To pay sufficient attention, I emptied my mind of over fifty years' memories of the novel and started as if I were reading a book not read before. It was an illuminating experience. I played it in my head like the perfect movie no one can ever make, seeing and hearing all as if it was happening before me. One reaction I can put down to old age: I wept as the young André cradled Philippe's unresponsive head, begging him to speak. That did not happen when I was 13! I noticed small details I had missed in a score of re-readings: both André's parents have dark eyes like his own.
Then there was this:
The last sentence coming out of nowhere, it would seem, is like the sudden quotation of the Dies irae in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, preceded and followed by a tolling bell; it sends - as it is meant to - a shiver down the spine. That can only happen because Le Chapelier was a real person, and he is true to life in the Scaramouche novels.
In a way, Rafael Sabatini's narrative gift, the power to seize the reader's attention and take him/ her hurtling through an exciting part of the story, undoes his other gift, the wonderful ability to recount history with an eloquence whose beauties require the reader to pause and savour them.
He weaves the story of his fictional characters so skilfully into that history that the same elevated mood which is induced by his eloquence enhances their story. I am thinking of how Bertrand des Amis is caught up (and crushed) in the historical event of 12 July 1789, one among so many real people who were killed, and of the final sentence of that chapter, merging at once the bond of affection which has grown between des Amis and his assistant, the sadness of its ending, and the portentous announcement of the French Revolution:
To André-Louis, waiting that evening on the second floor of No. 13 Rue du Hasard for the return of his friend and master, four men of the people brought that broken body of one of the earliest victims of the Revolution that was now launched in earnest.
To me it resonates like music, like the end of a movement, the sad, solemn movement, of a symphony. When reading the novel for the story one might miss these effects.
I realised just how grand Rafael Sabatini can be at his grandest, and writing a history which deeply moved him, he is very grand. It is not my habit to compare novels and novelists unless - on the rarest of occasions - they cover the same ground. To a limited extent, A Tale of Two Cities bears comparison with The Trampling of the Lilies, and with Scaramouche. But I've always found Dickens' novel too nightmarish, too much outdoing Carlyle, for me to take it seriously as a novel of the French Revolution. As a novel, yes, but not as one I would recommend to a student of history. The slow transformation of André's beliefs about reform and revolution, the complexity of any great movement in history because of the complexities of human beings, the actual unfolding of events, these are so superbly blended with the fictional element. I can't go into all the details here, but in chapter after chapter - especially in the marvellous Book Three - in paragraph after paragraph, his special artistry is to be seen - this novel is an inspired work in his output of novels.
I can find only one iffy moment: the long speech in self-exculpation from La Tour d'Azyr at a tense moment when time is of the essence. But make it he must, and at what other moment could it be possible? One must take it as one takes the soliloquies in Shakespeare or the arias in Grand Opera - Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor singing a long, beautifully decorated aria with a sword stuck in his middle.
Rafael unconsciously poured much of himself into Scaramouche, possibly carried away by the power of his own story. Look again at the word placement in that sentence I quoted ("I wonder...the Grève?") Speak it and listen to the musical effect of "himself he rode" instead of "he rode himself"; to the cadence of "in the death-cart to the Grève". If the writer was himself responding to the influence of music I, being accustomed to singing, hear music in his words. There is so much music buried deep in the novel, so deep that not even he realised it was flowing underneath his writing, like a subterranean stream which feeds the greenery above, unbeknownst to any.
There is that sequence leading to a climactic moment, the duel between André and the Marquis. It builds up so tensely, there is a palpable electricity about the meeting of Mme de Plougastel and Aline at No 13 Rue de Hasard. And then they hear this:
"A raccommoder les vieux soufflets!"
As I read that, I recalled at once the cry of the toy-seller in Puccini’s La boheme, at a moment not comparable in mood but musically similar, when the many voices and the orchestra have risen to a crescendo:
“Ecco i giocattoli di Parpignol!”
I wish I could hear the trained voice of an actor of the English stage long ago declaim the grand chapter that opens Book 3. It is no wonder that Esther Forbes was so captivated by the script that she picked up and read right through, not putting it down until she had read every word.