Monday, September 05, 2005

Name of a Name!

My travel reading was "Scaramouche" by Rafael Sabatini -- or, to give the full title, "Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution." As with all Sabatini novels except "Captain Blood," don't expect it to have much to do with the sound film version; while the 1923 silent film is reportedly a faithful adaptation, the 1952 sound film keeps a few basic details of the plot and changes almost everything else.

I can never really make up my mind as to whether I like Sabatini or not. His novels are incredibly readable, that's for sure; despite the ornate, flowery prose and the even more ornate, even more flowery dialogue, "Scaramouche" moves at a remarkably fast pace, going from incident to incident and from one big set piece to another with such speed and skill that we barely have time to notice how implausible much of it is. And the appeal of the lead character of "Scaramouche" (and of "Captain Blood," who is almost the same character) is obvious too. He's not your usual milquetoasty hero of an action-adventure story, too good to be true; Andre-Louis Moreau is cynical, anti-social, arrogant and sometimes quite obnoxious. These things make him more, not less appealing, because he seems more like a real person than most action heroes, and because he has a sense of humor about himself and the situations in which he finds himself.

Andre is also appealing because he is an early example of a type of action hero who would become more and more popular as the 20th century went on: the Average Joe who turns out to be exceptional. When the book starts, Andre is just a lawyer, uninterested in politics or in anything, really, except book-learnin'. He is, in other words, a nerd. His sarcasm and cynicism make him more like the Simpsons' Comic Book Guy than a swashbuckling hero. But when he vows to avenge his friend's death, and has to take action, he discovers that he is not merely good at hero stuff, but the best. In part 1, he turns out to be the world's greatest orator, making speeches that practically jump-start the whole French Revolution (even though he himself doesn't believe what he's saying, he's mastered the art of sounding passionate about things he doesn't believe); in part 2, going on the run and joining a run-down theatrical troupe, he becomes the world's greatest actor and scenarist, almost single-handedly turning the troupe into a success; in part 3, he takes up fencing and becomes the deadliest swordsman in France. And part of the conceit of the book is that his success is not despite, but because of, his nerdy book-learnin' ways. His success with the theatre troupe comes in large part because of his knowledge of the great playwrights of the past; his success as a fencer comes not because of his training, but because of his voracious reading of books by the great fencing experts of the past (books at which other fencing-masters, apparently, don't bother to look). So the great fantasy of "Scaramouche" is that nerdiness is actually an advantage to becoming a hero and getting the girls. No wonder I enjoyed reading it.

The flaws are equally obvious: the plot is not very well structured, so that the three parts are almost separate stories (important characters disappear after part 2; other important characters are presented for the first time in part 3, and Sabatini has to rush to establish their importance). The 1952 movie script actually did a better job of tying together the separate strands of the story, and also of giving some real suspense to Andre's big duel with his enemy -- in the book, his enemy is so much older, and Andre has gotten so good with a sword, that the outcome is basically a foregone conclusion, and the only "suspense" comes from some farcical misunderstandings by other characters. Sabatini's "historical" details now come off as somewhat twee, as does his narrator's pretence that he's getting a lot of this story from unpublished "Confessions" by the hero. And you eventually get so tired of the purple prose that you want to reach back through time and tell Sabatini to take another English-as-a-second-language course, this time in colloquial English. But if "Scaramouche" isn't a great adventure novel, nor a novel with much of a point to it in the end -- what is the point of the story, really, other than that fate and/or coincidence rules Andre's life and that he deals with it by pretending not to take life seriously? -- it's an entertaining one, all round.

One other thing about reading the novel is that it gives me still more appreciation of how good Stewart Granger (real name: James Stewart, but he couldn't use his real name for obvious reasons) was in the sound movie. He really did a fine job of portraying the guy Sabatini wrote about, his attractive qualities as well as his obnoxious qualities.

No comments: