De Capa Y EspadaSunday, August 27, 2006
There is no frigate lika a book to take us lands away.
The hot dry summer weather keeps my night table neat. There is an ordinary pile of books on it that I am reading or to be read. All this changes as soon as it gets cool and the rains come. Rosemary, my unusually understanding wife, will begin to question my sanity as not only will the night table lose its order but our living room floor will be strewn with turn-of-the-century hardcovers by Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini. On some days I may disappear to the basement TV room to see, in one sitting, Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (Up the rigging you monkeys!”), and Cutthroat Island with Geena Davis. On another day it could be Fairbanks in the Adventures of Zorro, and Ronald Colman in Prisoner of Zenda.
I have a special bookcase in our den where I keep my favourite swashbucklers. There I have Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger and Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. On a visit to my official swashbuckler provider, Lawrence Books at 41st and Dunbar I obtained a prized Beau Geste by Percival C. Wren with a bullet hole clean through it.
My obsession for reading adventure novels of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th began some years ago at a garage sale. I discovered the book between the IBM Selectric and a glass coffee percolator. I knew what I would find before I even opened it to the first page much as the nose savours the scent of summer’s first sweet peas.
“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad, “begins Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel set during the French Revolution. That single and unforgettable sentence propelled me back to my childhood in Buenos Aires. It awoke in me nostalgia for the excitement and adventure that I once felt for books and movies that I thought I had lost in this age of blockbuster movies and run-away bestsellers.
“Alex, wash your hands and knees,” is how my mother called me into the house before taking me to the movies in 1948 Buenos Aires. That was the year we saw Beau Geste at the Cine Cabildo. I will never forget the film’s beginning, Fort Zinderneuf eerily defended by dead legionnaires, and that final conflagrant scene where Gary Cooper is given a Viking funeral (complete with a dog at his feet) in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Those scenes gave me my first bouts of insomnia. Soon after I began making swords from bamboo and swinging from a rope tied to our garden’s persimmon tree. I was Captain Blood boarding a prize from the deck of the Cinco Llagas.
Sometimes my grandmother would take me to Avenida Lavalle, where movies houses like the Splendid and the Ocean offered programa continuado from early morning on. After the marathon of bloody mayhem, my abuelita’s sweet tooth would lead us to the Roxy, the nearby soda shop for strawberry ice cream sodas. Other days, I’d be joined by my father who adored all things English and nautical. We skipped stones in the ponds of Palermo Park. He called it “schooning” as the stones imitate nimble, wave-riding schooners; together we saw Errol Flynn in Captain Blood. When we saw The Black Swan, I noticed the woman with red hair. Who wouldn’t? It was Maureen O’Hara's first Technicolor movie. I remember, too, being taken to a movie with Katherine Hepburn where she wore pants. At eight I felt my manhood threatened and I feared her. What I found a consolation, then, was my all-time favourite adventure movie, Prince of Foxes. It features boiling oil poured on castle attackers and the fake blinding of Tyrone Power by a demonic Felix Aylmer who squeezed grapes near Power’s eyes to the delight of Orson Welles’s Cesar Borgia.
Recently, when I tracked down, via computer, the novel Prince of Foxes at my Oakridge branch of the Vancouver public library I was out of the house like a shot. I was not disappointed. The grape scene was there! And so I went in pursuit of Lawrence Schoonovers, more Sabatinis and as many Alexandre Dumases as I could find. After reading the close to a million and quarter words of Dumas’complete musketeer saga (The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragellone) I came to learn that they are as much fun as the movies they engendered.
Swashbuckling novels are a sub-genre of historical fiction. A buckle was a small round shield. Swarthy men could challenge their opponents by striking (swashing) their buckles with a sword pummel. The commonly held idea that swashbucklers are a lower form of historical fiction may be due to an attempt by Balzac to write them. He failed as he was unable to meet the deadline for copy. Few know that John Steinbeck initiated his literary career, but set it back, with Cup of Gold, a 1929 swashbuckler on pirate Henry Morgan.
Too easily, the whole genre is dismissed as juvenile reading. Consider Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, literature’s most famous case of an implacable and most un-Christian revenge. It features a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides, an extended scene of torture and execution, drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism, a display of the author’s classical history, the customs and diets of the Italians, the effects of hashish and all in about 1000 pages. Juvenile? I don’t think so.
Paradoxically, I find these extravagantly dramatic novels interesting because they ring true. P.C. Wren and Rafael Sabatini shared with Ian Fleming a stint in military intelligence. Alexandre Dumas went as far as running guns in his yacht for Italy’s Giuseppe Garibaldi. In his six-volume My Memoirs, Dumas describes his fondness for duels. One of those duels pitted Dumas against Gaillart, and Dumas’ friend and usual second, Bixio, insisted on taking the pulse of Dumas before and after, as an experiment. Bixio also wanted to verify the unproven belief that all men, when shot, turned before they dropped dead. Unfortunately, neither Dumas nor Gaillart hit his mark. Fourteen years later, in 1848 Bixio was shot through the lungs during a Paris riot. Dumas was there. Bixio turned around three times and fell but managed to cry out, “Without any doubt of it one turns around!”
For me the common thread in Dumas, Sabatini and others is lasting friendship. This theme has cured me from ever wanting to read another American serial killer novel. From 1625, when the Three Musketeers begins to 1673 when d’Artagnan is shot dead in The Man of the Iron Mask in the battle of Maesticht, the saga follows the friendship of four men. They grow old; individually change loyalties and political sides but they always follow the dictum, “All for one and one for all.”
It was best put by Robert Louis Stevenson who read the Vicomte de Bragellone at least five times. Of his second reading he wrote, “I would sit down with the Vicomte for a long, silent, solitary lamp-light evening by the fire. And yet I know not why I call it silent, when it was enlivened with such clatter of horse-shoes, and such a rattle of musketry, and such a stir of talk; or why I call these evenings silent in which I gained so many friends. I would rise from my book and pull the blind aside, and see the snow and the glittering hollies checker a Scotch garden, and the winter moonlight brighten the white hills. Thence I would turn again to the crowded and sunny field of life in which is was so easy to forget myself, my cares and my surroundings: a place as busy as a city, bright as a theatre, thronged with memorable faces, and sounding with delightful speech. I carried the thread of that epic into my slumbers, I woke with it unbroken, I rejoiced to lunge into the book again at breakfast, it was with a pang that I must lay it down and turn to my own labours; for no part of the world has ever seemed to me so charming as these pages, and not even my friends are quite as real, perhaps quite so dear, as d’Artagnan.”