Friday, December 6, 2013

The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

The Musketeers reduced to supporting roles
The Vicomte de Bragelonne is the final novel in the d’Artagnan Romances trilogy by Alexandre Dumas, following The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After. This third installment was originally published in serial form from 1847 to 1850. It is impossible to review this novel without discussing its colossal length. This is the longest book I’ve ever read in my life, and I wish I could say it was worth the time and effort. Dumas’ superb novel The Count of Monte Cristo is also a long book, but from cover to cover there’s never a dull moment. In The Vicomte de Bragelonne, on the other hand, dull moments are the exception rather than the rule. There’s no doubt Dumas is an excellent writer. Each chapter in this book, if judged on its own merits, would seem chock full of brilliant dialogue and characterization. When taken together en masse, however, the resulting accumulation is replete with redundant conversations, wild goose chase subplots, and squandered opportunities. Dumas’ Musketeers are undoubtedly some of the most memorable and entertaining characters in the history of literature, but this book is clearly the worst of their three outings.

The novel is comprised of 268 chapters plus a lengthy epilogue. It has been printed in three- and four-volume editions, each of which at times has been given their own titles. This can cause confusion when these subdivisions are sold as individual ebooks, so make sure you’ve got all the chapters before you make your purchase. The final volume is usually titled The Man in the Iron Mask, which is sometimes mistakenly used as the title of the entire work. This is not only erroneous but also misleading, as the plot element involving the man in the iron mask takes up only a tiny portion of the novel. Even more mystifying is why Dumas chose to title the novel after Raoul, the Vicomte de Bragelonne (son of the Musketeer Athos) who’s barely present in the book.

Also absent from much of the book, unfortunately, are the Musketeers. It’s not unusual for 20 or 30 chapters to go by without hearing a peep out of any of them. They make periodic appearances throughout the book, alone or in pairs. It isn’t until the novel’s fourth quarter, however, when they finally become integral to the story. There are two main interlocking plots in the novel, neither of which directly revolves around d’Artagnan and his companions. The first concerns the love life of King Louis XIV, supplemented by other romantic couplings among those within his entourage. The second focuses on Monsieur Fouquet, France’s surintendant of finances, and the rise and fall of his fortune and status within the royal court. These two plots became very intricate and convoluted, at times to the point of tedium, and neither is as satisfying as the scraps of the Musketeers’ adventures that Dumas occasionally tosses us. Late in the book, one of the Musketeers manages to pull off perhaps the greatest caper of all time. In the very next chapter, however, he makes a ridiculously foolish move that results in an immense letdown for the reader. The book ends with a few good moments, but they’re too little too late to excuse the arduous course taken to get there. 

If you loved The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, of course you’re going to read this book. A mediocre Musketeers book by Dumas is better than no Musketeers book at all. Yet consider yourself warned that you may be in for a disappointment. Though Dumas clearly intended this work to be a monumental capstone to his trilogy, the result falls far short of a masterpiece.
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