Scaramouche: Rafael Sabatini

 ★★★½

Sometimes, on opening a book for the first time, you find a phrase that makes you sigh contentedly, settle down and think, ‘Oh, yes.’ I had never read anything by Sabatini before and yet, when I read this novel’s opening line – ‘He was born with a gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad‘ – I knew instinctively that we’d get along well. With an avowed weakness for adventure, derring-do and the buckling of swashes, I’m amazed that I didn’t stumble across Scaramouche years ago. It was only when Helen mentioned it, in her post on The Prisoner of Zenda, that I realised it was something I’d enjoy.

Our hero is André-Louis Moreau who, in the best tradition of romantic heroes, is the illegitimate child of unknown parents.  He has been reared in the little Breton village of Gavrillac by his godfather, the lord of the manor, and when we meet him in 1787 he has recently finished studying law and plans to spend his life serving the village and his godfather as an attorney. Level-headed, cautious and rational, he has already been blacklisted by his more idealistic fellow students for failing to show the expected levels of enthusiasm for their projects to renew the realm of France by challenging the power of the nobility.

All is changed when André-Louis witnesses the murder of his dear friend, the innocent Philippe, by the dastardly Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr. André-Louis swears to avenge his friend’s death, but all is not as simple as it seems. Not only is the Marquis the neighbour and good friend of André-Louis’s godfather, he is also paying court to his beautiful cousin Aline de Kercadiou. André-Louis cannot hope for support from his relatives and so he decides to exact his revenge by ensuring that Philippe’s voice will continue to be heard – urging liberty, equality and fraternity; and encouraging the people to rise up against the tyranny of the nobles.

Having effectively severed himself from his family and funds, André-Louis plunges into a series of picaresque adventures, first as an actor and then as a fencing master. Pursued by the authorities, his initial hiding place is in a troupe of  itinerant actors, who travel from town to town improvising scenarios based around the stock characters of the Commedia dell’ Arte: Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Polchinelle, the thundering Rhodomont and the sly servant Scaramouche. When the original Scaramouche is injured, André-Louis takes his place – a role that suits his natural intelligence, wit and gift for self-preservation.

For me, this section with the actors was the best part of the book. I loved the interaction between the characters, who all refer to each other by the roles which they play on the stage (and who have been hired according to their suitability for one particular role). With his brilliance and education, André-Louis leads the company to ever greater heights, and begins to believe that he can make a future for himself among these humble but welcoming people. However, wherever he goes, he discovers that his path continues to cross that of his revolutionary peers – and, more importantly, that of the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr.

It’s a wonderful romp, written in the same slightly archaic language as The Scarlet Pimpernel and full of appropriately theatrical coincidences and emotions, all florid and overblown as if they formed part of one of the troupe’s comedies. It isn’t understated or subtle in any way and yet it’s great fun. Incidentally, in the short introduction to the Vintage edition of Scaramouche, Bernard Cornwell suggests that André-Louis is the character in which Sabatini came closest to creating a self-portrait, embodying the author’s own self-deprecating, ironic wit and his own shadow of illegitimacy. Sabatini’s widow clearly came to the same conclusion, because she chose the opening line of Scaramouche as the epitaph on his tombstone. I think there must be few finer ways to be remembered by posterity.

The story reminded me of two of my favourite French films, which I urge on anyone who has read and enjoyed Scaramouche. I always assume that I’m the last one to stumble across good films, but just in case anyone hasn’t seen these… First, the wonderful Molière starring Roman Duris, which looks more closely at the trials and tribulations of itinerant actors. It’s been described as the French Shakespeare in Love and follows the romantic (mis)adventures of the eponymous poet as he tries to tutor a foolish nobleman (Fabrice Luchini) in the art of love. A knowledge of Tartuffe would probably be an advantage if you want to get all the in-jokes, but I can attest from personal experience that it’s lots of fun even if you’re not familiar with Molière.

Secondly, Le Bossu, starring Daniel Auteuil and Fabrice Luchini (again!), with a cameo from Vincent Perez. The film, unnecessarily retitled On Guard for the American market, tells the story of the swordsman Lagardère. Born an urchin in Paris, Lagardère unexpectedly becomes a confidant of Philippe, duc de Nevers and accompanies him when the duke rides out to marry the mother of his love-child. After the duke and his bride are murdered on their wedding day, Lagardère is left (literally) holding the baby and must protect the little girl, Aurore, from her parents’ assassins as she grows up into a beautiful young woman. Full of swashbuckling, romance and disguise, it also features a gorgeous score, with a terrifically jolly main theme which blends into the glorious Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana for the more poignant moments.

For anyone who shares my enthusiasm for the swashbuckling genre, Scaramouche comes highly recommended – not as the kind of novel which will change the way you read, but as a kind of literary amuse-bouche, full of élan and panache. Do head over to see Helen’s thoughts on the book as well; although I only read her post after writing mine, it seems we both thought much the same. If you enjoyed the commedia dell’ arte aspect of this book, you might also feel inspired to tackle Gautier’s Captain Fracasse, which has a similar conceit, though less successful in my opinion.

Two of Sabatini’s other novels are also published by Vintage – The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood – and these, featuring swashbuckling and pirates, are already on my ‘to read’ list…

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12 thoughts on “Scaramouche: Rafael Sabatini

  1. Helen says:

    I'm glad I could bring this book to your attention, Leander! I was also amazed that I hadn't discovered Sabatini years ago, as this is exactly the type of book I love. I'm looking forward to reading Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk too.

    The two films you mention both sound fascinating and I haven't seen either of them, though I haven't seen many French films so that's not surprising. Thanks for recommending them.

  2. RT says:

    Hi Leander. May I recommend another Sabatini book, which Vintage have unfortunately not reissued, called BELLARION? I have not read it for 30 years but I do remember enjoying it hugely, and as a Dunnett-lover you may like the fact that it is set in medieval Europe (Italy, early 15th century?

  3. Leander says:

    Thank you very much RT, you certainly may! I haven't heard of this at all – definitely one to look up. I'm very grateful to you for taking the time to stop by and make the recommendation – any other suggestions very welcome.

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