He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. That has to rank among the best opening lines in a novel, up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” opening in A Tale of Two Cities. This line, however, is from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, Scaramouche.
Yesterday, I was rummaging through my rather messy and erratic book collection, poking among books stacked upon books, and in piles on the floor, looking for a copy of Albert and the Lion that I wrote about recently. I didn’t find it, but I did find my copy of Scaramouche, a book I thought I had lost a few years back.*
What a delight it is to find a book you thought you had lost! I immediately pulled it out of the pile and took it to bed with me to read. Finished the first three chapters last night, before I picked up another book.
Mine is an old edition; a little rough, with lightly yellowed pages. No foxing, though, and the binding is fragile but still intact. My copy was published by the Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart, in 1923; the second Canadian edition – this one has six illustrations; photographs actually: stills from a silent film of the same name, also shot in 1923. I found out today, as I wrote this, that the film has been restored and is available from TCM.
There was also a 1952 film of the novel, starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The silent film follows the novel better, however.
The novel is subtitled “A Romance of the French Revolution,” and it’s a swashbuckling, sprawling tale of love, friendship, intrigue, politics, swordfighting – all the elements that Hollywood loves. Sabatini also wrote, among others, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both also swashbucklers and both made into movies. It’s along the lines of the books by the Baroness Orczy – the Scarlet Pimpernel and similar titles – written only a few years earlier – but with more politics, action and discourse.
You can read Scaramouche online or as an e-book today (I have not yet got myself an e-reader, and still like the tactile sense of actual books, but I do appreciate the technology). You can also down an audiobook at Librivox (I like to listen to audio books and courses when I drive long distances, or when I walk the dog).
It has some great lines, although the writing style is a bit florid for today’s standards.
He was too impish, too caustic, too much disposed—so thought his colleagues—to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration of mankind. Himself he protested that he merely held them up to the mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected there they looked ridiculous.
It starts in France in the years just before the Revolution and follows the hero as he joins the revolutionaries, but many of the comments and political descriptions sound remarkably like a metaphor for modern American society:
“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern—the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen…
“Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness?”
“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”
“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”
“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”
“The people can—the people in its might.”
“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”
I read a recent translation by Richard Pevear of Dumas’ great novel, The Three Musketeers, a few months back, and this novel seems the perfect companion to that. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book – all 346 pages of it.
* You may know the name Scaramouche from the lyrics in Queen’s hit, Bohemian Rhapsody.