When I came to the end of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, last week, I was satisfied and surprised. My expectations for classic novels–despite this particular one being a swashbuckling romance–have been low, due to length and density of language, while my general desire to read them being due to the lack of a class syllabus. However, the brisk 700-page read was never a slog, as compared to, say, the I Will if You Will challenge of last year at NPR’s Monkey See blog, which challenged everyone to a reading of Moby Dick. I like me a good sea-going yarn, but I’ve never thought “hey, 17th-century French court intrigues, that sounds like a good read.”
Maybe the level of verisimilitude Dumas employed throughout the novel was what made it so engaging, in comparison to Melville’s over-detailed instructions on what parts of a whale are useful. Dumas found his entry point with his history–the real Musketeers–and then twisted it to fit the narrative, and made that ignore all the smaller, boring, and gritty parts of war in the 1600’s. You know, kinda like David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin did with Facebook: made a fictional account of a website out of a factual story, but romanced for the screen. Melville stuck so close to whaling that I had a hard enough time getting through the novel the first time, let alone the second time. But there’s really no comparing the two–despite their label as ‘classics’–the meditative, gloomy trudge through the soul that is Moby-Dick serves one particular need in a reader, and the bright romp that is The Three Musketeers serves a vastly different one. Have I any new outlook on my life to reflect upon after reading The Three Musketeers? If I discount the desire to search Wikipedia for articles on French history, no, I haven’t, but I might take more away from a reading of Moby Dick.
However, I don’t think I was looking for Dumas’ piece to give me the kind of experience that Melville was looking to communicate. Reading The Three Musketeers gave me a good story, with colorful characters, that I could enjoy. Translation or not, more graphic edition or not (I read the Barnes & Noble Classics edition), I enjoyed the hell out of it, and would read it again. As of late I’ve struggled with a nasty interior editor’s voice who calls my recent drafts unsophisticated enough to be completed, as if I need to stretch beyond what Jonathan Franzen describes as the Contract model, towards the Status model. Generally, the Contract Model is a type (or style, or philosophy of) writing towards an audience’s complete accessibility of a text, while the Status model (generally) is borne out of a lack of care of the audience’s capabilities or understanding, creating works that might be thought of with high regard,though seldom read.
One of the threads of Franzen’s essay seems to suggest that a balance needs to be struck between the two (indeed he seems to achieve this balance in the couple of novels I’ve read of his), no matter what you write. I tend to agree–and I also tend to shy away from tomes that work better as door stops or as weights in a makeshift book press–that size does matter in determining if I’m going to embark on a novel, but it matters less if the perseverance as a reader is rewarded in the form of satisfaction, or enjoyment after such a long investment. For me, as a reader, and then as a writer, novels should be challenging but not impenetrable, and rewarding in some way if the challenge is met. Reflecting on my habits and preferences for both reading and writing, I can see that this is certainly a common thread with the novels I enjoy, connect with, and return to for inspiration. I have to say that inside The Three Musketeers, the challenge is easily met, and the rewards are bountiful.
The rewrites I’ve been struggling with the last few months, however, haven’t been as successful. I’m not freewheeling with the actual events I’m working through, and I’m getting bogged down in what actually happened. Facility with the characters and the story keeps slipping through my fingers whenever I try to rectify the story to tell and the story that was. I’ve tried to avoid this problem by developing reasons to show the events with cute post-modern devices that distance the visceral nature and personal reactions of the characters so I can simply load up on expository rants and contorted histories of made up rock and roll bands. I wrote the draft of this last piece while reading Thomas Pynchon’s Regan-era post-modern romp Vineland (one of his tightest novels, but still zany and spreading at every corner–it takes a wiki to sort out) it has taken me a lot to shake out that influence from the page. I wanted, from the first page of Dumas’ novel, a clear example on how to engage a reader, make history interesting, and stay in print for a couple hundred years. That’s exactly what I got.