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The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas Camilla Send a noteboard - 04/11/2009 11:44:32 AM
I was 10 when I read my way through the Musketeer-books that first time. They put me on a path I have followed since, both as a reader and a student. I still start grinning like a madwoman whenever I come across references to historical characters that remind me of these books, and I do not hesitate to place at their feet my subsequent interest in history.

I have also been fascinated by unfinished narrative for a while, especially the kind of narrative which was originally published as a feuilleton and remains unfinished because of the author's death.

When I stumbled across this newfound (2005) historic novel by Alexandre Dumas, never finished because he died … well. I had great expectations. I bought it, skipped away from the store clutching the copy, giggling.

Now. My expectations, my demands when it comes to Dumas, are not only that the books be historically accurate (to a certain point). While it is my impression that the man knew his history, his interpretation of events is often a little to the side of the general consensus. I still struggle to realise that Charles I and II may not have been the paragons of virtue that Vingt Ans Aprés and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne had led me to believe. On the flip side, though, it is thanks to these books that I know what I do about the English Civil War, the Fronde, the Restoration and the introduction of the absolute monarchy in France.

No, what I demand, first and foremost, of Dumas, is good writing and good characters. That is not altogether true. I expect characters that you can lift off the page and carry with you, characters that are not bound by plot or description. Is that too much to ask for?

Reading The Last Cavalier, which is the English name of this new book (the French Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine (1869)), was a terrible ordeal. Not because it is bad -- it isn't. It has some excellent parts. Let me try to explain. Dumas usually (and I am basing this on what I have read: I am not yet old enough to have read his entire opus) writes two main types of characters. Or at least I experience them as different.

The first is what I think of as the fictional. They are often also based in real people (d'Artagnan being the star example, I suppose), but they are obscure enough that the author can mostly meld them as he sees fit. I suspect the reason why The Three Musketeers and the subsequent books have attained such a central place in world literature is because he here created truly live characters complete with idiosyncrasies and character flaws -- none of them are perfect, and that makes them more interesting to read, more endearing.

The second type is the major historical character, those we already know of and quite a lot about. I have always admired Dumas' ability to make them complex and … real? He does not only focus on the larger political concerns, war and peace, does not paint in thick strokes of one colour. He presents the minor concerns, how they affect the larger decisions, their nobility and their flaws (although in the case of Charles I and II, that was lost on me). You have probably noticed how what I appreciate here is much the same as in the earlier group of characters. Complexity and humanity.

There is a reason why I have divided the characters in this way, however. In the last type of characters, The Last Cavalier does live up to my expectations. The descriptions of Napoleon are exciting, and the same holds true for Caroudal and Nelson (although the latter does feel rather more like a sketch). They were entertaining. So entertaining that whenever the story returned to the protagonist, Hector de Sainte-Hermine, I just got depressed and put the book down. The gap between what this book could have been and what it is is overpowering, and this is primarily due to the protagonist. He is, thankfully, out of sight for long stretches, but when he shows back up he is so nauseatingly perfect I didn't know whether to laugh or vomit.

If I had had to read one more time about how far he can throw cannon balls (with one hand, twelve meters), how accurately he can shoot (three bullets on top of each other in the bullseye), how high he climb in the mast of the ship during a storm while all others hesitate &c., &c. … if I had had to read "Huzzah! Huzzah! for Captain René one more time (René is a pseudonym he takes on), or yet another description of how easily he inspires complete loyalty in his men … ick.

He kills Nelson, by never takes credit; he shoots tigers without any problems (all you have to do, after all, is shoot them in the eye, for a tiger is only dangerous when injured); he is nobel, faithful to a woman who thinks him dead; other women die of their love for him; he takes no credit for his feats, demands nothing, bleh … .

It may be that Dumas felt there was simply too much to live up to for someone not disgustingly perfect. He had written about the Sainte-Hermine family before (in Companions of Jehu, for example), and as the last of the brothers Hector could not be allowed to betray the honour of the family in any way. And yet, he had to portray the last of a royalist family during the heyday of Napoleon. I also suspect the killing of Nelson was one of the core ideas. But the result is laughable. In a truly tragic way.

That being said, I am glad I read it. I should perhaps again emphasise that the parts treating the larger historical events and characters are truly interesting (even if he goes a little overboard with details of the Battle of Trafalgar). I especially liked the sequence on Lady Hamilton, the great love of Nelson (I have known of her for a long time, but I have known very little about her). Similarly, the parts on Cadoudal and the Companions of Jehu in Bretagne. I notice I am almost about to suggest one read only these sections and skip everything to do with the main character, but that may be going too far.

All this bitterness is due to my severe disappointment. The foundation of this story is potentially brilliant; the constellation of historical persons and evens intriguing; even Hector's background story is quite seductive. So why couldn't he make it work?

structured procrastinator
This message last edited by Jacob on 17/11/2009 at 06:03:13 PM
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The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas - 04/11/2009 11:44:32 AM 4372 Views
Excellent summary and review. Thank you. - 04/11/2009 02:23:56 PM 1394 Views
Re: Excellent summary and review. Thank you. - 04/11/2009 02:30:04 PM 1327 Views
I think I probably liked it more than you - 04/11/2009 02:53:35 PM 1305 Views
Re: I think I probably liked it more than you - 04/11/2009 02:55:41 PM 1507 Views
I can almost promise - 04/11/2009 03:14:44 PM 1376 Views
Re: I can almost promise - 04/11/2009 03:33:37 PM 1345 Views
I agree with what Jacob said - 04/11/2009 03:46:38 PM 1354 Views
Re: I agree with what Jacob said *spoiler* - 04/11/2009 03:48:55 PM 1301 Views
Re: I think I probably liked it more than you - 06/11/2009 05:01:58 PM 1566 Views
Mmmmmmnot according to the editor of the version I have - 08/11/2009 03:27:22 PM 1348 Views

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