Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Alexandre Dumas' Twenty Years After

Whereas Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers has been turned into a plethora of movies and is read far and wide, its sequel, Twenty Years After, seems to be far less known. This really is a pity, for the novel is actually far superior to The Three Musketeers for several small reasons. In the modern day, when darker, grittier stories are preferred, Twenty Years After should really be increasing in popularity.

Even though the translation of the version that I read was nowhere near the quality of Richard Pevear’s recent translation of The Three Musketeers (how I wish he would turn his eyes to Dumas’ other works!), the story flows well and gives us an excellent look of the musketeers as they have grown up from heedless late teens and 20-somethings to the mature age of c. 40. Perhaps because I’m also in the same period in my life, the descriptions sound only more authentic to me. The musketeers are older, wiser and more guarded – some of them even perhaps somewhat disappointed in how their lives have turned out. Their meetings with each other are not as cheerful and happy-go-lucky as they were in the first novel, but they sound much truer for that.

The fact that the four musketeers are actually two and two for much of the novel really brings out their characters more than having them all together at all times would have. Even Porthos gets more involving in this story while Aramis is the only one who stays a bit more at the background. D’Artagnan is still the smartest and most cunning of the musketeers, but not to such annoying levels as he was in The Three Musketeers where he practically spied on all of his friends to take advantage of their secrets. Athos is still larger-than-life, although he is softened by fatherly feelings and no longer drinks himself silly at every chance he gets.

The main story also tells of a less cheerful time in history than the story of the first novel. It takes place during the first Fronde (civil war) that took place in France right after the end of the Thirty Years War. Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian, is one of the key characters in the story. He is much hated by the nobles and commoners who want him gone from France and are willing to oppose the queen herself to achieve that goal. But Cardinal Mazarin has in his pocket the weak queen, Anne of Austria, whose lover he is. And when it turns out that two of the four musketeers are serving Mazarin and two are amongst the Frondists, the darker story of the Twenty Years After is set in motion.

Without spoiling the story, I must say that I enjoyed it all and there was no dull moment in the entire length of the work. While The Three Musketeers suffered with the inclusion of several chapters describing Milady’s imprisonment, Twenty Years After has no such lulls in the story and keeps the pace up very well. It is more convoluted and political, for sure, but it stays interesting nevertheless.

Naturally, you will notice that it is not a modern work of fiction, as the storytelling style is free of the modern constraints and the author lets the plot wander about greatly before it comes to its conclusion. Likewise, you will come across descriptions that would be abhorred in modern fiction, such as the introduction of certain character that I quote here:
"Madame de Chevreuse, whose name appears so often in our story “The Three Musketeers” without her actually having appeared in any scene, was still a beautiful woman."
Such a direct reference to the previous work would be shunned today and I must admit that it – and other similar occurrences – are likely to destroy the immersion of the story for a few moments. To counteract these short moments, there are many wonderful phrases as well, many of them uttered in the story by Athos, such as:
"This child has helped me recover all that I had lost. I have lived not for myself, but for him. Instruction is good for a child; but example is worth more. This I have given him. The vices I had I have corrected. The virtues that I had not I have feigned to have..."
Overall, I must say that I liked the novel even better than I did The Three Musketeers. It is a darker and more melancholy story than the first one - and this is possibly the reason why it is not as popular and why I did not like it as much when I read it the first time many years ago - but it is also more gripping, emotional and... real for lack of a better term. I hereby redouble my wishes to one day have all of these books in some great hardcover editions on my bookshelf.