I have to tell you people: the photo contest now has entries featuring live chickens and horses nervously conceding to the panel-replicating schemes of various young humans. I am delighted that I can contribute the loss of dignity of farm animals everywhere. I expect to hear from PETA shortly.
Lots of dreary self-promotional stuff from me lately! I will reward your patience, and my soul, with an actual blog entry.
I’m currently rereading La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas. In French, because I’m fancy, and because I was getting rusty and started to miss the special finickiness of a language that actually has a different past tense for use exclusively in novels. (If there’s another use, I haven’t found it; please don’t tell me if there is.)
I first read the book while I was in Paris in 2004. It was one of my major early accomplishments in full-length, unassigned, unsupervised French book reading. (My first was the French translation of Prisoner of Azkaban, which I assure you was a bizarre and delightful experience. I mean, Hufflepuff was translated as Poufsouffle, and things don’t get much more wonderful than that.)
La Reine Margot – that’s Queen Margot – tells the deeply romanticized version of the St Bartholomew massacre, in which all of the Protestant (called Huguenot) nobility of the French-ish territories were tricked into coming into Paris for a “just kidding about that war we were waging against you, let’s reconcile!!” wedding between the young Protestant King Henri of Navarre and the Catholic French princess Marguerite.
As soon as the wedding had gone ahead and all the Huguenots had gotten a few drinks in them and were snuggling into their fluffy commemorative comforters to entertain dreams of peacably eating petit-fours on the croquet lawns at the Louvre, the Catholics put on their second-best pair of boots, snuck out the kitchen window and killed several thousands of Huguenots very horribly.
Henri was clever enough to say “oh bosh, heck with Protestantism, I swear I’m a Catholic now” and was kept in custody at at Valois for two years playing endless games of croquet until he managed to sneak out and scurry back to Navarre. Eventually made it back into town and claimed the throne as Henri IV, after a long series of military campaigns and weird assassinations and games of sectarian musical chairs and borrowing a couple of armies from Queen Elizabeth, presumably along with her delightful recipe for Heretic Muffins.
In short, dashed interesting stuff, even if you don’t throw in a lot of lines about Marguerite’s swanlike neck and delicate complexion and a buddy comedy involving a Catholic count and a Protestant count ending up in the same inn etc. But that, ladies and gents, is what Dumas does for us.
I love Dumas. Well, such that I’ve read. The man was one of the original paid-by-the-letter hacks; he had a small army of researching and plot-designing minions, and as a result his full catalogue runs into the dozens. Swords and ripped bodices and tales of sprightly intrigue cheeringly garnished with bits and bobs of historical truthiness.
He was also a mulatto. Did you know that? The guy who wrote Three Musketeers looked like this:
His grandfather was a Marquis and a famous general who was stationed in Haiti (hence the mulatto bit), and his own father had been a general in Napoleon’s army until, well, that whole thing where Napoleon ended up defeated and in exile. Dad died while Alexandre was still in short pants, and after that it was pretty much Madame Dumas and her precocious son shivering in a farmhouse and reading everything they could get their hands on to pass the miserable time.
Eventually he wound up in Paris writing copy for magazines and then fell into fiction-writing, and the rest is high-living and wild debt and marrying actresses and sleeping with dressmakers and getting snarked at for being of mixed race. One particularly nasty racist was met with this wonderful but also self-hating retort:
“My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great grandfather a monkey. You see, monsieur, my family begins where yours ends.”
Pew pew! Man down!
No matter what language I’m reading him in, it’s evident that Alexandre Dumas, while capable of crafting a lovely adventure and comedy and a nice turn of phrase, was not interested in creating Deathless Literature. He created popular melodrama and romance with a humorous edge that was secretly educational.
As an author, I can respect that goal: there’s a place for punishingly dense narratives, but giving pleasure on the level of pure entertainment is something I always hope for. And, for all that his characters are frequently caricatures – the brash but true-hearted young King, the learned Princess, the brave country Bumpkin, the embittered Soldier With A Dark Secret, the hook-nosed Poisoner, the scheming Seductress – many of them are very recognizably human, and they’re placed in a convincing “past” that is also elastic enough to withstand frantic page-turning.
I wonder how many hundreds of historians and writers read Dumas as young people and were so caught up in the intrigue and in the immediate love for a protagonist that Dumas can provoke like it ain’t no damn thing, that they went on to delve into the actual events of centuries past for professional and educational purpose. I’m certainly one of them. I consider that sort of writing a public service, granted one not often accorded the laurels of High Art.
Watching Twilight this week – yes, I know – I found myself becoming quite furious with the storytelling. Not so much because the events were clumsily arranged or that the premise was silly or that the setting was strangely depicted (they got real creative with some of that there Northwest geography).
What pissed me off was the lack of affection evoked for the main characters, and the lack of any narrative protein – that invitation to investigate subjects beyond the scope of the story. I finished the movie feeling unmoved by the illogical mannequins who had been pushed around the screen for two hours, and uninterested in further investigating anything beyond a few nice nature trails around the Gorge.
I could have forgiven one of those two things: if it had been utter fluff with lovingly rendered characters (Buffy) or curious-about-the-world grist with slightly dull human vehicles (say, anything by Arthur C. Clarke…). Fail both of those tests and you fall into the black hole of Narrative Junk Food. I was happy to see the Harry Potter books turn into such a phenomenon, because Jo Rowling so obviously adored her people as real human beings, and took care to tuck all sorts of little intellectual rewards and tip-offs into their playhouse world. But Twilight? Man, that shit is Jolly Ranchers for the soul.
At any rate. It’s pleasant to reenter the world of Alexandre Dumas and the warmly cartooned world of young Henri and Margot; to sneak around the darkened night streets of Paris circa 1572 and press my ear against the thin doors of the Louvre’s private chambers. It’s pleasant to go to a place where a story deserves its own grammatic tense.