Les Comédiens

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.Scaramouche, Rafael Sabatini’s bestselling swashbuckler from 1921 (subtitle: “A Romance of the French Revolution”), fills all the reader’s “He laughed quietly and flicked a speck of dust off his lace cuffs” needs. André-Louis, our young stabby hero, does a lot of quiet laughing and speck flicking, imperturbable in the face of opposing swordsmen intent on puncturing him, because… well, because that’s what we the readers hired him to do. No Danny Kaye whooping and scurrying away from the fencing master. André-Louis does all the skewering here, highlighting his sangfroid with good mots beginning, “Ah, Sir! I do you an injustice to suppose a mere trifle, etc.”

Nor can the young gallant so much as ask the time of the many madamoiselles crowding his life without tossing in a dollop of “Ah! But your beauty is such that” blarney. But the chicks dig it. They actually expect to have their hands kissed.

Sabatini seems pretty proud of the plot he concocted for Scaramouche; and it is a doozy: the young, illegitimate law student André-Louis, raised as a son by Squire Allworthy… er, I mean the Lord of Gavrillac… becomes an outlaw, accused of sedition back when sedition meant something. He hides himself amid a band of travelling players — “comédienes” — assuming the part of the stock character Scaramouche — a swaggering bravado. From there he goes to become master of a Parisian fencing school and from there to a duelling member of the National Assembly — don’t worry; it all makes sense on the fly — from which lofty perch he confronts his rock in the road, le Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr, a supercilious aristocrat who murdered his pal and made André-Louis a fugitive and… ah, but that’s all plot stuff.

Me, I enjoyed the twisty plot well enough, but all those well-telegraphed surprises take a back seat to the historical novel goodies Sabatini packs in to give his hero a suitable stage on which to laugh quiety and flick specks of dust from his lace cuffs. Every room we enter is “overwhelmingly gilded with an abundance of ormolu encrustations on the furniture.” Indeed, if a character remains still too long he stands a good chance of himself being encrusted by with an abundance of ormolu. Mr. Sabatini encrusts with a lavish hand.

And if you have an appointment — a tryst, a duel, a dry ironic speech before the Assembly — why take a mere carriage when you can ride in 17th century Sabatini style? Get yourself a cabriolet, a chaise, a berline, a brougham, a surrey, a calèche, or — Hang the expense, man! — a “coach with its escutcheoned panels, its portly coachman and its white-stockinged footman.”

Great fun, if not quite so peppy as Sabatini’s other blockbuster from the twenties, Captain Blood. But, then, with a title like Captain Blood you’re already halfway there.

by Rafael Sabatini
(W. W. Norton & Company, Paperback, 416pp.)


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