Friday, December 12, 2014

Forgotten Books: SCARAMOUCHE by Rafael Sabatini (1921)

I'm a big fan of Mr. Sabatini. I've read Captain Blood several times and rank it as my second favorite book of all time, right after Red Harvest. So I figured Scaramouche, his most famous novel, should be even better. I was wrong.

It was a good read, so I'm not complaining, I'm just surprised it was not as entertaining as I expected. One reason is that the hero, whose name is Andre, but who assumes the role of Scaramouche (a "roguish clown" character from Italian comedies of the previous century), muddles through most of the book without clear focus.

As the story begins, Andre's close friend--a passionate revolutionary--is murdered by a snooty aristocrat. The killer (and continuing villain of the piece) found the man possessed of a dangerous eloquence, and thus a threat to his way of life. Andre, who disagreed with his pal's politics, swears to take up his cause and spread the eloquence of revolution in his stead. He does that, a little, making two speeches that inflame the populace, then spends the next quarter of the book hiding out with an acting troupe. After another brief encounter with his arch-enemy he happens into a job as a fencing instructor and fools around with that for another quarter of the book. Throughout, he has no clear goal and no real conviction.

Finally, with maybe a third of the book remaining, the story kicks into high gear. For several chapters it races right along. Andre seems to know what he wants and how to get it. But his plans are derailed by several seen-them-coming plot twists, and the climax dissolves into creaky melodrama. If Sabatini wasn't such a good storyteller, it would have been pretty painful.

The other problem I had with this book wasn't Sabatini's fault at all. It was entirely my own. The whole tale, you see, is set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Sabatini assumed (rightly, of course) that his readers would have a basic understanding of the events and the various forces in play. So he explained what was happening only in relation to Andre and the other characters involved. Trouble is, I know dang near nothing about the whole hullaballoo, so much of the revolution-related drama went over my head. I'm now seeking to remedy that, with the Oxford History of the French Revolution, but it's too late to rescue my enjoyment of Scaramouche. Maybe by the time I see the movie it will make more sense.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Cap'n Bob said...

The movie was on a few days ago.

As for the French Revolution, the people rose up against the king and queen and cut off their heads. Bastille, Reign of Terror, Scarlet Pimpernel. That's really all you need to know.

Unknown said...

Never read the book, but I loved the movie. It has one of the great sword fights.

Evan Lewis said...

I knew that much, Cap'n, and I even remember most of the lyrics to the old Allan Sherman record "You Went the Wrong Way Old King Louie," but it wasn't nearly enough.

Rick said...

I've read it several times and enjoyed it each time. It has the best opening line of any novel:
"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad"
I truly enjoy it and the movie which has the best fencing scene of any movie during that time.

Anonymous said...

Not my favorite Sabatini, either, but in its day it was popular enough to warrant a sequel, Scaramouche the King Maker.

Rick Robinson said...

If I'd known, I have somewhere around here, yet another cover for it you could have added. It's been so long since I read the book I've forgotten just about all of it, and your review didn't even refresh my memory.

Too Bob's list, add, of course, the info in TALE OF TWO CITIES.

George said...

I read SCARAMOUCHE as a kid and loved it. I need to reread it again.

Oscar Case said...

Nice review. I saw this book on the library shelf about every time I went there, but it just never appealed to me. I was more interested in cowboys and Indians than sword fighting. Even the Errol Flynn pictures didn't grab my interest.

Ron Smyth said...

It's been too long since I read this to remember any details but I loved that opening line and the book.