The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Le Siècle March–July 1844
Translated by Will Hobson 2013
I finally got around to reading The Three Musketeers! I have long wanted to, but have been putting it off claiming different excuses – inability to decide what translation to read, time, unfamiliarity with French literature… You name it. It was actually Alexandra’s assurance that it was in fact a very funny book that finally tilted the scales.
She is not wrong. The Three Musketeers, or at least the first two thirds of it, are very funny. Dumas’s narrator is hilarious and, in the lack of a more delicate expression, takes the piss on the characters and the literary conventions of prevalent in Europe at the time, not to mention those of previous periods. I also find the book easy to read, but there I think a lot of the credit belongs to Hobson’s excellent translation – as a general rule I have always found English translations of French literature somewhat heavy going. Whether Dumas simply writes in a style different from what I’ve read or Hobson is really good at his job, I couldn’t say, having no French.
I don’t think it’s possible (for me, anyway) to talk about this book without considering its place in popular culture. I’ve always enjoyed Musketeer adaptations, starting from early childhood when Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds was aired in Finland. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and lately have enjoyed BBC’s The Musketeers immensely, although obviously that one is very loosely based on Dumas’s novel and characters (but to my delight the writers also take the piss).
What I find perhaps most interesting is how the last third of the book took me completely by surprise. Everyone knows, more or less, how the musketeers meet; everyone knows about the principal characters and has a general idea of who is a villain and who’s not. But the last third of the novel shakes that up, and when it at some point became evident that my patch-work quilt of musketeer knowledge based on popular media was going to leave my feet out in the cold I was baffled and intrigued.
I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that Dumas has a good hold on the reins and everything works out. It’s most refreshing, especially considering that this is a serialization. My experience of serialization comes mostly in the form of English and Russian literature, and I can’t say I trust Thackeray to keep characters and events straight and included or Dickens to always write a well-thought out arc, not to mention Dostoyevsky to keep to the point – just the thought of The Idiot now makes me groan, but that’s another story. Dumas manages not to bore or frustrate me for the most part, apart from the siege of La Rochelle, and I suspect I would have found that more intriguing if I was French, so I can forgive that.
All in all, I enjoyed The Three Musketeers, especially at the beginning. My enjoyment may have been hampered by the fact that I was reading at work, and the weather wasn’t very good, which means I had little to do except read eight hours a day, and let me tell you, on a third day of that it gets really hard to concentrate. But I did manage it. I’m a little hesitant to give such a classic stars, and my guts say three, but I’m going to go with four because I honestly can’t think of any reason why it shouldn’t be four.