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Simone Bertière - Dumas et les Mousquetaires DomA Send a noteboard - 09/05/2011 09:49:15 PM
Simone Bertière
Dumas et les mousquetaires, histoire d'un chef-d'oeuvre

(Dumas and the Musketeers, history of a masterpiece)

I would like to be for my reader something better than a narrator whom everyone, following their whims, make their own mental image of. I would like to become a real living being, palpable and part of their life I steal a few hours from – a kind of friend, in short. And so I might die a little less, it seems to me. In a hundred years, in two hundred years, in a thousand years from now, when mores, costumes, languages, races themselves perhaps, when everything will have changed, through one of my stories that perhaps might survive, I shall remain alive a little.

Alexandre Dumas

The Three Musketeers barely celebrated their one hundred fiftieth birthday not two decades ago and only time will tell how many more centuries of fame they have ahead of them, but so far Dumas' wishes have been more than fulfilled. D'Artagnan and his friends are the best known and most popular French literary characters worlwide, the stars of countless adaptations in many languages, totally outclassing in general culture the likes of Monte Cristo, Madame Bovary, Julien Sorel and Jean Valjean (all more or less contemporary creations), their two creators reliving in a fun French movie last year (L'Autre Dumas) while Dumas's work, characters and person loom over Umberto Eco's latest novel. Dumas' d'Artagnan is the reason the word musketeer has not only survived into modern languages instead of being relegated to history books, but that it's become a popular synonym for daring fighters in business or for causes, and for solid partnerships and friendships.

In between more demanding works, and expanding on a new presentation of the novels a French publisher commissionned from her, French historian Simone Bertières devoted herself to what she calls "a fun to write little book", setting out to write the history of Dumas's trilogy. Bertières is a lover of Dumas' novels since her chilhood, and, as a writer, she's one of the most read French historians of her generation. Aside from her academical duties where she specializes in cultural and political history of the 17th century to the 1789 revolution, she's written since the late 1990s several best-selling biographies, notably of Cardinal Mazarin and Cardinal de Retz, an anthology of XVIIth century literature, but is probably best known for her fresh, extremely readable and insightful series of books devoted to the Valois and Bourbon Queens (and a few mistresses), from Marie de Médécis to Marie-Antoinette, leaving the boudoir and alcove anedoctes to others and focussing on the evolution of the function ad role of Queen, on women's condition and on the social and political importance of these women (her volume devoted to Marie-Antoinette has been especially praised). In effect, Bertière has devoted many years of study to the very historical figures Dumas turned into iconic characters, and this is probably the greatest interest of her newest book.

A "little book" it might be, clocking at barely 300 pages, and fun it certainly is, but the fact she considered this a light work for which she didn't have to do original research didn't stop Bertière from offering her personal vision with her usual clarity of thought and her keen sense for synthesis and analysis, alternating between biography, history and literary criticism, with her simple and enjoyable prose.

The book is loosely divided in three parts. In the first, Bertières summarizes Dumas' colourful life up to the writing of the trilogy, relying heavily for this (of her own admission) on the biography written by the number one living specialist of Alexandre Dumas and his work, Claude Schopp, but as is usual in her books she deals swiftly with matters not relevant to her subject (such as most of Dumas' love life, or his financial problems not related to the Musketeers), paying the greatest attention to the circumstances that would lead the son of a general who had a falling through with Napoléon and an innkeeper's daughter to Paris, to a bureaucratic sinecure and finally literature, and how the most succesful playwright of his day turned instead into a novelist with the writing of The Three Musketeers . Of greater interest (especially to those like me who have read Schopp's mammoth biography) is her portrait of the literary milieu and context of the period, placing Dumas vividly if swiftly in context with his contemporaries like his on-and-off friend Victor Hugo, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert and Sue, narrating the emergence first of Romantic theater (a new genre inaugurated by Dumas's massive success Henri III and Hugo's failing Marion Delorme), and the transformation of "feuilleton de roman", when novels (such as Balzac's) where simply divided in parts for publishing in newspapers (a "feuilleton" was just what we call now a regular column) into roman-feuilleton (a term coined by Dumas) when Eugène Sue, for Les Mystères de Paris, rather started to structure a novel to take the most advantage of its episodic publication, thereby creating a new literary genre (the ancestor of tv series) soon after embraced by Dumas and his employee-partner Auguste Maquet, with Les Trois Mousquetaires.

Her stage thus set, Bertière moves on with a critical presentation of each of the three Musketeers novels and the history of their writing, exploring along the way the collaboration with Auguste Maquet (and taking position in the debate: what's Maquet's and what's Dumas', a question Bertière answers well if succintly).. It's Bertière's intimate knowledge of the primary and secondary historical sources (Mémoires, chronicles etc.) and cultural history from this period of French history that makes the salt of this part, as she is extremely well placed to look into the source material and show the true genius of Dumas for transforming the facts and historical figures into great drama and find the gaps through which he could send his characters. She also makes very interesting observations on Dumas' idealized 17th century, not the work of a naïve writer, but the very conscious efforts of an adept and cultured playwright with a great historical culture, who built this universe as a modern fantasy writer would do, to place on the stage characters as modern day larger than life heroes, fighting against Evil (the diabolical Milady and her son) in adventures that owe a lot to classical epics, but spiced up by Dumas' personality - he didn't take himself too seriously, and his love of humour and light irony. Dumas explicitely invited his audience to read his novels at the second degree, as folktales. She topples or explains a few myths along the way, like the accusation often levelled at Dumas of "padding" his prose to increase his revenues as he was paid by the line (but for a set number of volumes, which he often exceeded and wasn't paid for). She also puts to rest this image of Dumas as someone a bit naïve, having delusions about the literary worth of his work, when in fact he had a vast literary culture and often interesting things to say about his contemporaries' work (pointing out Dumas was also one of the most respected literary critics of his time, citing his thoughts on Hugo – he admired his poetic prose but lamented the fact Hugo put it too much to the service of melodrama with poor dramatic structure, or his review of Madame Bovary:

(…) Madame Bovary is rich in details, brilliant in its style; Flaubert's sentence is full of colourful twists and turns, with unusual and surprising endings which, in our opinion, lends it a superiority over Balzac's. But, for all this, the reader of Flaubert feels along the way a fatigue alike that of a traveller who's taken a too heavy walking stick; a stick that instead of providing him support as he walks ends up tiring him up, forcing him to stop and sit down by the road to put the stick down to rest. With each page we recognize the brilliance of Madame Bovary, but with each page in order to recognize it we had to stop, so that in the end he took us eight or nine days to finish the book. Only, once the novel is finally read, this kind of fatigue, which is a kind of praise in itself, is forgotten and all that remains is the charm of Flaubert's writing. . Dumas could read for all in his own writing he was very careful that his language remained simple and accessible even to the less educated readers, just as he knew his History more than most, for all he twisted it in his novels. As Bertière points out, Dumas was not naïve but showing his sense of dramatic writing when he depicted figures like Richelieu, Mazarin or Colbert as villains for drama's sake. In truth, Richelieu was one of the historical figures Dumas had the greatest admiration for… thus his curious rehabilitation in Vingt Ans Après

In the last fifty pages, Bertières discusses more broadly Dumas's own vision of history and its place in his work, the place of the Three Muskeeters in Dumas's body of work, his difficulties at recognizing his true worth as a storyteller that lead late his life, when roman-feuilleton (but not is novels in print) was falling out of favour and he was hoping for more recognition of as a novelist to attempts to re position his body of works as some coherent global project to weave a tapestry of the history of France, to do for the past what Balzac had done for the present with La Comédie Humaine. Of course, Dumas's work has no such internal coherence, and Bertière even wonders if The Three Musketeers trilogy can properly be called historical novels, or if rather they're a story in the tradition of Arthuriana, or Don Quixotte, a universe of fantasy that anticipates the modern genre and takes its roots (and many of its devices and tropes) in myths and tales/fairytales.. She explores how much of himself Dumas put into his the four musketeers, especially d'Artagnan, how much they carried his dreams and his later socio-political delusions. She concludes with observations on Dumas' modernity. In many ways, he was France's first "modern writer", living with many of the same constraints under which contemporary novelists labor, but most of Dumas's contemporaries didn't. Dumas just couldn't afford to be another Flaubert, taking months to edit his work and refine his prose (as Dumas tended to do for his plays) Stendhal wrote by choice for the elites alone, Flaubert lived as an hermit and wrote for himself, even Hugo was from early on independent of fortune. Not for Dumas this luxury, Dumas whose living always depended on his continuous success with the readers and on how profilic he could be, and who managed to do so without falling into facility. Dumas isn't technically a "popular writer": his stories are steeped in history, not in folklore or collective memory, but he had the genius to make them play on the same strengths that assured the enduring success of popular literature, from epics to folklore and fairytales.

For all her avowed admiration for Les Trois Mousquetaires, Bertière is too much the historian to fail to show Dumas' many flaws and failures (she considers Le Vicomte de Bragelonne a complete mess, among other reservations) and his less flattering sides as a man, or to point out his many mistakes. But her love for the works, and her obvious pleasure at re reading Dumas (and she shows a great familiarity with far more than the Musketeers novels) shines through the book and is infectious, making her fast-paced exploration of these three classics a fun and charming read that makes it very tempting to go reread the novels and which is totally devoid of the occasional tedium afflicting Schopp's very detailed biography of Dumas. A downside of her swift style for some could be that Bertière do not much quotes or describes scenes from the books, merely sending the reader in the footnotes to the right chapter in the novels, which implies some prior familiarity with the books to fully enjoy her points without stopping a lot to go back to the novels. She also doesn't go in depth into period details, often merely providing pointers and relying a lot on the readers' historical culture – but for most it shouldn't be much of a problem; understanding of some of the details of Monarchie de Juillet, Second Empire etc. are quite secondary to the book's subject.

NB: Bertière's works are translated from French into a few other European languages, but not so far, AFAIK, in English. Perhaps the popularity of her subject will eventually interest an American or British editor. Her French is relatively simple and straighforward.

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Simone Bertière - Dumas et les Mousquetaires - 09/05/2011 09:49:15 PM 5629 Views
Thanks for the review! I am now torn... - 09/05/2011 09:58:01 PM 673 Views
Re: Thanks for the review! I am now torn... - 09/05/2011 10:37:26 PM 798 Views
Read the Dumas first - 10/05/2011 05:02:33 PM 652 Views
Hmm - 11/05/2011 07:53:23 AM 637 Views
Re: Hmm - 11/05/2011 11:40:21 AM 575 Views
I need this book. - 10/05/2011 04:51:17 PM 768 Views
Re: I need this book. - 11/05/2011 12:44:23 AM 869 Views
Re: I need this book. - 11/05/2011 09:58:27 AM 1365 Views
Re: I need this book. - 11/05/2011 02:23:35 PM 708 Views
Re: I need this book. - 11/05/2011 08:18:14 PM 824 Views
It came in the mail today. - 20/05/2011 12:16:22 PM 634 Views
Aaand I started it. Damn. - 20/05/2011 08:39:42 PM 606 Views
Re: Aaand I started it. Damn. - 26/05/2011 02:51:31 PM 639 Views
Re: Aaand I started it. Damn. - 26/05/2011 02:55:11 PM 661 Views

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