Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas

            And so I come to the last book in the Three Musketeers series, after The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, and Louise de la Valliere.

******** Spoiler Warning And Self-Indulgent Warning ******
          Two warnings before I start this review. 
            First of all, I’m going to spoil the ending of this book, and The Man in the Iron Mask is one of those books which is best read spoiler free—i.e. there are a few plot twists along the way, and an advanced knowledge of the story will ruin this book.  So, if you haven’t read this book yet, and you think you might read it at any point in the future, don’t read my review now.
            Secondly, I’m going to talk about my experience reading this book in the context of my previous expectations.  Since my personal previous expectations are probably of interest to no one else but me, that means this review can probably be considered somewhat self-indulgent.  Be forewarned.

My Previous Encounters with This Story
          Growing up, we had a Children’s Classic version of this story in our house, which I read at some point, but remember virtually nothing of. 
            [It’s funny how some stuff stays with you, and other stuff doesn’t.  As I mentioned in a previous review, many of the simplified classics I read in childhood I can still remember very well, but some books, for one reason or another, just never took hold in my memory.  Obviously it’s difficult for me to critique a book I can’t remember, but I suspect the problem was that The Man in the Iron Mask only fully makes sense as part of a larger story, and so the incomplete story that I read didn’t make much of an impression on my young brain.]

            The only thing I do remember from the Children’s Classic Edition was that most of the musketeers died at the end.  So, at least that much of the book had been already spoiled for me, even if I remembered little else.

            The other previous encounter I had with this story was that 1998 Leonardo DiCaprio and John Malkovich movie (W).  I saw that movie back when it first came out, and haven’t seen it since then.  And as it’s a forgettable movie, I’ve largely forgotten about it.
            Or at least, forgotten about the details of it.  I did remember the main premise—Louis XIV is a real jerk, there’s an exact duplicate of Louis XIV being kept inside the Bastille, and so the musketeers switch the bad version of Louis XIV for the good version of Louis XIV, and everyone lives happily ever after.

            So that was pretty much where I expected this story to go.

My Expectations Leading Up to this Book
          The Man in the Iron Mask is the conclusion of the story started in The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Ten Years Later, and Louise de la Valliere.  All four books are published as one volume in the original French.
            So, as I read through all the previous books, I had been expecting all along that the story would climax with Louis XIV being replaced.
            However, the more I read, the more it seemed unlikely that this was the ending Alexandre Dumas was heading for.   There were several indications along the way that this story was not matching the tone of the Hollywood movie.

1). First of all, the books had a heavily pro-royalist tone, and it seemed a bit incongruous to believe that the whole story was building to an act of rebellion against the king.

2). Secondly, although Dumas was taking a number of liberties with history, he was also making a lot of efforts to integrate his fictional story with real historical figures and events.  The idea of permanently replacing the king with an identical doppelganger seemed like it would throw the story too much off the historical rails, and seemed liked the kind of plot twist that belonged altogether in another genre.

3). Thirdly, in the movie Leonardo DiCaprio’s Louis XIV was a real jerk who deserved to be usurped, but the Louis XIV in Dumas’s books is much more sympathetic.  Although he does make a number of bad decisions, it’s also clear that he has a lot of good in him, and, when he is under the influence of D’Artagnan, Louis XIV can usually be persuaded to do the honorable thing.

4). Fourthly, in the previous 3 books, the reader had spent a lot of time getting to know Louis XIV.  The expectation seemed to be that the reader was witnessing the beginnings, and gradual formation, of one of France’s most powerful monarchs.  It seemed a bit odd that we were going to spend all that time getting to know this Louis XIV, only to suddenly switch to a different Louis XIV in the last book.

5). Fifthly, the historical warlike and vainglorious Louis XIV seemed a lot more in character with the young king presented in the first 3 books, and not with his humble doppelganger. 

6). And finally, by looking at the historical profiles of some of the main characters from Wikipedia, I already knew that a lot of these characters were heading for tragedy by Louis XIV’s hand: Louis de la Valliere—abandoned (W), Fouquet—imprisoned (W), Comte de Guiche—exiled (W).  If Louis XIV had been replaced by a kinder, gentler doppelganger, then how to explain that none of these characters were to be saved from their fates?

            And yet, despite all these gradually creeping doubts, as I read along I still expected some sort of switch to take place in the final book.  After all, everyone knows that The Man in the Iron Mask is about a man imprisoned for being the doppelganger of the king.  And what’s the point of having the story about a doppelganger, if there is to be no switch?

My Experience Reading the Book
            The Man in the Iron Mask starts out very promising.  In fact, initially the story looks like it’s going to be much more promising than the movie.
            In the movie, the 4 musketeers were working together to switch kings, and they were doing it for altruistic purposes.
            In the book, Aramis is working alone to switch kings (Porthos is only tricked into helping).  And Aramis is doing it largely just to further his own ambitions.  (Admittedly there is a mixture of motives—he does also believe that Louis XIV embattled background is going to make him too much of a combative king, but he is also very explicit about all the quid pro quos he expects from the new king once he’s completed the switch.)

            This promises to be way more interesting than the movie version  First of all, it pits the musketeers against each other—D’Artagnan is convinced Aramis is up to something, and is trying to find him out, while Aramis is trying to stay two steps ahead of D’Artagnan in order to complete his plot.
            Secondly, it adds a large mixture of moral ambiguity to the whole issue.  You’re not really sure whether to root for D’Artagnan or Aramis—whether to pity the real Louis XIV, or to hope for the success of his usurper.

            Also, in the movie, the royal switch is the conclusion of the story.  But in the book, the switch happens near the beginning of The Man in the Iron Mask, which made me optimistic that the whole rest of the book was going to deal with the story of the false king.  What would the false king do when he was on the throne?  Would D’Artagnan be able to spot the imposter?  Would Aramis be able to control his creation?  I was really hooked at this point.

            And after a story that has been plodding along painfully slowly for the last several books, focusing on the tedium of court romances, this abrupt plot departure seemed at once both completely out of place for the story, and at the same time wonderfully bizarre.  It was as if Alexandre Dumas suddenly said, “Okay, forget about all those court romances I’ve been boring you with for the last 3 books.  What if all of a sudden Aramis comes in out of nowhere and switches kings in the middle of the night?  How is that to shake up the plot?”
            To which I was like, “Yeah, great!  Give me more of this!” 
            At this point in the story, I couldn’t put the book down, and was reading late into the night.

            And then, to my immense disappointment, the whole plot thread comes to a disappointing end.  The false king only spends a few minutes with the royal court before the real Louis XIV returns, the doppelganger is put back into prison, and the whole plot about switched kings comes to an end in a very anti-climatic and very unsatisfying fashion.

            And then, that brief bit of excitement over, the story settled back into the slow plodding pace that had characterized the previous 3 books.
            And back to the same old boring plot threads.

            Because I had looked ahead at his Wikipedia bio, I knew the fall of Nicholas Fouquet was coming eventually.  But even if I hadn’t looked at Wikipedia, I would have known it anyway, since there’s foreshadowing in the book.  In some places of the book, like in chapter 11, Dumas will step outside of his narrative to remind us that in the real history, Fouquet was ultimately destroyed by Louis XIV.
            The tragedy of Fouquet could have been a better plot point if Dumas had dealt with it quicker, but instead he tries to milk the pathos of it for too many chapters.  As doom begins to foreclose on Fouquet, he always seems to have one last desperate plan after another of avoiding disaster.  Since the reader knows that Fouquet is already doomed, the reader knows all of these plans aren’t going to work, but we have to sit through all of them anyway.  All of these last hopes then fail one after another, each failure leaving Fouquet more doomed and despondent than before.  Eventually I felt like Dumas was just playing with the reader, and wanted to shout at the book, “Come on, we all know what’s going to happen.  Just do it already.”

            The same thing that could be said of the fall of Fouquet could be said about the deaths of Porthos, Raoul, and then Athos.  There’s just way too much foreshadowing and build-up leading up to each death.
            I suppose this was probably the style of 19th century books, but as a modern reader, I can’t help but imagine how much better the book would have been if Dumas had cut out all the foreshadowing and build-up.  For example, in the case of Porthos, he announces to Aramis several times that he has a premonition he is going to die soon, and then he has a long drawn out death scene.  Imagine how much more shocking (and better) the book would have been if Porthos’s death had just come suddenly out of nowhere.  Likewise for the deaths of Raoul, and Athos.

            But while several plot threads are milked way too much in this last volume, others get the short thrift. 
            In the previous 3 books the reader has spent a lot of time with characters whose respective plot threads are now, in this last volume, either just disregarded entirely or only alluded to in an offhand way in the epilogue.
            The downfall of Louise de la Valliere is only alluded to briefly in the epilogue.
            The fact that Comte De Guiche was sent into exile by Louis XIV for conspiring with Princess Henrietta was also only just briefly alluded to in the epilogue.
            And the fact that Princess Henrietta herself died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards (W), rumored to have been poisoned by the Chevalier de Lorraine, is also only briefly alluded to.

            And then there were characters and plot threads who were just completely dropped altogether.  (What ever happened to the scheming of Montalais and Malicorne?)

            On the one hand, given how long and drawn out the downfall of Nicholas Fouquet was, I’m somewhat relieved Dumas didn’t make a big drawn out deal about all those other endings.
            But on the other hand, I wish the story had been written by someone who knew how to wrap up their plot points a lot faster, and could have given us the quick version of fall of Fouquet while still also having enough time to move onto giving all the other plot points a satisfying resolution.
            In other words—I wanted a return of the Dumas from the first two books in the series, back when the story rushed continually from one adventure to another.  What happened to that author?

Final Evaluation

            As I’ve been mentioning all along now, the last 4 books in the English translation make up one single volume in the original French.  As I’ve been reading these last 4 books, I have been holding off on a final judgment of the story until I saw how everything would pay off in the final chapter.  Now that I’ve read the whole thing, I have to confess myself slightly disappointed with the story.

            There are, however, one or two things about the whole story that redeem it somewhat.
            First of all, for us history geeks, there’s all the real history integrated into these stories.  I learned a ton about 17th century France, and the early reign of Louis XIV, and the figures at his court from reading these books. 

            Secondly, it’s important to remember these books were originally published as installments in the French newspapers.  In the newspapers, Dumas kept the Three Musketeers series going for 6 years from 1844 to 1850.
            I’m generally fascinated by stories told in serialization that stretch out over periods of years.  (One of the reasons that, in my youth, I was attracted to the long, complicated continuity sagas of comic books over at Marvel and DC).  Back in the 19th century, serialized novels were like the comic books (or serialized cable TV shows) of their day.  Whether or not the story has a satisfying end is ultimately less impressive than the ability of the author to keep bringing the readers back week after week.

The Real Life Legend of the Man in the Iron Mask
          As you probably already know, there really was a real-life Man in the Iron Mask.  Wikipedia has a whole article on this mystery (W), which is interesting reading.

            The publisher’s introduction to my volume (Harper Press Paperback, 2012), also includes some interesting theories:
            Some historians now think it more likely that the real man in the mask was Louis’s biological father. King Louis XIII had been estranged from Louis XIV’s mother for some 20 years when she fell pregnant, so it seems reasonable to conclude that she had been impregnated by a lover. The hypothesis is that the biological father had been sent abroad but decided to return, perhaps to extort money from his son, Louis XIV. As a result, he was arrested and imprisoned to prevent anyone from finding out the truth as it would have meant that Louis XIV was not the rightful heir to the throne, but rather his uncle. (p. ix—publisher’s introduction)

            The publisher’s introduction also goes on to make the astute observation that the fact that there was so much speculation over the mysterious man’s identity shows that the obsession with conspiracy theories is not uniquely a modern phenomenon.

The Title and My Expectations
          Although this book didn’t really match my expectations, I suppose that’s not all Dumas’s fault.  After all, he didn’t title his book The Man in the Iron Mask—that’s just the English translation.
            As always, Dumas is integrating real history with fiction.  Given the Hollywood versions of this story, I was expecting this book would explain how the man got out of the iron mask.  But in fact, Dumas was more interested in explaining how the man got into the iron mask in the first place.

            The publisher, however, I blame.  The publisher’s introduction (Harper Press Paperback, 2012) gave me false expectations of how this story was going to play out:
            Dumas’ version clearly influenced Mark Twain, who adapted the basic idea into his novel The Prince and the Pauper (1882).  Twain imagined what events might unravel if an English prince and a London pauper accidentally swapped places because they happened to be identical in appearance. Dumas and Twain thus invented the ‘mistaken identity’ or ‘substitution’ genre of novel, which has seen various subsequent manifestations.” (p. ix—publisher’s introduction)
            Doesn’t that make it sound like the main focus of the whole book is going to be about the substitution?  You’d never get any hint from this that in fact the substitution of kings doesn’t even last the morning before it’s discovered, and then that plot thread is over.

The Game of Thrones Treatment
          In an earlier post, I tentatively recommended the Three Musketeers  series as one of my candidates for a book series deserving of the Game of Thrones treatment.  Given the fact that I hadn’t even finished this series at that time, that was probably a stupid thing to do.
            Now that I’ve finished the whole series, I can come back to the question to speak with a bit more authority. 

            The first two books in the series, The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, are quick-paced, action-packed, and would easily make the transition to a TV series.  (That is, assuming you had the budget for all the set pieces and battle scenes.)
            The genre switches when you get to the 3rd book, and it becomes more of a historical court drama/soap opera.  Of course, there’s an audience for this kind of show as well (witness The Tudors, for example).  The difficulty would be in transferring the same audience from the first two seasons over to the 3rd season (I’m assuming one book a season), but possibly you could get away with it.
            The last 4 books have a lot of fat in them which would need to be trimmed down, and the pacing would need to be completely re-worked.  But screen writers are good at adapting books like this.  Assuming a talented writing team adapting these books, I think it just might work. 

            But on the other hand, I’m sure there are those who would say why bother with a faithful adaptation?  You could just take the basic idea of gallant sword-fighting musketeers having adventures in a quasi-historical setting, and run with that.  It’s my understanding that the latest BBC series (W) has decided to go that route, although I haven’t actually seen the new show myself.

Other Stuff
* I’ve been saying this all along, but the morality of the protagonists in this book is really pretty appalling.  Including the battles around Belle-Isle, and the entire brigade of soldiers killed in the cave, Porthos and Aramis seem to have no problem in causing hundreds of people to die just to make good their own escape.  It makes it all the harder for me to sympathize much with the pathos the book tries to work up from the death of Porthos.  What about all those soldiers Porthos killed?  Where are the scenes mourning their deaths?

* Having brought up the 1998 Man in the Iron Mask movie, I suppose I should link to a very insightful review of that same film HERE.  (Even though the movie has very little to do with the plot of the actually book, it’s an entertaining review of all the movie’s faults nonetheless.)

Link of the Day
Violence and Dignity

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