Riding Along with the Musketeers

When people say that something has come full circle, the expression has a certain finality about it, its appeal being a fatalistic unavoidability forever contained and repeated in its roundness.

That’s how I feel about re-reading The Three Musketeers, which is, without a doubt, the book I have re-read most, at least five or six times before the age of fifteen. What prompted me to pick it up again was a comment a good friend of mine made at a recent dinner party. He mentioned an essay by Umberto Eco, in which the Italian writer and scholar affirms that, in spite of its formidable commercial success, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas is badly written, while The Three Musketeers is a masterpiece. I found the statement surprising and decided that, as a writer, I have to form my own conclusion by looking at the two novels again.

I started with The Three Musketeers because I had the book in my library. I was nine years old when I read it the first time, and to this day I remember the eagerness and anticipation with which I woke up at five in the morning to read about D’Artagnan’s exploits until seven, when I had to get ready to go to school. I never got up that early for any other book. The novel encompassed all that a young boy could want: a great story filled with adventure, courage and love, and, above all else, friendship. A friendship that cannot be defeated, and will stand the test of time!

My childhood buddies had all read the book as well, at approximately the same time. We agreed in our enthusiastic enjoyment of it and for years to come, in our games we imagined we were characters from the The Three Musketeers, assigning roles to each other and changing them depending on our emotional and physical traits and circumstances: the daring D’Artagnan, the noble Athos, the vane Porthos or the shrewd Aramis. In our early teenage years, when girls entered our lives, they, too, became characters from the novel, like Anne of Austria, Milady or Madame Bonacieux. I must have been eleven or twelve, when my father obtained from the Military Museum located in our neighborhood two real sabers, with leather handles and rusty metal blades and tips, which my friend Mugur and I used in crazy fencing, without any protective gear, chasing and poking each other for hours in the brick basement of my house and in the backyard. Later in life, when my children were little, I often told them the story of The Three Musketeers at bedtime. In my novel The Visitor, I described our games inspired by the book. I watched all the movies made after the novel, and recently I tried to involve my grandson, Alex, in that miraculous world of friendship and adventure. To my utter delight, he recited for me the creed of the musketeers — all for one and one for all — and then showed me the movie that had familiarized him with the story: a disappointing and simplified Disney version with Mickey, Donald and Goofy as the main protagonists.

Even today I feel goose bumps re-reading the simple lines of dialogue when the four friends agree to travel to London in order to save the queen:

“D’Artagnan is right,” said Athos. “…D’Artagnan, I’m ready to follow you.”

“And I also,” said Porthos.

“And I also,” said Aramis. “And indeed, I am not sorry to quit Paris; I have need of distraction.”

“Well, you will have distraction enough, gentlemen, be assured,” said D’Artagnan.

Or, during the siege of La Rochelle when Planchet, D’Artagnan’s lackey, returns at the last minute after successfully delivering to Lord de Winter the letter the musketeers have written in order to unravel Cardinal Richelieu’s plan:

“So, be it,” said D’Artagnan. “Go to bed, Plachet, and sleep soundly.”

“My faith, monsieur! That will be the first time I have done so for sixteen days.”

“And me, too!” said D’Artagnan.

“And me, too!” said Porthos.

“And me, too!” said Aramis.

“Well, if you will have the truth, and me, too!” said Athos.

Such agreement between friends is more than contagious. It is inspiring. And rare. It sets an example for life.

A few days ago, I mentioned my delight vis-à-vis The Three Musketeers to my friend who had alerted me to the Umberto Eco essay. Like me, he was born and raised in Romania. “The musketeers were the first truly free men we had encountered in our childhood,” he said. I have never thought of them that way, but now, looking back after more than fifty years at the fake glory of the communist regime, I realize it takes free will to behave like the musketeers did.

In his essay, Eco writes that “The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the most exciting novels ever written and on the other hand is one of the most badly written novels of all times and in any literature.” He goes on to say that “the book is full of holes,” of “shameless” repetitions of adjectives, of open digressions and on and on. The characters “…either quiver, or turn pale, or they wipe away large drops of sweat….” About The Three Musketeers he says that it is “slimmer, faster paced…[and] rattles along wonderfully.” He goes on to say that Dumas wrote The Count this way because he was paid by the word.

After reading the essay, and looking at my beloved book critically, I recognize that in The Three Musketeers the author describes his characters’ emotions by the pallor of their skin — they turn pale and paler as the plot thickens around them. I also realize that Athos drinks too much for it to be believable, that the description of history and political background bogs down the action, is confusing and contributes little to the story. As for love scenes, they invariable stop with the young men kissing the fine hands of their female interlocutors, and the only indication that more — much more — goes on, is the passage of time — D’Artagnan spends over two hours without an explanation in Milady’s boudoir — and when he runs away to save his life, he is undressed. Should I be shocked that, according to Dumas, killing a man didn’t seem a big deal at all? My friends, the musketeers, leave a trail of countless corpses in their wake without ever expressing a second thought or any remorse for taking a life. But are these clichés, inconsistencies, unnecessary explanations and faux pas of any consequence? I don’t think so.

Umberto Eco says that while the admiration for The Count of Monte Cristo is like a “cult”, the novel is “basically ramshackle,” “unhinged.” The essay concludes with the following paragraph, “Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting — because we become obscurely aware that the clichés are talking to one another and holding a get-together. As the height of suffering meets sensuality, and the height of depravity verges on mystical energy, the height of banality lets us glimpse a hint of the sublime.”

My admiration for The Three Musketeers is like a cult as well, in spite of its many stylistic imperfections. As a writer I ask myself what makes it so? We live in an era dominated by some literary theories that maintain that the story is of utmost importance, but most stories have already been told and what really counts is the style. Flaubert introduced the concept of le mot juste. Hemingway said that in a piece of literary fiction important is what is left out, not what is stated. Like an iceberg, Hemingway said, what counts is what is underwater, unseen. And yet, he himself marveled at the great Russians who dazzled us with their writing by laying everything out on paper in such exhausting and negligent details that one could hardly read them without skipping paragraphs and pages from time to time, and one could not stop. Countless literary workshops tell us about modern readers’ impatience and preach economy of presentation, clarity of expression and the fact that every word counts. So where is the truth and will The Three Musketeers survive?

Thinking of great contemporary work that impressed me, I see much that appears unhinged (Life of Pi by Iann Martel, with its three parts, interconnected and not quite, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, with its musings on multiple pages as if the author herself and not just the protagonist was on a quest, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, where you can see the forest, but rarely the trees, A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin, where the plot itself has the intricacies and power of mathematical equations).

Richard Russo says that in order to succeed, a writer has to have hunger (desire), know the skill, and possess talent. I believe he really meant genius because, notwithstanding everything else, it is genius that causes the writing to explode, become unhinged and pour out. That is what makes the novel a “cult”, an answer to a search for meaning.

As for me, coming full circle, I will soon re-read the Count of Monte Cristo–a scary endeavor considering the 1,080 pages of the novel, and one I cannot wait to begin.

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