Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution from 1921 is perhaps the most acclaimed of Sabatini's works. However, before I finally read it, my only knowledge of it came from the 1952 film, which I liked but never enough to actually go and try the novel before now. It turns out that I had been missing one of the best historical fiction novels ever written.
The poor lad's head was full of this encyclopaedist trash. It comes of too much reading. I have never set much store by books, Andre; and I have never known anything but trouble to come out of learning. It unsettles a man. It complicates his views of life, destroys the simplicity which makes for peace of mind and happiness. - Rafael Sabatini
The protagonist is Andre-Louis Moreau, a disillusioned, cynical young lawyer, who - in the words of the author - "was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad." He believes in no cause, although the seeds of the French revolution are sprouting around him. Only when his best friend, a young clergyman and a revolutionist, is murdered in an unfair duel by Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr does Andre-Louis begin to use his talents to further the cause that his friend believed in. He is soon hunted by the aristocracy and has to hide in a theatre troupe under an assumed name, until he is once again persuaded to take a stand.
You must change man, not systems. Can you and our vapouring friends of the Literary Chamber of Rennes, or any other learned society of France, devise a system of government that has never yet been tried? Surely not. And can they say of any system tried that it proved other than a failure in the end? My dear Philippe, the future is to be read with certainty only in the past. Ab actu ad posse valet consecutio. Man never changes. He is always greedy, always acquisitive, always vile. I am speaking of Man in the bulk. - Rafael Sabatini
Scaramouche is a sweeping tale of the life of one man and his part in the French revolution. Andre-Louis is a fascinating, complex protagonist, who initially seems to belong to the same pulp hero mold as many other characters of the period, but is slowly revealed to be something much more - a wounded character whose cynicism and aloofness is perhaps only one of the symptoms of his fate in life. He acutely observes the social conflict around him, offers biting analysis of politics. He treads a multifaceted path in life from a young lawyer to an actor, a fencing master and finally a politician, as he gradually approaches his final confrontation with Marquis de La Tour d'Azyr and his ultimate realisation of what kind of a man he actually is himself.
For he is Scaramouche not only on the stage, but also in the world. He has a gift of sly intrigue, an art of setting folk by the ears, combined with an impudent aggressiveness upon occasion when he considers himself safe from reprisals. He is Scaramouche, the little skirmisher, to the very life. - Rafael Sabatini
Perhaps one of the most admirable aspects of the novel is how the political analysis and discussions of human condition in it still apply to modern times, especially so right now when politics in Europe and elsewhere have become more radicalised than in a long time. The French Revolution put people against people in a bloody conflict that might make for downbeat story, but Sabatini instills it with laughter, wit, swashbuckling and romance in hefty enough doses to counter the devastating nature of the revolution.
This is definitely one of the historical novels that everyone respecting, or interested in, the genre should read.