Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

Twenty years after the events in “The Three Musketeers”, d’Artagnan is 40, Porthos is 37, Aramis is 43, and Athos is about 55.  d’Artagnan stands about 5′, Porthos 6’4″, Aramis 5’10” and Athos 5’8″ (sic Dumas).

Mazarin, an Italian import, has succeeded Richelieu to the position of Minister to the throne of France.  The King, Louis the 14th, is ten years old;  his mother, Anne of Austria, is in her mid forties and is Queen of France.  She and Mazarin are lovers, and, in essence, France is governed in the latter’s interest.  He’s got the money disease and hoards every louis (money unit) he can get his hands on.  Paris is in rebellion:  rioting, chains and barricades across the boulevards, squads of musketeers dashing from one trouble spot to another;  all because of excess taxes introduced by Mazarin.  The Queen instructs him to bring D’Artagnan and his friends to help stabilize the social unrest crippling the city.  D’Artagnan has been in the Musketeers for the last twenty years and has not received a raise in pay or a promotion.  He’s still a lieutenant.  But he’s loyal to the crown, so when summoned, he agrees to locate his former associates for the purpose of aiding Queen Anne, and secondarily, Mazarin.

He finds Aramis first, through the assistance of Planchet, a former servant, who is on the run from the law for aiding and abetting the escape of Rochefort, a former enemy and friend, from jail.  Planchet accompanies D’Artagnan to Noisy, where Aramis is leading a rather unChristian existence as a sermon seller.  He’s living in a convent, which is conveniently situated next to the house of one of his many girlfriends, the Madame de Longueville.

Athos is living on his small property near Bois in southern France, farming and raising his adopted son, Raoul.  He’s a proud, upright sort of person, with rigid feelings as regards honor and moral behavior:  he’s occasionally a plugged filter in the ongoing fluidity of D’Artagnan’s plots.  He goes along with his compatriot to Paris, and brings Raoul with him.

Porthos has his own estate and three houses in north-eastern France.  He’s not the sharpest tack in the carpet, and more than anything, he desires to be made a Baron.  D’Artagnan promises him that the promotion will occur if he will come to Paris with the other three and listen to what Mazarin has to say.

United once more, the quartet enjoys the urban delights for a while.  Raoul has a chance to experience some of the Salon life that defines the life of many of the nobility.  He visits the Abbe Scarron, who became a social lion by rolling naked in a vat of honey, then doing the same in a pit of goose feathers, then running through the streets, pursued by a laughing mob, and diving into the Seine at the last minute.  Athos and Aramis meet at his place.  Raoul is soon sent to Flanders to help fight the war in Flanders, while Athos and Aramis help break de Beaufort out of prison, where he’s spent the last five years, basically so Mazarin could steal his money.

As a result of the jail-break, the two musketeers are on the run from the law, leaving only  Porthos and D’Artagnan to meet with Mazarin.  D’Artagnan is ordered to arrest de Beaufort, so he and Porthos ride several horses to extinction and catch up with the fleeing party.  There’s a fire fight:  pistols, swords, rapiers, poignards but not much blood.  The musketeers renew their friendship even though they’re on opposite sides:  the Royals versus the Frondue(the organized party crying for justice to the people).

A lot more happens, but one telling incident occurs when Raoul and his new friend, the Comte de Guiche, come across a wounded Spanish soldier from the army they’d been fighting against.  He’s dying and Raoul rides to find help.  He meets a monk who knows the last rites, and they manage to carry the man to a local inn.  The monk stays with the fading patient and when everyone leaves the room, he stabs him to the heart and escapes through a window.  Later he’s identified as the son of Milady de Winter, an important person in The Three Musketeers, who was executed by Athos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan for poisoning several people and securing the death of Buckingham.  The son’s name is Mordaunt, and he recognized the dying soldier as his mother’s executioner.

More complexities arise as the four musketeers return to Paris.  Athos and Aramis are sent to England to aid Cromwell in the civil war, and Porthos and D’Artagnan are sent there on the behest of Mazarin to meet with Mordaunt and to assist King Charles I in his struggle against the Roundheads.  But things become confused.  D’Artagnan and Porthos change sides a couple of times, but ultimately try to prevent Charles’s execution by  Parliament and fail.  Returning to France on a boat, they discover that Mordaunt, who by this time intensely hates the four companions, is aboard also, and has placed five barrels of gunpowder in the hold of the ship with which he plans to blow them all up after he’s left.  Due to the perspicacity of Grimaud, Athos’ servant, the plot is discovered and the musketeers dive into the water and steal the dinghy that Mordaunt had planned on using for his escape.  There’s a mighty eruption, the boat shatters to pieces, and they see a figure diving off the boat at the very last minute.  They see his body moving in the water and Athos wants to rescue him.  He convinces the others to do so, but when lifting him into the dinghy, Mordaunt yanks Athos overboard and “chortles in his glee” at being able to dispose of at least one of his mother’s murderers, if only at the expense of his own life.  Nothing is seen but bubbles for a minute, then a body pops to the surface.  It’s Mordaunt, with a dagger sticking out of his heart.  Soon Athos reappears, sad that he had to take a life, but obviously prepared and ready to do so.

Back in France, the four separate, as they know that Mazarin is upset with them.  Things get even more complicated;  as they try to meet up again, they are jailed and escape, are enlisted in the Frondue, aid the royal family to escape to St. Germain, capture Mazarin along with his secret stash of gold, and free Paris from the grip of the evil Minister and his minions.

Suffice it to say, Porthos receives his Barony, Aramis returns to Mme de Longueville, Athos goes back to his farm, Raoul continues his military career, and d’Artagnan is promoted to Captain;  the final scene shows him riding off, dreaming of a promotion as Marshal of France!

My head was ringing like a bell when i finished this book:  all 800 pages with seemingly unending complications, sword fights, love affairs, social commentary, and extraordinary antics on all sides.  But it was not all blood and thunder;  here’s a quote I liked:  “the aspect of external objects is a mysterious conductor which corresponds to the fibre of the memory, and leads to their revelation, sometimes in spite of ourselves.  Whenever this thread is touched, like that of Ariadne, it leads into a labyrinth of thoughts where one may go astray while following this shadow of the past which is termed recollection.”  Dumas was a famously fast writer.  Not all of his books are first class, but this one was, if any were/are.  There are more:  The Vicomte Bragalonne, Ten Years After, and another i can’t remember the name of…  Maybe i’ll get to them when i recover from this one…



Anatole France (1844-1924)

Trans.:  J.A.V. Stritzco;  Introduction:  James Branch Cabell

This story is narrated by Elme Laurent Jacques Menetrier, other wise known as Jacques Tournebroche (turn spit).  The latter cognomen results from Elme being employed from an early age as a spit turner at his father’s cookshop, the Queen Pedauque.  The text is the tale of Jacques’ experiences under the tutelage of Jerome Coignard, Latinist, scholar, historian, religious philosopher, raconteur, part-time rake, and dedicated wine bibber.

Jacques’ early education was an unsettled business conducted by a local monk, Friar Ange, a connoisseur of cheap wines, Attic salt, and a lover of ladies.  After the Friar is arrested for destroying a tavern, the Abbe Jerome Coignard offers to assume the duty of educating the boy, and by the time Jacques is nineteen years of age, he has attained a fair mastery of Latin and some Greek, and is familiar with a great variety of Biblical knowledge and theory.

One day while tending the cookshop fire, chatting with Jerome, a stranger dashes into the restaurant with an antique cane and starts thrashing the coals and tossing them about, yelling “Salamander” and cursing loudly.  Jerome and Jacques calm the tall thin newcomer and they all sit down while he lectures them about alchemy and the spirits of the air.  Salamanders and Sylphs, although invisible, abound in the atmosphere, and are constantly relating to and interfering with humans and their affairs.  Salamanders occasionally fall in love with men, while Sylphs pursue women for various purposes.  The man is Monsieur d’Asterac, the owner of a local derelict castle situated in a large number of untended and forested acres.  He invites Jacques and Jerome to visit, which they do, and soon hires them to help him decipher ancient Greek and Latin texts.  The two work assiduously at first, but as they never are paid, their enthusiasm begins to wane.

They find themselves making excuses for visiting the local village and inevitably run into trouble through sampling some of the local vintages and the concomitant association with miscellaneous sordid acquaintances.  One thing leads to another, as it happens, and the two escape the town, pursued by the city police, accused of property destruction and assorted malfeasances, and kidnapping.  (One of the girls, Catharine, fled with them.)  Returning to the castle, Jacques falls in love with Jahel, the daughter of Mosaide, a partner of d’Asterac’s, but subsequently discovers that she favors Jerome, among others.  One of the others is Anquetil, a drinking partner they had met in their last sortie on the village tavern.  The latter convinces her to elope with him, leaving her jealous and abusive father to accompany him to his estate near Lyons.  The two J’s agree to go along, but their plans are complicated by a stolen pearl necklace and d’Asterac’s plans to conjure up a Salamander for Jacques.  Also, another noble, owner of a nearby estate is irate at Anquetil for stealing his mistress, Catharine.

The intricate difficulties mount to a head and Jacques, Jerome, Anquetil, and Catharine, fearing arrest, speed south to Lyons in two carriages.  Near a hamlet, one of the vehicles overturns, injuring Jerome.  They’ve been pursued by Catharine’s former lover and Mosaide, and as a result of the accident, they are temporarily arrested by the authorities.  Jerome fades away, passing quietly a few weeks later, Catharine is returned for trial and is transported to America, Anquetil and Jahel continue on to his estate and Jacques goes home.

After settling in once more as “Tournebroche”, Jacques utilizes his education to get a job in a local book shop.  He leads a quiet life and when the owner, Blaizot, retires, assumes possession of the store.  In time, philosophers, authors, historians and religious figures frequent the business, but none of them are “as worthy as Jerome Coignard”.

I think this book would be quite different if read in the original language.  Although it was witty, picaresque, funny and startling, i had the impression that i wasn’t quite getting the full thrust of of the many literary, philosophical, and religious references. Some of the metaphorical implications of France’s intent seemed largely absent:  i could tell that a few of the apparently inane comments actually referred to events and concepts that might have seemed evident in the original, but not so much in English.  Even so, it was quite interesting and humorous and the characters were pretty Gallic:  behaving unlike English or American figures.  The word is ambiance, i guess, indicating a societal and cultural environment strikingly different than what i, anyway, have been familiar with.  There’s a sequel France wrote, “The Opinions of Jerome Coignard”, which i ordered and may do a post on at a later time.

France was an iconoclast.  He was a social activist, a communist, and did his best to advertise the failings of the government.  He actually was employed for a time in a bookshop owned by Blaizot, before he became a recognized and influential author.



Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

He was born in the familial manor of the Tolstoys near the village of Petrovskoe.  He had a tutor, Karl Ivanitch, a German professor who tickled Leo’s toes in the morning to get him up and had a penchant for making things out of cardboard.  Karl’s book collection was eclectic:  a History of Voyages, Manuring Cabbages in Kitchen Gardens, a History of the Seven Years’ War, and a Course of Hydrostatics.  Torn maps hung on the little schoolroom wall along with a blackboard and a stove.  Karl was not a tyrannical pedagogue;  he was kind and fond of his pupils, and sympathetic to their learning idiosyncracies, which included yelling, running around and occasional practical jokes.

Another intermittent occupant of the house was Grisha, a semi-moronic peasant who loaded himself with chains and spent his nights in the attic moaning to himself.  When Leo was ten, he and his brother Woloda traveled to Moscow with their father to stay with their grandmother and to become a bit more civilized.  But before they left the family went on a picnic.  The weather was hot, the butterflies fluttered about, birds celebrated life, the local river proffered fish and swimming, and there was a sort of hunt.  Leo was told to catch a rabbit but he became distracted with a colony of ants and some butterflies.  When the two carriages left the next day, crowds of serfs saw them off together with the mother in tears and various housemaids and servants waving pieces of white linen.

Arriving at grandmother’s house, there were more servants to sort them out and visitors came frequently to entertain the two boys while their father went out to earn money.  He was a professional gambler.  Being short, stout and rather ugly, Leo had some unfortunate social experiences which left him disconsolate and eremitic.  Once he forgot his gloves and had to wear an old dirty one at a dance;  this appeared to be a traumatic experience for him.  In the interim, Leo’s mother died and they returned to Petrovskoe.

Tolstoy considered that the second part of his history, Boyhood, began with his mother’s death.  After a period of mourning the family returned to grandmother’s house in Moscow, leaving the country place in the hands of servants.  A new tutor was hired, Monsieur St. Jerome, a young person with ambitions.  The immediate friction between St. Jerome and Leo resulted from the somewhat corporeal habit of the former’s teaching philosophy.  Leo became unmanageable, breaking glasses and mirrors and spending a lot of time hiding in closets.  He became aware of mathematics and much preferred that subject to history, which he tried to ignore.  By the age of fourteen, though, Leo, through observing servants, became cognizant of love, gradually achieved some scholastic kudos and actually became friends with St. Jerome.  During this period he learned the importance of social behavior and grew to be picky about his habiliments and his comportment in social venues.

His search for “moral improvement” came to occupy much of his time and interest.  He developed a few generalizations about behavior:  that the past could be eliminated by turning over a new leaf and that superior, upperclass demeanor was imperative if he desired the admiration of others.  He wrote a list of Rules for himself regarding his connection with the outside world and attempted to associate with the noble elements of society only.  This included some of his elder brother’s friends who drank a lot and conducted themselves in cynical fashion and never seemed to study.  Throughout this interval (which Leo labeled his “Youth” autobiographical segment) he became anxious over his upcoming university entrance exams and began studying more intensively.  As a result, he passed the exams in history, math and Latin and was admitted.  His father gave him money a carriage of his own, horses, and a uniform (he needed one to attend classes).

Leo didn’t study.  He made friends, visited other members of the nobility, went to a lot of parties, debated philosophy and politics with various sorts of advocate, and spent money.  As a result when the finals arrived an academic year later, he was “plucked” (British slang for flunking out).  It was only at this juncture that Leo began to suspect that there was more to life than behaving cynically, attending parties, and dressing well.  He writes a new set of “Rules” and at this point the book ends.

This was rather an eye-opener for me.  I’d never thought of Tolstoy as a real person with faults and characteristics, but just as a sort of mystical guru living in the countryside and writing novels.  But he was quite different than that.  He was one of those people who are terrific observers, and he possessed the  mathematical ability to arrange what what he perceived in logical order:  probably one of the traits that made him a world-class author.  Nevertheless he lacked a certain kind of perception:  the kind that might have enabled him to see beneath the surface of the upperclass society that he lived in.  I think he might have developed it later, but there’s no more autobiography to read, so the question remains unanswered.  The prose in this work is occasionally remarkable:  unlike the best Nature writers, he hadn’t the gift of reeling out pages of lucid and dramatic description, but he had the ability, in just a few sentences, to make a vista, a rainstorm, a sunlit meadow, explode into the reader’s brainpan.  It was quite surprising when it happened and the made the book scintillate briefly, like a bursting coal in the late ashes of a wood fire.  I enjoyed it.


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

This is a short collection of VW’s earlier short stories:

Phyllis and Rosamond :

This is a tale of five sisters, daughters of an upper middle class household in 19th C. London.  Three of them grow up and marry satisfactorily to status/bound husbands, but two, Phyllis and Rosamond stay at home knitting, planning parties, supervising servants and making social calls which mainly involves traipsing about between the hours of four and six and leaving cards:  the mind-deadening activities of the socially accepted.  On one of these excursions they visit Bloomsbury and react negatively to the declasse living habits of the artists and writers who live there;  the spontaneity and apparent freedom experienced by man and woman alike.  Back home, they resume their hidebound, bored lives, never for an instant resenting their virtual slavery.


The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn :

Rosamond Merridew is a medieval historian, English, and a searcher for forgotten manuscripts, diaries and journals.  On one of her excursions int the Yorkshire countryside, she visits the Martyn farm, a freehold occupied by the same family for more than 500 years.  After a certain amount of verbal byplay, she has the opportunity to read the journal of Joan Martyn, a daughter of the house written around 1500.  Reading the account, the events and incidents that Joan records, the daily chores, the rare excursions to the village all leap off the page and assume a 3-dimensional reality.  Rosamond gains insight to the terrors and joys of that remote time that are beyond her previous experience, and she is transported in an almost physical way back into Joan’s time.  The hunger-ridden outlaws in the nearby forest, the omnipresent highwaymen that threaten any traveler, the critically important business of selling their produce and grains, and the constant awareness of possible disasters all dominate the minds of the manor’s inhabitants.  (Reading this account, it was quite easy to understand Virginia’s ability to place herself, psychologically, in the shoes of chronologically remote persons, as in her book Orlando…)


A Dialogue on Mount Pentelicus

A group of English tourists descend Mt. Pentelicus in Greece, conversing about the ruins and statuary they’ve just explored.  Their comments, learned and otherwise, echo soundlessly off the marble walls as they pass along.  Coming to a rest stop, they continue their speculations unmindful of activity surrounding them.  A dirty monk with a load of firewood on his back passes them unnoticed, a spark of fire in his eye…


Memoirs of a Novelist

Miss Linsett is writing a biography of Mrs. Willatt.  Occupying two dense volumes, it tells the story of a plain lady who turned to writing both for a living and to justify her existence.  Willatt’s books were mundane and predictable for many years, until she began to explore and to be enraptured by the images of the soul and its relation to the world of the spirit.  In a sort of irredentist manner, she transformed herself into a kind of Madame Blavatsky with an enraptured audience.  She gradually acquired a  transcendentalist reputation with a following devoted to her prognostications and predictions and in awe of her attainment of “eternal harmony”.  VW’s estimation was that “Miss Linsett liked death because it gave her an emotion, and made her feel things for the time as though they meant something.”  I’m not sure exactly what VW was implying in this piece, but it had to do with unfulfilled living, i think…


This was a short sample of Virginia’s work. It reminded me of how very penetrating her genius was when describing the mental states and fundamental feelings characteristic of the personalities in her books.  She really was a very great writer and the stories cited above sort of provide the initial stepping stones to her later accomplishments:  The Waves, The Years, Orlando, and all the others…

The book was a publication of the Hesperus Press, founded in 2001 and intended as a publishing house for rare and classical works.