Sunday, 28 July 2013

Alexandre Dumas' The Vicomte de Bragelonne

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is one of those novels that everyone sees as a must-read – or if they are not readers, then they have seen at least one film version of this classic tale. But when it comes to the two sequels in the d’Artagnan Romances, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, even most readers are relatively unaware of them. I’ve previously written about the two first novels, and they are the ones I was familiar with from the past as well. The third novel in the series is a new experience for me, although I’ve seen parts of it turned into movies before – The Man in the Iron Mask, that is.

The reason why I also put off reading this last part was the simple fact that I needed to have time on my hands to find the most complete editions of the story. What makes it confusing is that this extremely vast novel has been published in various different editions, one of them cutting the story in three parts, one in four and one in five. What makes this even more bewildering is that while the third part in its entirety is often known simply as Ten Years Later, this is also the name of the second part of the four volume edition. Therefore, if you simply pick up this volume, you will be rendered into confusion as the story begins from chapter 76 and several things seem to have passed since Twenty Years After... To further befuddle things, there’s also another version of Ten Years Later out there, containing chapters 1-104 of the full story.

Basically, the best service you can do yourself is to use the translations provided by the Gutenberg Project where you can find the novel cut in four parts: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, Louise de la Valliere and The Man in the Iron Mask. This collection covers all the chapters from 1 to 269. These are in HTML format, but the Calibre e-book management program easily converts these to any e-book format you happen to prefer. I will read these parts one by one and write about each of them as I progress through the story. This article, therefore, deals with The Vicomte de Bragelonne, the 778 page first part of this veritable tome of stories.

At the start of the story we quickly learn that the events are set in 1660, some twelve years after the events of the previous tome and thirty-five years after the events of The Three Musketeers. D’Artagnan himself is 53 years old at this point and the three ex-musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, are a few years older than that. All of them are well past the carefree phases of their lives and some of them more disappointed in their lives than the others. Like in the previous novel, some of the ex-musketeers are somewhat estranged from each other and find themselves working on opposite sides of a power struggle.

As I said above, this edition of the first part of the story is named The Vicomte de Bragelonne. Reading the novel, you are constantly wondering where that name comes from as the said vicomte – who is the protegee of Athos, the Comte de Bragelonne – appears only here and there during the course of d’Artagnan’s adventures. He disappears completely while d’Artagnan is looking for his fortune in foreign lands and comes back for a chapter or two when d’Artagnan returns to Paris. Only to disappear again when d’Artagnan heads out on another mission. He is actually on the pages less than King Louis XIV is and, as the story deals largely with this king’s ascension to the throne and the events that follow, one might not have gone too wrong in expecting the king’s name to appear in the title instead of the young vicomte’s.

Overall, the story takes detours at every turn in the way that only the novels written in the 19th century could. Aside from being centred around the ascension of King Louis XIV, the story lacks a central thread. We get to follow the vicomte for a couple of chapters, then the prince before his ascension, but also Cardinal Mazarin, Athos and – mostly – d’Artagnan. d’Artagnan’s first mission takes him away from France and is – to modern eyes and expectations – a major detour in the story. But while one is aware that this sort of novel would never pass the editor’s desk in these days, it is actually very refreshing to read a novel that is not restricted by the modern, rather formulaic expectations of and demands on novel structure.

The translation offered by the Gutenberg Project is of very high quality and is written in properly archaic language littered with terms that are no longer used or have changed in modern usage. Alongside the archaic story structure, this is very refreshing and gives you a nice understanding of the vocabulary of days past. However, one must wonder if some of the amusing qualities of the writing are not actually more dependent on the fact that the story was originally serialised and the author was probably paid per word. How else could you explain the sorts of exchanges as the one that follows below, where d’Artagnan discusses the wonders of printed word with a fellow traveller he meets on the road:

"Well, then, I cannot comprehend, if that is a letter, how you can make a word."
"A word?"
"Yes, a printed word."
"Oh, that's very easy."
"Let me see."
"Does it interest you?"
"Well, I will explain the thing to you. Attend."
"I am attending."
"This is it."
"Look attentively."
"I am looking."

This sort of dialogue is, of course, very amusing to read, but at the same time it makes you wonder if the author was not purposefully lengthening the story to make more money from the paper that published the serial.

Overall, The Vicomte de Bragelonne was a great read with no dull parts to be found. The main story of the successor of Cardinal Mazarin and rich land owners competing for power has its first notes played, but you get the sense that there is a lot more to follow and the battle will become bloodier and more ruthless as it continues. You also wonder how the four musketeers, d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are going to maintain their friendship as their lives and livelihoods are closely intertwined with those of the great powers. Will the losers of that battle bring down some of our beloved heroes as they fall?