Stagecraft and swordplay: Scaramouche

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.

Four Commedia dell’Arte figures – Claude Gillot

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.

Back to the Classics: Twentieth Century classic
Classics Club List

When all times become one: A Fugue in Time

Rumer Godden, A Fugue in Time (1945)

Rumer Godden’s storytelling style often involves shifts in time and point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. In A Fugue in Time, she made time-shifting the whole basis of the narrative, telling interwoven stories of three different generations within the same London house. (The complete title was originally Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time).

We start with the “present” of the book (told in the past tense), when the elderly Rolls is reluctantly facing the end of his family home’s 99 year lease, when he will be forced to leave. The past inhabitants and events of the house appear (told in the present tense) in shifting waves that gradually build up a tragic legacy of misunderstanding. When two young relatives from different branches of the family come to the house, there is the potential to change that trajectory and move into a better future — which we also briefly glimpse from time to time.

If it sounds confusing, it is rather — but after I got used to the device, it was fairly easy to negotiate the different story threads. Having read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse not so long ago, the book reminded me of how Woolf also mixed up time and memory and point of view into a sort of kaleidoscopic impression. However, Godden’s language is more conventional than Woolf’s, aside from the frequent shifts that break it up into shorter or longer chunks.

The character of Griselda, Rolls’s mother, who quietly and futilely rebels against the constraints of her traditional female role, also reminded me of Woolf. I wonder how conscious these references may have been.

Not exactly a ghost story, more complex than a straight historical novel, this was an interesting experiment that didn’t completely take off for me. I understand that later Godden tried to do the same thing with China Court, perhaps more successfully, and I’d like to give that one a try. Have you read either of these? What did you think?

Classics Club List #21
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author


A Regency puzzle: Troy Chimneys

Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys (1952)

I’ve just finished Troy Chimneys, and already I want to read it again. This is partly to try to puzzle out the chronology, which is confused by a complicated multi-layer structure of diaries and letters bandied back and forth between various generations of different families — but it’s also because the story at the heart of this maze was worth the effort to dig through to it, a touching portrait of one man’s moral struggles.

To add a further complication, this man, Miles Lufton, born to an English clergyman’s family in 1782, thinks of himself as two men: Miles, the part of himself that would be happy to live in Wiltshire and “listen to the nightingale,” and Pronto, the social-climbing MP whose only goal in life is to enrich himself. The title refers to a house that Miles buys with Pronto’s gains with the idea that it can become a retreat for his better self, but this does not turn out as he had expected or hoped, as with so much else in his life. As he writes his memoirs he reflects on how the split in his being arose and how it may be bridged — perhaps by the evolution of a “third man,” one who can witness and transcend the limitations of both Miles and Pronto.

Miles’s life journey is framed by two love stories, one that takes place in his ignorant youth and one that arises as he approaches middle age. Here Kennedy is working with much the same material that occupied Georgette Heyer in her Regency romances, but gives it a more melancholy, reflective spin than those lighthearted concoctions do. Miles is always failing himself and others, and yet I don’t see him as a failure. His struggles resonate with our own, his quest for self-integration is both highly modern and one of the most ancient, archetypal human experiences. The ending is not a conventionally happy one, and yet it is somehow not depressing. By gaining self-knowledge, Miles has also gained a measure of freedom, and so his suffering is not felt to be in vain.

Kennedy’s evocation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (with some Victorian interludes) is lightly and expertly done. She crafts her language carefully to locate us in the period without sounding archaic. She has no need to throw about Regency slang or refer to details of fashion or etiquette; her characters simply exist in the time that belongs to them, without undue fuss and bother. To appreciate how she does this is yet another reason for rereading.

These are just a few of the thoughts that arose as I read this complex, playful, insightful and challenging novel. I don’t want to give away too many details, because part of the fun of reading is to discover them for yourself. If you venture to do so, be sure to plough through the framing letters at the beginning, which can be rather tough going, and get into Miles’s first Journal. I hope you will be quickly drawn into his story, as I was, and not want to leave.

Back to the Classics – Romance Classic
Classics Club list #53


Back to the Classics Challenge


With my focus on the Reading New England challenge this year, I didn’t manage to meet my goal of twelve books for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate — but I did complete six of the categories, and I’m pretty happy about that. Here’s what I read, with links to my reviews. Thanks to Karen for hosting, and I look forward to next year!

Karen has posted the categories for next year’s challenge. Here they are, along with what I think I MIGHT read for each one:

  • A 19th Century Classic – The Return of the Native
  • A 20th Century Classic – (1967 or earlier) Man’s Search for Meaning
  • A classic by a woman author – Excellent Women
  • A classic in translation –  The Magician of Lublin
  • A classic published before 1800 – Don Quixote
  • A romance classic – The Lark
  • A Gothic or horror classic – Heart of Darkness
  • A classic with a number in the title – A London Home in the 1890s
  • A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title – The Three Royal Monkeys – or Jennie/The Abandoned
  • A classic set in a place you’d like to visit – The Magic Mountain
  • An award-winning classic – Invisible Man (National Book Award)
  • A Russian Classic The Brothers Karamazov


And what I actually read:


The Pleasure of the Journey: Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced courtesy of the artist
Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced by permission of the artist

This summer, I finally read the comic classic Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. As I had found references to its characters and incidents in several other books (notably To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis), there was much that was familiar to me, and I almost had a feeling of deja vu as I recognized them. The Hampton Court maze! The pineapple tin! The tow-ropes! Montmorency! They seemed like old friends, even as I was encountering them for the first time.

Yet there were still some surprises, chief among which was the fact that Jerome doesn’t always write in the same humorous vein. There are some lyrical and sentimental passages, which I was not sure whether to take as parody or as serious relief, so to speak, from the hilarity of other sections.

Indeed, the book as a whole was more digressive and varied than I had expected. The main narrative thread — the author and his two friends (to say nothing of the dog) are taking a restorative trip down the Thames — often serves merely as an excuse for Jerome to muse about matters large and small: earlier trips on the river, the peculiarities of one’s friends, canine habits, etc. I suspect that if the passages that relate to the actual “present-day” journey of the three-men-in-a-boat were extracted, they would occupy a very slim volume on their own.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s precisely Jerome’s free-associating, wide-ranging comic/lyric/philosophic ramblings that provide the pleasure of this reading experience. If you’re impatient to get to the goal, you’ve missed the point of the journey.

I’m counting this for the Adventure category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. And if you think boating on the Thames is not adventurous enough, just read the part about the pineapple tin.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adventure Classic
Classics Club List #42


Reading New England: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

Eric Hodgins, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)

MrBlandingsThe tale of Mr. Blandings is briefly told: A successful New York advertising executive is suddenly seized with the wish for a country retreat for his family. He finds an old house he loves on a hill in Connecticut, but after paying far too much for it he learns it’s not worth fixing and that he’d better tear it down and build a new one. Costly misadventures with contractors, builders, bankers, lawyers, and other rapacious members of the home ownership business ensue, after which Mr. Blandings at last has the house of his dreams — and some new nightmares.

If you’ve suffered through much the same trials as Mr. B. — and even after 70 years, I don’t think they have changed that much — you may find them hilarious in retrospect, or unbearably painful. Drunken workers, missing equipment orders, mysterious “extras” on the contractor’s bill, expensive changes made in response to casual remarks by one’s unwitting wife…there’s not much on the “plus” side to balance out such disasters, so you’d better laugh if you don’t want to finish the book in tears.

from the film - found here
Construction scene from the film – found here

The main theme throughout is how much more everything costs than expected — about five times as much. In today’s money, a house that should have cost maybe $200,000 ends up at almost a million. This may seem incredible, but it’s exactly what happened to the book’s author, who nearly went bankrupt building his own “dream house” in New Milford, Connecticut, and had to sell it at a loss just two years later. That may be why the book’s humor is somewhat weighed down by an aura of bitterness.

I confess to finding this constant harping on finances to be somewhat annoying, coming from a very wealthy person who often as not had only his own extravagance to blame for his problems. I liked the book better when Hodgins got away from the money theme, as when Mrs B. tries to describe the paint colors she wants to the contractors (“If you’ll send one of your workmen to the A&P for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong”) or when Mr. B. is assaulted by Republican canvassers while trapped in an unfinished bathroom. Such incidents are easier to relate to for those of us who don’t have millions to throw away on our dreams.

In a further ironic twist, after selling the movie rights for $200,000 (over $2 million today), Hodgins tried to buy his house back, but didn’t succeed. The house still stands, and the current owners are quite proud of its heritage, even preserving the butter-yellow dining room. The film, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, became a classic and according to many is better than the book; the house built in California for the movie set is also still there, used as the headquarters for the Malibu State Park. In a further metafictional twist, replicas were built around the country as a promotional gimmick — here’s one in Portland, Oregon. And so the dream lives on…



Reading New England Challenge: Fiction
Back to the Classics Challenge: 20th Century Classic
Classics Club List #46

Back to the Classics Challenge


I enjoyed the Back to the Classics challenge so much last year, I’m back for more this year! I’ll be trying again for all twelve categories. I’ve attempted to find titles that fit into my own Reading New England challenge (indicated with NE in parentheses), as well knocking off some of my Classics Club list. This list will surely change during the year, so I’ll update it as necessary.

Are you joining? What’s on your list?

  • 19th century classicThe Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells (NE)
  • 20th century classicMr Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins (NE)
  • Classic by a woman authorUnderstood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (NE)
  • Classic in translation Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
  • Classic by a non-white authorThe Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
  • An adventure classicThree Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
  • Fantasy, science fiction, or dystopianLooking Backward by Edward Bellamy (NE)
  • Classic detective novel – The Transcendental Murder by Jane Langton (NE)
  • Name of a placeThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (NE)
  • Banned or censoredA Separate Peace by John Knowles (NE)
  • Reread from high schoolDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Short Stories –  Dubliners by James Joyce

Reading New England: A Separate Peace

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.



Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20

Challenge Wrap-up

As the new year approaches, it’s time to review how I did with the challenges I took on this year.


Top on my list was the Back to the Classics challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate, and I’m pleased that I did manage to read one book from each of the twelve categories.



Then there was the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight. My goal was to do one post per month, putting me at the “Discussion Dabbler” level. I really enjoyed this opportunity to mix up the content on my blog, and the discussion posts garnered many interesting and thoughtful comments. My personal favorites: Does reading matter? and Are there too many book blogs?

Here are links to all the monthly topics:



I wasn’t supposed to do any more challenges, but I couldn’t resist the Once Upon a Time Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings, which features some of my favorite genres. I read one book from each of the four categories:

I had a wonderful time time with all these challenges this year, but next year I’m hosting one of my own, Reading New England, and I’ll need to focus on that. I’ll also be continuing with the 2016 Book Blog Discussion Challenge. I know I’ll keep reading classics but I’m not sure which ones at this point.

What challenges did you participate in this year? What are your plans for next year?

Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation