Swordplay, bravado, romance, political intrigue, drunken brawls, mistaken identity – there is a lot happening in this well-known novel, which is actually the first of a trilogy of books following D’Artagnan and his three companions. I’ve seen a few film adaptations of this over the years, none of which I can really recall, but I do always remember loving the pure adventure of it all, and I’m happy to say that the same is true for the source material.
This is high adventure and historical fiction, taking place in France during the 17th century. Dumas states in the introduction that the 16th century novel Memoires de d’Artagnan by Gatien de Cortilz de Sandras inspired this story. The real life characters are not just Louis XIII, Anne of Austria and the other known figures of history, but also d’Artagnan, his three Musketeer friends, and other various characters as well, although he shifted many of them slightly in time.
The story begins with D’Artagnan leaving his home to travel to Paris in the hope of joining the King’s Musketeers, and then follows him and his three Musketeer companions on their various adventures. I won’t try to summarize the plot, because it is quite complicated, but this novel felt like adventure in its purest form, to the point of being a bit surreal – the over the top swagger, the duels at the drop of a hat, the immediate declarations of love, the carefree attitude towards death. If you didn’t catch the tone of the novel, everyone in this would come across as lunatics, but it ends up really working well.
So many of the characters are memorable and full of life, and there are some fantastically constructed scenes. How D’Artagnan met the three Musketeers, through a series of misunderstandings, was a brilliant way to introduce the characters, and I loved the bond they formed for the rest of the novel. As this was first published as a magazine serial, I did feel like it was losing me a bit in the middle as serials tend to do, but overall the story surprised me by just how fun and hilarious it was.
This is the first Pevear and Volokhonsky (although this was just Pevear) translation that I’ve read, and it was very good. The main complaint against them, that I’ve heard, is that they sometimes choose phrasing that seems too modern. A phrase that popped up in this novel surprisingly often was ‘blow your brains out’, which seemed wildly out of place to me, but out of curiosity I searched a bit online and it seems like that phrasing is in older translations as well, so I really don’t know. Maybe that phrase, or at least its French cousin, was in regular use back then, but the idea seems utterly bizarre to me for some reason. I thoroughly enjoyed both the translation and the narration (Simon Vance is always amazing), so I’d definitely recommend this edition.
There are two sequels to this, both longer than the already quite long original. I’m not sure I’ll pick those up anytime in the near future, but I think the next Dumas I’ll eventually tackle will be The Count of Monte Cristo. That novel seems to be loved by everyone, so I’m looking forward to it.