Monday, October 26, 2009

Needing a Little Romance

Utterly and completely bored with the growing stack of contemporary fiction I have yet to plow through for my committee work, -- can white, middle-class, American life in the 21st Century really be this fraught? -- I started rereading The Forty Five, the last in the trilogy of Dumas' Valois Romances. I love these romances, in many ways the equal of Dumas' better known Three Musketeers, if without the emotional resonance of that masterpiece and its sequels. In the last Valois kings, their adherents, mistresses, favorites, and enemies, and particularly in the character of their extraordinary and deadly mother, Catherine de' Medici, Dumas' unique gift for melodramatic intrigue, brilliantly choreographed violence, and, yes, romance, was given full and glorious scope. Whatever liberties Dumas may have taken with the historical record, no one, even his master, Walter Scott, could match him for his pure pleasure in the sweep and detail of the past, or people so many great novels with such vivid personalities. Reading the best of Dumas then, particularly after reading one dully interior modern crisis after another, is like stepping off a crowded bus full of surly commuters and into the brisk October of 1585, and through the door of that most colorful, and lucky inn, "The Sword of the Brave Chevalier."

Patrice Chéreau's La Reine Margot is a marvelous 1994 French film based on the first of Dumas' Valois books, and my favorite Dumas adaptation to film. I've watched it over and over again, in both its initial, and much mutilated American release, and in the original, and much richer French version. Isabelle Adjani stars as Margaret of Valois, better known as Margot, sister to the last Valois kings, and unwilling bride of the King of Navarre, Henri de Bourbon (Daniel Auteuil.) The film opens with the marriage of the nominally Huguenot Bourbon to the nominally Catholic princess, arranged by the brilliantly awful Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici, played unforgettably here by the now startlingly unglamorous Virna Lisi. Tensions are high, as France is being torn apart by religious wars, and the royal wedding has brought all the great enemies of the Valois into Paris... where Catherine & Co. can get at them. Wild suspicions, real plots, and appalling bloodshed to follow. It is all ridiculously exciting, beautifully filmed and acted, and very operatic, quite appropriate to the material and no surprise coming from the director, Chéreau, who is perhaps best known for his work in that musical art.

I have a dear friend who shocked me by disliking this movie rather intensely. Like me, I think he was drawn to it initially by the rich detail, the "gooey gowns," and swordplay etc., and by the fabulous and uniformly beautiful cast, including the exquisite Vincent Pérez as La Môle, Margot's doomed lover. But the hectic score, and the crazy pace, and over-the-top insanity of the whole, particularly in the abbreviated American release, drove my friend to distraction. I understood, but I adored the excess of the thing.

That is also what draws me back to Dumas, again and again. So much of what I read in contemporary American fiction is so blandly familiar, so unsurprising, and yet so overblown! The tone tends to be ruminative, the language passively pretty, and then comes some horrible, and horribly inevitable shock: a lost child, an unexpected death, a murder, disease, some trauma so out of keeping with all that came before it, and so cynically assumed to be necessary for seriousness, that I am left rolling my eyes at the cowardly way in which violence -- a simple and accepted fact for much of human history and hence in historical fiction -- is now dropped into novels like a cherry-bomb, and to little more effect. There are contemporary novelists for whom violence is a legitimate subject, or for whom the randomness of violence, and the accidental involvement of otherwise securely complacent characters in a violent situation, can present an opportunity to really explore our society's increasingly naive assumptions of safety, but to do this well requires a subtlety, and a willingness to deal honestly with both consequences and character that is rare. A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Bausch, and Russell Banks all come to mind just here as writers who have succeeded in this, in large measure because each acknowledged their own, and our collective bewilderment with the subject, without spinning useless metaphor and without insisting that anything is to be learned from the experience of pain, loss and injury, beyond endurance.

Unlike so many of the current crop of historical novels, written it seems to provide modern, middle-aged women with a legitimate excuse to indulge now forbidden fantasies of submission while identifying with the anachronistic spunk of ridiculously accomplished and outspoken heroines, Dumas romances accept the times in which they are set and while he likewise glories in pageantry and excitement, he accepts also the cruelty and brevity of life, the necessity of death, the foolish joy of passion and the limits of fidelity, intelligence and wit to ultimately satisfy or even save any but his most outlandish heroes from, say, an unlooked for betrayal, or a disfiguring disease, or inevitable old age. Dumas relishes the martial character of the societies he anatomized, seldom intruding with pat, modern judgments, but he does bring a Romantic's sensibility to his historical enterprise, so that even when he laughs with his roistering cavaliers or shouts in triumph at a battle, he is always more mindful of the cost than his players, his admiration tinged always with a thoroughly modern distrust of the confidence his heroes have in glory, love and pomp. His is not Balzac's subtle psychology, but it isn't without complexity. Dumas did not write for children, or their stay-at-home moms.

Dumas' confidence is what I find so refreshing after so many tentative, pretentious and jaundiced modern novels. He was an artist who believed in his stories, was unabashedly happy with his devices, tricks and turnabouts, and he loved the puppets in his playhouse. I do too.

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