A Romantic Look at the French Revolution: Scaramouche

ScaramoucheScaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

The French Revolution has sort of gotten back into vogue, mostly thanks to another Hollywood adaptation of Les Misérables. It’s not often that I’ll stumble into a conversation about France at all, let alone for what I’d call one of it’s most interesting periods. So it felt like a good time to finally read a book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years: Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche.

It’s a tale of a swordsman/lawyer/actor/teacher in the French Revolution, who’s good with a sword and even better with his tongue. It’s protagonist – Andre-Louis Moreau – lives in a sort of stasis between the classes. He’s not technically a nobile, but has vague blood ties to them. So while he can’t reap the rewards of the elite classes, he’s able to hang around just under them and avoid a lifetime of drudgery. He’s a smart cat, too: well versed in the classics, with a formidable law degree and is friends with an up-and-coming clergyman.

It’s a bit of a potboiler, but it’s fun in parts. The action kicks off when his friend is killed in a duel against the villainous Marquis de la Tour d’Azyr. From there, Moreau more or less rides the waves of history, helping spur the proletariat into revolution. He’s a master orator, giving speeches in public that rile up crowds into a frenzy. He’s a great actor, even though he has no training whatsoever. When he shacks up with a roaming troupe, he turns to his education to bang out plays that more or less rip off the classics and make them stars overnight. And later, he becomes a master swordsman, developing a move that’s apparently unblockable. He’s moody, cold and pretty remorseless in killing more than a few people, including a few who probably didn’t do anything. Somehow every woman in his life loves him, all the men want to be him and despite being the most wanted man in France, able to elude any kind of police attention. But I suppose Javert was busy elsewhere.

While Scaramouche is occasionally a fun read, especially in the more action-filled parts, but on the whole, I find Sabatini’s writing verbose and overwrought. It’s packed with him describing people’s emotions, with odd references to books and letters written by his fictional Andre-Louis and page-long monologues. It’s an odd literary device: we’re reading a novel about someone who wrote an autobiography? Why not just have the novel be his autobiography? And Moreau comes off like a 19th century Schwarzenegger, who’s able to do everything great and has no flaws whatsoever. Maybe he was an ancestor to John Matrix, who I believe spoke a little French.

Rating: 6/10. There’s some merit here and when he really gets to swashbuckling action, it’s a fun read. But elsewhere, it’s something of a chore to get through. And don’t come here looking for a larger point, like you’d see in a Hugo or Zola novel. The bottom line: it’s shorter than Alexandre Dumas’ books, but I’d still rather read The Three Musketeers again.

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