Captain Fracasse: Théophile Gautier

★★½

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the random swashbuckler of the week! I had never heard of this book, which was recommended automatically to me by LibraryThing, but since the Kindle version was free, I couldn’t resist. It turns out that Captain Fracasse was Gautier’s third full-length novel, published in 1863, nine years before his death. It’s a romantic romp through a picturesque vision of 17th-century France, following a troupe of commedia dell’ arte actors travelling from Gascony to Paris, with a poverty-stricken young nobleman in their midst.

According to Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, it’s a pastiche of the Roman Comique (1651) by the French writer Paul Scarron, which tells the story of an itinerant company of comedians. Captain Fracasse ticks off all the elements necessary for a thoroughly old-fashioned adventure: the kind you can curl up with on a wet Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, it’s overshadowed by an outdated and overly flowery translation.

The story is good-natured, although so predictable that plot developments might as well be announced by fanfare. It opens on a dark night when a company of actors beg for shelter at the ruined old chateau of the young Baron de Sigognac. To date, this young man has lived quietly in his delipidated family home, too proud to beg for charity, accompanied only by a faithful old servant and his loyal cat, dog and pony, all equally aged. The arrival of the actors offers him a glimpse of a dazzling world beyond the estate, and he plucks up the courage to go with them on their journey to Paris, hoping that there he will find a way to approach the King and appeal to his munificence, reminding him of the noble history of the de Sigognacs.

A more immediate appeal is the presence of the beautiful actress Isabelle, the illegitimate daughter of a mysterious nobleman. De Sigognac immediately falls in love with her and (of course) she immediately adores him in return. (However, this being a very polite novel, no one gets round to saying anything about it until at least the middle of the book.) En route to their next major stop in Poitiers, the company faces ambushes by bandits, snowstorms, bitter cold and the tragic death of one of the actors. Conscious that he can’t pay his way, and keen to show his gratitude to the actors for their hospitality, de Sigognac overcomes his gentlemanly pride and offers to fill the space in the company, taking on the guise of the braggart Captain Fracasse. He becomes a great success and, by the time the troupe arrives in Poitiers, they are playing to full houses. But it is in Poitiers that de Sigognac meets his nemesis, the Duke of Vallombreuse: an arrogant nobleman who is smitten with the lovely Isabelle, and determined to do all that he can to remove his unsuitable rival from his path.

Yes, even now you can probably predict what’s going to happen. The novel itself reads like a commedia dell’ arte performance, with the kind of archetypal characters, flowery dialogue and tidy, happy resolution that you’d see on the stage. The line between art and life in one of these acting troupes always seems to have been slightly blurred – as in Scaramouche, the actors in Captain Fracasse are dedicated to a single role and they share their name with their on-stage character. So we have the troupe leader Herode, who plays the tyrant, the pedant Blazius, the leading lady Serafina, the modest Isabelle, the doughty chaperon Mme. Leonarde, the cheeky soubrette Zerbine, the vain romantic lead, Leander, the clever servant Scapin, and the swaggering braggart Matamore.

You know by now that I have a soft spot for this sort of thing, and it’s true that if I were being less indulgent I might point out certain things. There are spoilers ahead, if it’s possible to give spoilers in a book where you can predict the basic facts of the ending within about three chapters. If I were being critical, therefore, I might draw your attention to the lack of psychological complexity; the fact that no one can have a conversation without declaiming; the primness of the lovers even by Victorian standards; and the fact that the villain renounces his ways in the final chapters, under the influence of the heroine’s modest and innocent soul, and becomes generally a very nice chap.

Everyone (except the villain, most of the time) is worthy, good-natured, warm-hearted and understanding, and there are several long conversations in which various people tell each other how fantastically noble and wonderful they are. I’m being slightly facetious, but I think it only fair to warn you if you’re thinking of embarking on the book. However, if you do decide to risk the purple prose, you’ll find yourself in a world of duels, love affairs, the commedia dell’ arte, attempted abduction, dastardly villains, bravos, gypsies and disguises. Put your cynicism aside, read it tongue-in-cheek, and allow yourself to be carried along on its charming tide.

As far as I can see, this novel has only been translated into English once: by F.C. de Sumichrast in 1902, which is the translation I’ve been reading in this free ebook. I think it’s perfectly fair to say that it’s well overdue for a new translation. No doubt the source material has its own flaws, but de Sumichrast’s sugary Victorian translation does it no favours and I can’t imagine that anyone but the most devoted fan of swashbuckling adventures will plough on through to the end. That’s not to say, however, that the story doesn’t have an archaic, fairy-tale charm. In style it reminded me very much of Stradella, in which all the heroes and heroines are unbelievably good, all the bravos are surprisingly honourable and there is much prose of the flowery and ornate variety. Some years ago, I read Gautier’s more famous novel – Mademoiselle du Maupin – which struck me at the time as remarkably modern and subversive for its time (considering it was published at around the time Jane Austen was writing). That was translated by Helen Constantine for Penguin Classics and, although it kept its period flavour, it was a much more exciting and lively read. In fact, its spirit is so different from de Sumichrast’s translation here, that the two books might as well be by entirely different authors. I’d be interested to see what Constantine could do if she got her hands on Captain Fracasse.

It’s the kind of story which might work better as a film, and fortuitously I have a DVD on its way of the 1990 film staring the delectable Vincent Perez as de Sigognac. There was an earlier film starring Jean Marais as the young baron, but I’m hoping that the 1990 version will have a similar feel to Cyrano de Bergerac and Le Bossu.* Of course I will let you know my thoughts on that in due course… In the meantime, if you like swashbucklers like Scaramouche, or if you have a soft spot for the kind of Victorian historical romances written by people like F. Marion Crawford, you should definitely give this a go (and you should watch Molière, if you haven’t yet seen it, because that has a very similar art-imitating-life feel to it). For those with more lukewarm feelings about this genre, it might be wise to steer clear until there is a more up-to-date and less sugary English translation. As for myself, I’m now keen to read more about the commedia dell’ arte in this period. Has anyone read any other good fiction – or non-fiction – on the subject?

Buy the book

* It didn’t. It was so indescribably bad that even I couldn’t put up with it for more than half an hour. Yet more disappointment, alas!

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