Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 16, 2007

THE LAST CAVALIER

Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine In the Age of Napoleon

By Alexandre Dumas

Translated from the French by Lauren Yoder

Pegasus. 751 pp. $32

Back when I was about 11 or 12, I read The Count of Monte Cristo in a highly abridged children's edition. This "Golden Picture Classic" -- which lies before me, somewhat tattered, as I write -- was (and is) an oversized paperback, priced at 50 cents. Though little more than a pr?cis of the actual novel, which in my French edition requires 1,500 dense pages and two fat volumes, this cheap throwaway, printed on the pulpiest of papers, marked a watershed in my young life. The Hound of the Baskervilles might have been more spookily atmospheric, Journey to the Center of the Earth more wondrous, and King Solomon's Mines arguably more adventure-filled, but for page-turning narrative excitement The Count of Monte Cristo was unbeatable. I read the book over and over. I have never forgotten it.

But then, no one ever does. Its theme -- self-transformation -- is particulary appealing to the American psyche. A simple sailor, Edmond Dantes, is framed by those he trusted and sentenced to life in solitary confinement on the Chateau d'If. There he unexpectedly encounters a fellow prisoner, the Abbe Faria, who instructs him in languages, manners, swordsmanship and all that a gentleman needs to know. Then, after 15 years, Dantes finally escapes, retrieves a fabulous treasure and spends yet another nine years further preparing himself for his revenge. When he re-emerges on the stage of Europe after nearly 25 years, it is no longer as a naive young innocent but as the mysterious and implacable Count of Monte Cristo.

This basic plot -- the stuff of night-school classes and daydreams -- can be seen everywhere, in the lives of self-made men ("I will prepare myself and some day my chance will come" -- Abraham Lincoln), in literary classics such as The Great Gatsby and in Hollywood blockbusters such as "The Mask of Zorro." Yet this novel may not even be Dumas's finest work. That honor arguably belongs to The Three Musketeers, the greatest swashbuckler of them all, packed with political intrigue, derring-do, hell-for-leather horse rides and flashing swords. Its heroes -- Athos, Porthos and Aramis -- soar above the petty concerns of this corrupt and contemptible world: They are pure spirits of the masculine, full of bawdy, gorgeous life, eating, drinking, fighting and making love with Rabelaisian gusto and no thought of the morrow. Just as they enchanted young d'Artagnan, so they enchant us to this day.

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was himself just such a larger-than-life figure -- as was his father. An illegitimate mulatto of Herculean strength, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas rose from the ranks to become a general and, for a time, Napoleon's rival. But he died relatively young, leaving his family destitute. Despite only the most elementary education, Alexandre nonetheless made the Dumas name world-famous, first as the most popular French playwright of the early 19th century and then as a novelist to rival Walter Scott. With the help of research assistants, this literary dynamo produced an astonishing 300 volumes, many of them historical novels intended to convey the sweep of French history from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Oddly, though, Dumas never seems to have written a full-fledged work covering the crucial Napoleonic era.

Or so it was believed until Claude Schopp -- France's pre-eminent Dumas scholar -- discovered that, during the very last year of his life, the novelist, though ill, suffering and out of critical favor, had somehow turned out a daily newspaper serial about "the adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the age of Napoleon." Because of Dumas's death, the novel was never finished and consequently never published in book form. So Schopp assembled all the newspaper installments and edited them. Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine appeared in France in 2005 and is now brought out in an excellent English translation by Lauren Yoder as The Last Cavalier. It's absolutely wonderful.

Yes, it's full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliche and period flourish, and old-fashioned enough in its storytelling to wander into lengthy historical and biographical digressions. What's more, we only possess the first third or so of the original mammoth saga envisioned by its author. (A letter exists outlining the entire plot.) No matter. As a boy I could never stop reading Dumas, and, despite the intervening decades, that's still the case: I finished The Last Cavalier in a day.

Because of its scope, the book actually incorporates a handful of short novels and stories, some told in flashbacks. The first several hundred pages focus on Napoleon's consolidation of power, from just after the Egyptian campaign of 1799 to the discovery of the Cadoudal conspiracy in 1804. The novel announces this theme in its very opening sentence: " 'Now that we are in the Tuileries,' Bonaparte, the First Consul, said to Bourrienne, his secretary, as they entered the palace where Louis XVI had made his next-to-last stop between Versailles and the scaffold, 'we must try to stay.' "

At first The Last Cavalier seems almost light-hearted -- Josephine is so embarrassed by her shopping bills that she's afraid to tell Bonaparte -- but it darkens soon enough. In particular, we learn about the Saint-Hermine family of Bourbon loyalists. During the 1790s, first the father, and then his two eldest sons, die combating the new regime. The second son actually becomes a kind of Robin Hood, leader of the Companions of Jehu, who rob the government and support those fighting for the royal family, especially the Chouans. These native Bretons act like Indians out of James Fenimore Cooper: They snipe at the army regiments, fade away into the forests and communicate with owl hoots and bird whistles. Their leader, George Cadoudal, is courageous, noble, a true man of honor. But he is ultimately entangled in the webs of Napoleon's spymaster, Joseph Fouche, perhaps the most intriguing figure in The Last Cavalier-- ugly, coldly intelligent, ruthless and the only man Napoleon fears. Yet while his incessant plotting recalls Cardinal Richelieu in The Three Musketeers, he sometimes functions as a kind of Abbe Faria in his worldly-wise counsel to the young Hector de Sainte-Hermine.

Hector, the third and last son of his family, is oath-bound to carry on the battle for the Bourbon restoration. But circumstances lead to his being temporarily released from this vow, and he begins to dream of a happy, peaceful life. Deeply in love with Claire de Sourdis, he finds his love returned, and their marriage is soon planned. But at the very moment when Hector is to sign the marriage certificate, a messenger bursts into the room and insists that he step outside for a moment. The bridegroom never reappears. The Companions of Jehu have been unexpectedly reactivated. Hector, as honorable as his namesake, must obey their summons. And so, the witch's dread prophecy to Claire begins its fulfillment: "For fourteen years you will be the widow of a man who is still alive, and the rest of your life the wife of a dead man."

If it seems I've told a lot of the novel, trust me that I have merely described the arc of its action. There are dramatic individual stories galore -- the heroic martyrdoms of the Saint-Hermines, a magnificent battle between the Chouans and their enemies, the patient revenge of a beautiful woman, the shrewd detective work of the spy called Le Limousin who inexorably tracks down the would-be assassins of Napoleon and, best of all, the close-up portrait of the First Consul himself, a man utterly sure of his destiny.

At the cliff-hanger end of the first half of The Last Cavalier, Hector is awaiting execution. But Fouche, for reasons that puzzle even the spymaster, decides to save the young man. Imprisoned like Edmond Dantes, our hero reads and studies, exercises and develops his mind and body to perfection. After three years, Fouche then releases him but only on condition that he become a common sailor or soldier. Hector, taking the arch-romantic name of Rene, agrees to fight for France and ships out on a corsair that preys on English ships. He hopes only to die in action.

After adventures with storms, Malay pirates, tigers and pythons, not to overlook the battle of Trafalgar and a romantic interlude as tearful and overwrought as any in Chateaubriand, the Comte Sainte-Hermine again falls from grace. In the third part of the novel, he reappears as a soldier in Italy, where he tracks down bandits, wins the esteem of officers and peasants and captures the heart of every woman who sees him. And here, apart from a short fragment, The Last Cavalier breaks off.

As is fairly evident, Dumas intended Hector to be our viewpoint figure at many of the major theaters of war during the Napoleonic era. In this respect, he is a Gallic equivalent to Sharpe, the English soldier in Bernard Cornwell's admired modern novels about this same period. Though The Last Cavalier may be corny at times and is obviously padded in places (it includes a complete short biography of Gen. Hugo, the father of the poet Victor Hugo), such flaws hardly matter: These 800 pages almost turn themselves. Alexandre Dumas remains, now as ever, the Napoleon of storytellers. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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