Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)
After watching the 1952 movie of Scaramouche, with its brilliant fencing matches between Mel Ferrer and Stewart Granger, I became curious to read the book. How would the author deal with these exciting action sequences? And would the book give more context and background for the historical and political aspects of the plot? I had seen several swashbuckling films based on the works of this well-known historical novelist, but never read any of his books. How would they hold up today?
I was pleased to find that Scaramouche is not only just as exciting on the page as on the screen, but also features some wonderful bits of dialogue that didn’t make it into the film, and has a much more sensibly constructed plot. Where the movie mixes up and muddles the three aspects of hero Andre-Louis’s life — as a lawyer in the French province of Brittany, as a member of a traveling Commedia dell’Arte troupe, and as a swordsman working to improve his art and confront his aristocratic nemesis — the book divides these into three sequential parts and focuses on one at a time. The initial conflict, in which the evil Marquis kills Andre-Louis’s friend makes much more sense too, as do his relationships with the two women in his life. And the ideas and events of the historical setting, during the years leading up to the French revolution, are naturally able to be developed more fully in a full-length book. The result is a historical romance that is entertaining without being empty, an adventure that might also make you think.
Andre-Louis is the kind of character who can easily become annoying, a person who seems to be good at everything he does. First he’s a successful, if somewhat cynical, provincial lawyer; then when he makes a seditious speech in honor of his friend, he goes on the run, falls in with a troupe of traveling players and not only suddenly becomes an excellent comic actor but guides the whole company to new heights; and then, when he has to go on the run again, he takes a job as a Parisian fencing master’s assistant (though he’s only had a few lessons himself) and becomes outstanding at that as well.
Yet somehow he didn’t annoy me, and I think it may be because his success comes from the wholehearted way he throws himself into everything he does. He has no desire to impress anyone with his superiority, or to evade responsibility for his mistakes, but simply takes his fate as it comes and does the best he can in each new situation. This is the quality that is most heroic about him, not any particular ability or skill that he demonstrates.
He also combines thought and action at each stage of his life, identifying what needs improving in the acting troupe and making it happen, and then reading books about fencing as well as practicing ripostes and thrusts, in order to find a more efficient and intelligent way of defeating his opponent. As his journey progresses, he moves from mouthing revolutionary ideals only as an homage to his dead friend, to truly believing in and fighting for what he believes is right, showing that his initial cynical detachment has moved into a more integrated personality. And at the end of his quest for revenge, he finds the need for mercy and forgiveness, and sees his own motives more clearly.
Throughout, his signature role of Scaramouche (a clever rogue who is one of the stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte), informs his approach to life, even though he acts it on the stage for only a short time. He never loses his ironic view of the world, and at the most dramatic moments tends to break into laughter or make a humorous remark. And yet, this “gift of laughter” never becomes bitter or rancorous, and more often than not he is poking fun at himself. “To understand is always to forgive,” he says at one point, quoting Montaigne. As we human beings bumble through life with our ridiculously partial and incomplete understanding, sometimes laughter can be the most appropriate response of all, restoring perspective and wholeness to our imbalanced view.
I do recommend watching the movie — the slapstick scenes in the theater are fun, and the fight scenes are truly amazing. But I also recommend reading the book for a fuller and richer experience of Sabatini’s adventurous spirit.
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