Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini

Back in 1998, while still a graduate student, I started a thread on rec.arts.sf.written asking for fantasy recommendations:

"[...] What I'd really like to read next in the fantasy line is something involving lots of scheming political intrigue in a court. You know the type, noble houses, dastardly plots, duels, the whole nine yards. [...] I want reputations made and destroyed on a phrase, power switching hands, people stabbing each other in the back, Houses falling, honour besmirched, all that. "

As Joe Bernstein was kind enough to point out, my full post was perhaps a little demanding:

"Good Lord. Kushner isn't "really satisfying", Laclos "comes close", Dumas isn't enough for you, and you come here for advice?"

He had a point, but my faith in the group was repaid as that single thread spawned enough interesting reading suggestions to keep me going for the next couple of years! One of the more obvious suggestions [1] was Rafael Sabatini.

Naturally, I'd heard of him, usually mentioned alongside the much more familiar Dumas. I dutifully put Sabatini on my list, but not very high up. For some reason over the next few years, I never found copies of his books while shopping in brick-and-mortar places. I do admit to hoping to find him in the cheaper classics section, and not checking the 'By Author' sections often enough. When shopping online, a novelty then, I tended to have enough trouble keeping my basket under a squillion pounds anyway and kept hoping to find those cheaper classic copies! Anyway, by chance last weekend I finally found a shelf loaded with nice new editions by a publisher called House of Stratus. I read the first page of one, picked up half a dozen and left. I then returned, paid for them, and left again.

I know you can't see me, but I assure you that as I type this I am managing, simultaneously mind you, to kick myself repeatedly about the arse end for not locating copies of anything by Sabatini sooner. Good grief, these are well-loved masterpieces, I should have found copies in no time had I made the effort. Worse, Sabatini writes exactly the sort of thing I was looking for in 1998, and still am today.

So, first up was Scaramouche, what did I like so much about it? Almost everything, honestly. Fellow rec.arts.sf.written regular Kate Nepveu's book log shows that she didn't care for Scaramouche - "A tale of revenge during the French Revolution (yeah, there's a happy setup)" - on the grounds that our hero is too cynical, that he can't stop playing his role. In this particular case I find that my taste runs exactly counter to hers; I love revenge tales - too much The Count of Monte Cristo at an impressionable age I expect. I enjoy cynical heroes, I positively adore following along as our duplicitous protagonist engages our sympathies while committing acts that are, frankly, not very nice. I rejoice when those who have slighted our hero get their comeuppance, when the villain ends badly, and the world at the end of the story isn't saved, just different. I like seeing justice done, even if it could be regarded as morally reprehensible.

Scaramouche is an astonishing tour de force of dramatic writing - every single page seethes with incident, with colour, with detail. Every lush paragraph is written in a way that begs to be re-read, preferably aloud, preferably to someone else. The plot might perhaps seem a little cliched now, but only because so many works have been built atop it. We all know the plot outline don't we? (A little history would help too.)

Andre-Louis Moreau is a small town lawyer, a young man presumed to be the by-blow of M. de Kercadiou, Lord of Gavrillac. M. de Kercadiou, a blunt man concerned primarily with his estates and with little time for court, has provided for Andre-Louis all his life. Although not recognised as a noble, Andre-Louis has thus been provided with an education and a position in life.

His friend, M. de Vilmorin, is a equally young theologian, currently filled with righteous ire at the injustices of the Privileged Estates - this is pre-revolutionary France remember, and the novel is very much concerned with how matters come to a head. So, the neighbouring Lord, M. de La Tour d'Azyr, has recently killed a poacher on his grounds. It would be safe to say that M. de La Tour d'Azyr does not enjoy the same sympathy and support from those within his domain as does the Seigneur de Gavrillac. So, M. de Vilmorin decides to go and plead with M. de Kercadiou to intercede with his neighbouring noble for the man's family - Andre-Louis is more cynical, even at the outset of the plot, knowing that "dog does not eat dog", but despite their ideological differences he accompanies his friend to see his god-father.

Naturally, we need a romantic interest. Andre-Louis has been raised alongside Aline de Kercadiou, a beautiful young woman, freshly returned from some time in Versailles, and greatly desiring of something more courtly than her father's house. Luckily, M. de La Tour d'Azyr has decided that a visit to his neighbour with a proposal of mutual benefit might be in order... M. de Vilmorin's timing could not be worse in fact.

In short, Sacramouche kicks off when M. de La Tour de Vilmorin's dangerous eloquence and republican politics lead M. de La Tour d'Azyr to decide to goad the young theologian into a trap - goaded by some of the neatest insults I have read M. de Vilmorin walks right into it, striking the noble Marquis and giving grounds for satisfaction. The duel is not exactly equal, and later, sobbing over his friend's body Andre-Louis denounces M. de La Tour d'Azyr as a murderer and vows that his friend's "dangerous eloquence" shall not be silenced.

As Omnes Omnibus he sparks revolution... despite his own lack of belief in the politics he espouses. The repercussions of this event force Andre-Louis to hide behind the skirts of Thespis, joining a troupe of travelling players. As their Scaramouche, he finds not only his life's role, but the vehicle to carry him about France, further spreading his friend's message.

This is heady stuff, albeit that using the history of the French Revolution as plot material is practically cheating! Andre-Louis' career as radical revolutionary, actor, fencing master and politician doesn't lack for excitement. Coupled to a marvellous eye for characterisation, even the snarling La Tour d'Azyr becomes sympathetic, Scarmouche is simply one of the most fun novels I've ever read. Andre-Louis is a cold and driven man, and perhaps the modern reader would find his mastery of everything he turns his hand to off-putting, but frankly, given his heartless, mask-wearing character, I revelled in his journey and adventures. Equally, the modern reader might find the frame story a little episodic, might find the voice of chorus a little intrusive. Frankly, neither spoilt my enjoyment in the least.

I cheerfully admit that I was practically whooping with enjoyment by the time we came to the climax of Andre-Loiuis' quest for "libertie, equalitie and fraternitie" in memory of M. de Volmorin; for revenge of de La Tour d'Azyr for himself; and for the hand of the lovely lady - ah, but which one? The twists and turns of the plot, and the beautiful pacing are matched only by the endless quotability of the prose.

I know you all know this is a great novel, the platonic ideal of swashbucklers, and I know I've not done much to sell it above its already impressive reputation, but trust me, if you actually haven't actually read Scaramouche go and do so now. I'm off to continue reading The Banner of the Bull, which lacks the immediate impact of the opening line of Scaramouche, but nothing else so far...

[1] Annoyingly, I can't locate the suggestion now, even with the help of the all-knowing Google Groups. I could have sworn it was Joe's post quoted above. Perhaps it was a direct email from someone else?

Posted: Tue - August 26, 2003 at 01:22 AM