The key to enjoying a novel by Alexandre Dumas is to envision the author as a beloved uncle, telling you stories.
Yes, he will divert from the main track often, as memories pop into his head. Yes, he will tell you many minute details of the lives of people who figure only momentarily in his overall plot. Yes, he will remind you often that he mentioned a particular person or place several hours ago, and he will repeat details just in case you may have forgotten.
And none of that will keep you from loving the stories.
Indeed, as writer Paul Jessup observed during one of our Twitter conversations, the diversions and minute details make the story seem all the more real.
Dumas does many, many things that modern authors try very hard not to do. But he does it all with such charm and enthusiasm that, as we do when someone we love tells us stories, we just nod and accept the diversions and trust that he will get back on track.
“The Red Sphinx,” is a novel centered upon The War of the Mantuan Succession, in which France plays war and chess its other interests for control of northern Italy, where an heir is lacking. The tale, billed as a sequel to “The Three Musketeers,” does not, in fact, feature d’Artagnan and his intrepid friends. Instead, it focuses primarily on the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu to conduct the war in Italy despite the ineffectiveness of King Louis XIII and the schemes of Anne of Austria and the Queen Mother Marie de Medicis.
The book was written late in Dumas’ career, and in reading it one gets the sense he was trying to recapture the glory of d’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis and Porthos. Even without those characters present, I think Dumas succeeded. “Sphinx” follows right on the heels of “Musketeers,” and I rather wish I had re-read “Musketeers” and then plunged immediately forward with “Sphinx.”
The chapters in which Cardinal Richelieu manipulates his king are splendid examples of statesmanship, and the scheming by the cardinal’s enemies is quite entertaining. While we have mostly intrigue here, there is some swashbuckling, too, primarily provided by the characters of Etienne Latil and the Comte de Moret, the latter a half-brother to the king. They do most of the behind-enemy-lines and horse-and-swordplay business.
“The Red Sphinx,” serialized as “Le Comte de Moret” in Dumas’ lifetime, actually never was completed. The present edition, edited by Lawrence Ellsworth, tacks on a for an ending a short story called “The Dove,” written earlier and speculating about the outcome of Moret’s relationship with Isabelle de Lautrec, one of the several plot threads of “Sphinx.” The change in tone between “Sphinx” and “Dove” is jarring. And the marriage of incomplete novel to previously written story leaves many threads unraveled.
For example, I suspect we would have seen more swashbuckling from Etienne Latil in the chapters Dumas never wrote. We might have seen some minor plot conflicts resolved.
But the short story does provide a sense of conclusion to the unfinished novel, and provides an example of Dumas’ range and willingness to play with a variety of narrative forms.
“The Red Sphinx,” like most of Dumas’ work, is filled with actual historical characters and events. The author, no doubt, played fast and loose with some of his portrayals. Dumas wanted to illuminate the history of his beloved France, yes, but he wanted to tell a good story, too. Like many a beloved uncle, he shares memories and history colored by his views of how things should have been, and not necessarily the way they actually were. If some of the people within the tale come off a bit more dastardly or heroic than they were in life, that is fine with me. If I want nuts and bolts history, I will look it up. If I want intrigue and swashbuckling instead, well, I know where to find that.
If you enjoyed “The Three Musketeers,” “Twenty Years After” and “The Man in the Iron Mask,” you absolutely should read this one