- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 21, 2007

If you’ve never read that greatest perhaps of all high adventure tales — “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas — now might be a fine time to get acquainted: Viking has published Richard Pevear’s new translation. (Mr. Pevear, with his wife, a few years ago translated Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” making it a bestseller with a little help from Oprah.) Mr. Pevear contributes a useful introduction, giving a good background both on Dumas the man and Dumas the author of this 173-year-old classic.

“On the first Monday of the month of April 1625,” a young man, “Don Quixote at eighteen,” “too tall for an adolescent, too small for a grown man” rides into the provincial town of Meung on an ancient yellow nag of a horse provoking much hilarity from the townsfolk.

So begin the adventures of D’Artagnan, which carry on through three volumes — several thousand pages worth of swordplay, passion, treachery, hairbreadth escapes, kings, queens and cardinals. Above all, the volumes record the story of an abiding friendship that takes that raw youth on his yellow nag to the last page of the final volume (“The Viscount de Bragelonne”), dying on a battlefield at Maastricht, a marshal of France, murmuring words that none save the dying man understands, “Athos, Porthos, au revoir! Aramis—forever adieu.”

Dumas is a master storyteller. Most of his novels were published in what was then a new and very popular literary form: the serial. He wrote more than 360 novels in his lifetime. The dashing, rollicking adventures of his gallant musketeers have inspired other writers and artists down through the last century and a half to create more than 82 novels, plays, pastiches and homages featuring them as heroes. And that’s not counting more than 30 film, television and animated versions.

Dumas knew exactly how to hook his readers and keep them turning the pages as he moved his story swiftly along. His dialogue is unfailingly crisp and witty. And his characters are vivid and varied. In the first chapter, he introduces two major villainous figures who are to dominate the book: the beautiful and most dangerous Milady and the Comte de Rochefort, henchman of the all powerful Cardinal Richelieu. Milady is not one of your milksop heroines. As she says at one point, “I’m no weak woman. When I am insulted, I do not faint and I do not turn ill. No, I seek revenge.”

In no time D’Artagnan is in Paris finding himself challenged to duels with three of King Louis XIII’s elite musketeers: Athos, Porthos and Aramis. En route to the dueling field, the young man muses to himself, “Decidedly, I won’t survive; but if I’m killed, at least I’ll be killed by a musketeer.”

D’Artagnan and Athos barely cross swords when four of the Cardinal’s guards appear to arrest them. D’Artagnan joins forces with the musketeers to fight at their side, sealing at that moment his destiny.

“The Three Musketeers” is a coming of age tale as well as a story of high adventure in a historic setting. It should be noted in passing that Dumas knew his French history well (he brought out the following year a two volume history of “Louis XIV and his Century”). D’Artagnan grows up fast in the two years of action and passion covered in the novel until on the last page, his head in his hands, tears rolling down his cheeks, he says “So I’ll have no more friends. Alas! Nothing but bitter memories.” Athos has the last words, “You are young and your bitter memories have time to turn into sweet ones.”

Actually Athos shares almost equal billing as a hero with D’Artagnan in the novel. A romantic hero par excellence, handsome, aristocratic, misogynist, alcoholic and wondrously brave, Athos’ “qualities drew more than esteem, more than friendship from D’Artagnan, they drew his admiration.” Athos has a dark and terrible secret in his life. If he helps D’Artagnan grow to manhood, D’Artagnan rescues Athos from his past.

A small digression. Back in the Seventies, when Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers” (perhaps the best film version to date of the novel) was playing in Paris, I was at a dinner party where the book came up. All five Frenchwomen present confessed when they’d read the novel as teenagers they hadn’t thought of D’Artagnan as the hero. “Oh non! Athos, le vrai hero!”

Porthos and Aramis play smaller supporting roles, as it were. Porthos is a giant of a man, vaingloriou, and a touch slow. Aramis yearns to return to his studies as a priest, which doesn’t prevent him from having an affair with a beautiful duchess and writing verse on the side. Aramis as a character only emerges fully in the third volume, “The Viscount de Bragelonne,” having become a bishop, a general of the Jesuits and a grandee of Spain.

I confess to a special soft spot for “The Three Musketeers.” My older brother gave me a children’s version (no sex scenes — the chapter “At night, all cats are gray” was completely cut) for Christmas when I was 11. I looked Alexandre Dumas up in an encyclopedia and discovered the existence of the first sequel, “Twenty Years After,” which I promptly made my mother take out of the library for me.

But then I found, to my shock, the Medford Public Library only carried “The Viscount de Bragelonne” in French. So I started learning French to find out how my musketeers’ lives ended. And which perhaps not so accidentally led to my spending many decades of my life in France.

A word on Mr. Pevear’s translation, although he acknowledges quite rightly that “Dumas’ language is terse and modern” and says he has tried “to keep the pace, pungency, and wit of the original,” I fear personally to prefer that of Jacques Le Clercq in the Modern Library Classics paperback edition. Mind you, the Viking edition in hardback is very handsomely presented and would make a fine gift.

A small rap on the knuckles to whoever edited the book at Viking. On page 641 a description of Constance Bonacieux mysteriously is changed to being that of D’Artagnan. “Her beautiful face” is transformed to “His handsome face,” and so on for the rest of the paragraph. I think all readers will be able to make the adjustment with the pronouns without too much difficulty.

Still, all things said and done, the adventures of “The Three Musketeers” and their young Gascon friend D’Artagnan (who does become the fourth musketeer of course) stand up splendidly, well worth reading for a second if not a first time.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer and critic.

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