74: REREADING: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS
May 24, 2014
#74: REREADING: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE THREE MUSKETEERS. In his poem “Each June I Made a Promise Sober,” Ogden Nash voiced the common cry of those who work in bookstores or libraries or live otherwise surrounded: so many books, so little time! Always the guilt-inducing pile of unread books, eyeing us like neglected pets. He lists some of the classics he hasn’t read—my own list includes, I blush to say, Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, The Faerie Queen, etc. etc. etc. etc.—and concludes, “So every summer I truly intend / My intellectual sloth to end / And every summer for years and years / I’ve read Sherlock Holmes and The Three Musketeers.” I read those lines and I know my fate.
In the nineteenth century in England, the change in mandatory education laws had brought a boom in literacy, a boom in book publishing, and an explosion in magazine publishing. Dickens and others cashed in hugely on the serial publication of novels, and one of life’s instructive pleasures is to find an edition of Dickens that indicates the two- or three-chapter segments in which, say, Oliver Twist was published, and to see how Dickens kept readers on the hook. The trick was, of course, that if you missed an installment you were sunk. Arthur Conan Doyle had published two novella-length, single-installment stories of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet (with that embarrassing libelous Mormon interlude) and The Sign of Four; but in 1891 he had the idea of running a series of self-contained stories in which Holmes was the recurring main character—an idea briefly anticipated by Poe’s three Auguste Dupin stories. The Holmes stories, published in the Strand Magazine, were an immediate sensation and secured Doyle’s fortune. By the end of the first set of stories—published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—Doyle had tired of Holmes and wanted to move on; by the end of the second set, he contrived to kill Holmes off but, in a classic Freudian slip, failed to produce a corpse; the public revolted and inundated Doyle with protesting letters; Doyle relented, Holmes was resuscitated, and in the end there were five collections of stories and four short novels. They were written in haste; they were full of inconsistencies (John Watson? James Watson?); they were full of bloopers (snakes can’t hear); they became not only immortal, to Doyle’s lasting irritation, but the basis of an ongoing library of mock exegetical literature, stage and film versions, pastiches (what we now call fan fiction) and parodies—a virtual world in which, per Vincent Starrett, “it is always 1895.” Some of it, for my money, must be chalked up to Doyle’s gift for dialogue—I rarely read Holmes and Watson without reading aloud. But on the list of characters who seem not to have been invented so much as discovered and reported, Holmes and Watson are right up there, through endless rereading. The endlessly reprinted Doubleday Complete Sherlock Holmes is the one-volume standard; Leslie Klinger’s new three-volume edition of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (W.W. Norton) is a fresh and informative skim off the top of the voluminous Writings About the Writings. The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, collected and introduced by Peter
Haining (Barnes and Noble) is a good one-stop collection of the stray bits and pieces Doyle wrote about Holmes in addition to the stories: some prefaces, essays, one-acters, and such.
With The Three Musketeers we run into a slightly different order of creation. After Walter Scott, the historical novel fell into its way of mixing the historical with the imagined; Dumas grabbed the mix and ran with it, so much so that it takes considerable annotation to sort out fact from fiction in his books. D’Artagnan actually existed. Dumas discovered his memoirs in the library (he took the book out and never returned it), which had been written up by Courtilz de Sandraz, who, shall we say, embroidered; Dumas proceeded to embroider the embroidery. He devoured, pillaged and embroidered the memoirists of the time, digested and embroidered the history, hearsay, legends and gossip, and spun out one of the richest, most perfectly shaped of all stories of adventure. As with all great adventures, it hinges on friendship: “Tous pour un, un pour tous”: “All for one and one for all,” a phrase I bet is still widely recognized. But it hinges too on a certain youthful headlong recklessness (“La vie vaut-elle autant de questions?” Athos says—“Is life really worth so many questions?”), at least until rough justice is meted out to Milady, and the book ends with the parting of the company. It’s these qualities that keep the book alight and make it, as with Holmes and Watson, so endlessly and refreshingly rereadable. There are innumerable editions in French and English; the translation by the indefatigable Richard Pevear in the recent Penguin Classics edition catches nicely the humor and bravado of the original. The annotation by Gilbert Sigaux in the Pleiade edition will help you do some of the historical sorting out; it’s interesting, but maybe it really doesn’t matter. The historical D’Artagnan lived; Dumas’s D’Artagnan lives.