main plot is not the action or the treachery or the historical import, it's the friendship among D'Artagnan and the three Musketeers. In a way, Dumas is writing one of the most non-adventurous adventure novels of all time, and that's the whole beautiful point. He gives you plenty of action, and then reminds you that adventure is only important in that it gives you something to remember with your friends; he paints his background of a grand historical epic solely to assert the unimportance of grand historical forces compared to the everyday pleasures of companionship and trust. Good and bad things happen all through the book, but Dumas keeps the focus squarely on the humanity of the characters. The cruelest blow is often met with flippant humor, the most trivial insult becomes a full-out duel. Those we admire are occasionally infuriatingly ignoble, those we are meant to hate he gives moments of kindness and integrity. That's deeply unsatisfying by modern narrative standards, where we want consistently stereotyped characters (not stereotypes per se, but characters whose motives don't change), not to mention "deep" explanations of why those characters are the way they are. Dumas knows, though, that the way people are changes from situation to situation, and even from moment to moment. (After all, the way people are is a pretty slippery concept.) He lets that happen, and it's why the book feels so comfortable and true.

There's a musical analogue to this, and it cuts both ways: both the atonal use of local dissonance and the tonal use of large-scale dialectical conflict and resolution can be read as playing to the modern preference for only finding profundity in sharp-edged conflict and the darker corners of the soul. But I've always had a soft spot for music that seems to be built on consonant progressions, but always frustrates your expectation of resolution. Poulenc, with his lush chords and enigmatic trick endings, is particularly good at this, as is Morton Feldman in his late period. Ligeti has a bit of this quality, as does Elliott Carter. (I once heard Carter explain the whole concept of metric modulation as a way to make the upbeat into essentially the entire piece, which is sort of like what Dumas is often trying to do.) It's the same sort of shift of focus that The Three Musketeers is all about. Things don't always work out the way they're supposed to; people don't always behave the way you expect them to; justice is not always poetic; life is most often messy and confused. But we still get up every morning and go through that life, and that's wonderful enough to warrant a bit of art.

3 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, this is lovely, Matthew; thanks. I adore the Musketeer books, though it's 20 or more years since I last read them.

sfmike said...

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is my all-time favorite "action" novel and I loved your description of Dumas' effects. I also agree with you on Poulenc, and would put Haydn on that list of masters who "build on consonant progressions, but always frustrate your expectation of resolution."

M.A.Peel said...

What a great surprise to see an encomium to the Musketeers here. I hope you have read Twenty Years after, which is the all-time greatest sequel. It knowingly magnifies every element that the reader of the original loves. And the Vicomte de Bragelonne--more challenging, given its enormity--but essential to bring the Musketeers to their rest (except for Aramis).