Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scaramouche - Rafael Sabatini

rafael sabatini
c. 1921
406 pages
completed 1/8/2011

read for: historical fiction challenge, page to screen challenge

*may contain spoilers*

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

Distraught after the murder of his childhood friend, Monsier Philippe Vilmorin, for his "dangerous gift of eloquence," Andre-Louis Moreau vows to see justice done. After being brushed off by the law due to the murderer being a Marquis, Andre-Louis takes to the streets of France to incite the Third Estate against the over privileged nobility, continuing the work Philippe died for, though he himself doesn't believe in his friend's idealism. His speeches, echos of Philippe's words, are considered treasonous, and Andre-Louis is forced to go into hiding. He takes up with a band of improvisational actors in the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, but he doesn't forget his vow to avenge Philippe or the politics that drove him into hiding. Andre-Louis's life becomes an adventure of secrecy and swashbuckling sword fights, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, during which his original cynicism may yet become the idealism of his friend.

First off, I always love a strong and memorable opening line and this is definitely a great one. And it really sets the tone for the rest of the book. I don't often notice an author's particular writing style and sentence structure unless it annoys me, but this is one of the times when I noticed how much I felt it added to the story.

Plot-wise I found this book to be constantly engaging with elements of both drama and comedy. It had a good balance of both which I found refreshing. Sometimes adventure/swashbuckling stories like this can take themselves a little too seriously and be too straightforward. And at other times they can try to be a little too hyper-aware and fall over themselves trying to be in on the joke. I hope that made sense. There was a lot of humor, especially in Andre-Louis' scenes with the acting troupe, and some rather dark comedy when Andre-Louis would address the National Assembly after killing other Assemblymen in duels. Yet there was constant drama as well, both political (this is the French Revolution, after all) and much more personal.

I found certain aspects of the personal drama to be a little soapy (the identity of Andre-Louis' mother was obvious as soon as the woman was introduced, even though Andre-Louis had no idea), but for the most part it was deeply complex (I was SHOCKED by the identity of Andre-Louis' father). One aspect that really made the book enjoyable for me was the fact that the villain, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr, is introduced very much through the eyes of Andre-Louis and Philippe and so for the first half of the book he seems like nothing more than a monster. However, as the book goes on the reader is able to see him through his own eyes and really come to understand some of his motivations making him much more complex and more man than monster. At first these scenes seemed so incongruous with the way Andre-Louis viewed him, but eventually I was able to put all the pieces together to understand him more. By the end he's much more an antagonist than a straight up villain.

The last time I read a book that focused so much on the politics of the French Revolution, I really wasn't able to comment on the historical accuracy of that book (see: Mistress of the Revolution). This time, however, I was just coming off a history class on the French Revolution. I have to say, it's extremely enjoyable to read a historically set book and really feel like you have a solid grasp on the history of the time. I mean, let's be for real, one class hardly makes me an expert or anything, but having that knowledge really enhanced my enjoyment. I even have a historical quibble! In the book, Andre-Louis went from a member of the National Constituent Assembly to the Legislative Assembly newly created under the constitution of 1791. This would have been impossible, however, as Robespierre passed a "self-denying ordinance" barring any member of the National Assembly from sitting for the Legislative Assembly. This one quibble in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book, though. In fact, it just made me feel smart. If there had been lots of mistakes, that would have been another story...


As I read this in part for the Page to Screen Challenge, check out my review of the 1952 film version.

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