Friday, July 29, 2016

Captain Fracasse by Théophile Gautier

I've been waiting to read Théophile Gautier's 1863 novel, Captain Fracasse for some time, but I wanted to be in the mood. I'm glad I waited and I'm very glad I read it. The story is set in the reign of Louis XIII, sometime after 1630[1] in the Landes, Poitou and it's capital Poitiers, and Paris. 

The novel has a florid, highly romantic style that reminded me more of Edmund Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) than of the works of Dumas. Like reading or listening to Shakespeare, one must adjust perceptions to the style. I allowed myself to do that and found the story's romance to be surprisingly moving. 

From here on there are some minor spoilers. Be warned.  

The Spanish Captain

The beginning of the novel is picaresque with the Baron Sigognac traveling along with a troupe of actors and events and encounters occurring along the road. After the death of one of the actors, Sigognac adopts the stage persona of Captain Fracasse, an example of the Spanish Captain, a stock character from the Commedia dell'arte. The Baron hides his identity behind a mask. This ruse prefigures Sabatini's Scaramouche (1921), though unlike the wily Scaramouche, The bombastic, cowardly Fracasse is completely unlike his alter ego of the modest, brave, and skilled Baron Sigognac. Again like Scaramouche, there is a beautiful actress in the troupe who is in love with Sigognac a beautiful noblewoman above his station who he is in love with, at least at first, and a powerful and arrogant noble who has an unrevealed connection to Sigognac and who impedes the Baron's desired romance. But unlike Scaramouche, the story is focused completely on the romance and not at all on a quest for vengeance. There are several fights and a couple of good duels, however in general Sigognac is a nice guy who prefers not to kill his enemies and while the florid, over the top language and emotion of the romance most reminds of Rostand's Cyrano, this is a romance, but not a tragedy. Ultimately there is a fortuitous and happy ending.  

If you want to know more about the plot, the French Wikipedia for Le Capitaine Fracasse has far more information than does the English version. And if, like me, you don't really read French, you can get the gist by using Bing or Google to translate.

I unreservedly give Captain Fracasse 4 out of 4 stars.

[1] In Poitiers the acting troupe puts on a new play "entitled Lygdamon and Lydias" by Georges de Sucdery. Scudery, who Gautier tells us, was in the French Guards prior to becoming a poet. Since Scudery did not take up the pen until about 1630, the story must occur sometime after this date and since Louis XIII is mentioned in passing, we know it can't be later than 1643, the year Louis died.

The French Wikipedia site for the novel says the novel occurs between 1637 and 1643.

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