Few are the stories that are vouched for by a lead sentence alone.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Call me Ishmael.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Thus run the irresistible opening words of Rafael Sabatini’s inimitable and indomitable 1921 romance of the French Revolution, Scaramouche—a tale that seduces with a smiling subtlety even as its preamble does. For as Sabatini creates a pitch-perfect melodrama of dark rebellion, bright masques, and flashing foils, weaving fiction and fact together in a glorious tapestry of intrigue and horror, he also lures his readers into a debatable point of view, coaxing and even spurring emotions and reactions that assume a questionable historical position. In effect, Sabatini wields Scaramouche as an épée of intense pitch and pathos to plunge and parry in the name of a liberal perspective of past events. Scaramouche is a story of spadassinicide, in which Sabatini undertakes the work of a spadassinicide himself, making it a book that requires wariness together with an appetite for laughter and madness.
Defining “spadassinicide” is obviously the first order of business. Spadassinicide (spad.ə’si.ni.seid) is an act of premeditated murder in which the murderer, a skilled swordsman, provokes an unskilled swordsman into a duel and kills him. Though an uncommon term, such “legal murders” were not altogether uncommon amid the social turmoil that led up to the French Revolution. As commoners rose above the beleaguered throngs to denounce and defy the privileges of the aristocracy with stirring speeches, many noblemen, trained in fencing, found that the untrained lower class were, in their zeal, ready to seek satisfaction if insult were offered. Very often the result was that a member of the Third Estate lay in his blood at the feet of a member of the Second Estate, and a voice against the hierarchy was conveniently silenced.
The drama of Scaramouche is occasioned and concluded by spadassinicide. When the radical seminarian, Phillipe de Vilmorin is slain for his eloquence in a duel instigated by the fabulously wicked Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr, Vilmorin’s closest companion, a swaggering, cynical lawyer named André-Louis Moreau, vows to avenge his friend. Though Moreau has ever been indifferent to the vogue of revolution, he artfully undertakes the revolutionary cause to honor his comrade and bring the Marquis somehow to justice. Moreau applies his talents of oratory and rhetoric with deadly purpose in the republican hotbeds, inspiring hearts and inciting hordes. After uprisings in various towns, a warrant is issued for Moreau’s arrest for crimes of sedition and the lawyer-turned-rabble-rouser is forced to go into hiding.
As the humors of fate would have it, the fugitive finds harborage and hire with a ragtag troupe of traveling players, and secures for himself the role of Scaramouche, a conceited, backstabbing clown of the commedia dell’arte. Moreau, whose natural façade is one of mocking insincerity and hyperbolic affectations to begin with, proves an extraordinary Scaramouche and his performances and impromptu adaptations launch the mediocre company from rags to riches. Under the gleaming mask of Scaramouche and the glaring lights of the stage, Moreau drinks deeply from the brashness of his character and the thrill of his Thespian occupation. Strutting on the boards, he resumes his bold campaign of political posturing against the bourgeois, and, when he spies the hateful Marquis within his audience, he whips up a ferocious riot, orchestrating to have his enemy torn to pieces by the enflamed mob then and there.
On the run again, Moreau takes up his next concealment as an assistant in a Parisian fencing academy. Under the instruction of his master, Moreau becomes one of the deadliest blades in the city. When petitioned by the leaders of the Third Estate, Moreau, ever the sly Scaramouche, becomes a guileful spadassinicide unleashed against the aristocratic senators of the Estates-General of 1789, whose own spadassinicides are led chiefly by the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr—for whom Moreau holds a sharp desire to cross blades with. On goes the story with all the arresting inevitability of a spadassinicide itself. Men laugh. Men rage. Men live. Men die. As the plot boils slowly but steadily to the point of eruption, so too does the French Revolution. When finally the Bastille falls and the Reign of Terror rises in blood and fire on the French horizon, the story of André-Louis Moreau concludes with unimaginable exposés that leaves readers thunderstruck and slack-jawed as they hang on the corner of every page.
Scaramouche is a practically perfect adventure novel, but its tremendous popular appeal brandishes a dubious political influence due to the powerful compassions it arouses. As a genius of historical fiction, Rafael Sabatini draws his readers with almost imperceptible skill towards a prejudiced view of the French Revolution. Through the vivid, compelling story of André-Louis Moreau and his prolonged duel with the Marquis de La Tour d’Azyr, the picture of revolutionary France is vividly and compellingly painted by Sabatini. His vision is one of a devilish nobility trampling mercilessly upon the necks of the downtrodden proletariat with depraved impunity, rendering the reactionary rise of the Third Estate a restoration of nobility. The rebellion against feudalism is exalted by Sabatini while his contempt for monarchic, aristocratic, and ecclesiastic tradition is equally clear. Though Sabatini bemoans the wanton horrors and wild upheaval that this overthrow ultimately caused, he creates a pro-liberal atmosphere around his protagonists, which lures towards a secular position in the very shadow of the guillotine, and it is a position of sympathy towards those who opened the floodgates for chaos, catastrophe, and despotism. In framing this angle and pressing its perspective, Scaramouche is like a spadassinicide, provoking reader into a dangerous bout with a dangerous time and with intention of slaying any lingering loyalties to a conservative notion of government in a world capitulating to democratic liberalism.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Would that every book could unfurl such a first flag. This world would then be less sensible of uncivilized madmen and more gifted with the laughter of civilized readers. Sabatini’s Scaramouche is a persuasive, provocative book, and therein lies its power—and its pleasure. It boasts both the subtlety of the stage and the sincerity of the sword, all beginning with its first line. André-Louis Moreau does indeed have the gift of laughter in the face of all opposition, and it is delightful. He is a character of humor and honor. He is an ironic skirmisher. He is Scaramouche. The world he lived in was mad indeed, and it is frightful. The French Revolution was a time of perplexing complexity. It divided a nation. It conquered a nation. But Scaramouche is positive, even if it is progressive. Though ironies abound and traps are clearly hidden in both the plot and purpose of the story, “all life is grotesque” Sabatini reminds us, and the cunning honesty of Scaramouche fences alongside its spadassinicides with convoluted purpose against the tumultuous backdrop of a convoluted period, all the while, and most importantly, laughing in the face of lunacy. Scaramouche is well worth the risk. Take up the challenge. En garde.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene from the 1952 film version of Scaramouche starring Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh and Mel Ferrer.