The other day a friend and I were chatting by email about a book he'd just picked up, Scaramouche. He'd read it and liked it, so I thought I'd give it a try. The movie has been one of my favorites since I was a kid, and it begins with the book's famous opening line ("He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad"), which even as a kid I knew was one of the greats. I have to confess that I don't think the book quite lives up to that opening, but it's fun, nevertheless.
Our Hero is Andre-Louis Moreau, the guy to whom the opening line applies. He's thought to be the illegitimate son of the nobleman who's reared him. It's the time of the French Revolution, and Moreau is more or less a detached observer of the madness of the world, not taking sides because he sees the futility of both. When his best friend, a revolutionary, is killed by the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr because of his dangerous eloquence, Moreau vows revenge and practices some dangerous eloquence of his own. Forced to flee, he joins a troupe of traveling players and becomes their Scaramouche, a clownish schemer, and his writing and acting elevate the company to near greatness. Moreau is in love with his leading lady, who is led astray by, you guessed it, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr.
Forced to flee again, Moreau goes to work for a fencing master in Paris and becomes more than just an apt pupil. After the master's death, Moreau takes over the school and becomes an expert fencer.
Meanwhile a lot is going on, including the French Revolution, Moreau again takes no part. He smolders with resentment as his supposed cousin, Aline, considers marriage to, you guessed it, the Marquis de la Tour d'Azyr. In the last third of the book, things begin to whirl along, with plenty of twists that, as Moreau puts it, anyone but a fool would have figured out already. The reader is the only one who's figured them out, though, so there's a lot of explaining to do and a lot of conversation to be had after the Big Reveal.
If I'm remembering correctly, Sabatini knew five languages, and English was the last one he learned. I admire anyone who can speak and write in one language, and I'm in awe of someone who can write a bestselling novel in his fifth language. The novel flows right along, and while it's not action-packed, it's fast-moving. There's high melodrama, plenty of coincidence, romance (even if Moreau is awfully thick-headed), and even a bit of humor. The historical material seems spot on to me, but I'm not a history major. The narration is old-fashioned in a way that bothered me not at all. I enjoyed it so much that I might even read Captain Blood.