Sunday, April 08, 2018

RAFAEL SABATINI by Robert Birkmyre

by Robert Birkmyre

The Bookman, June 1914, Vol. 46, No 273, pp 111-112


I do not think I ought to have seen Mr. Rafael Sabatini in that dingy office in the Adelphi.  It was quite out of the picture, although romances lay everywhere in profusion, and portraits of famous authors looked down on us reprovingly as we sat and discussed the follies of the hour.  It was not the setting for a man like Mr. Sabatini.  I ought to have waited till he had gone to Paris and then had our little talk over a cigarette, despite the prowling authorities, in a discreet chamber of the Louvre, crammed with relics; perhaps we even might have gone to Versailles, if the weather had been fine, and sat in some pink-and gold boudoir of a duchesse of old France and had a walk afterwards in the trim parterres of the "Tapis Vert" among the sculptured nymphs.  Hélas! We can only be romantic in our dreams.  Fate led me on, drab and grey, to the Adelphi, the haunt of publishers, the abode of Mr. Shaw; and so it was I came to meet the creator of “Bardelys the Manificent.”  I have a slight grievance with Mr. Sabatini.  I had at least expected that he would have worn ruffles and dangled a rapier and “made a leg” to me in the approved romantic manner.  I had thought he might have offered me a pinch of snuff, with an air, from a golden snuff box elaborately chased with the fleur de lys or the crest of the Borgias – I had fed my soul on such romantic politesse – but, no, the Adelphi was too much.  We were too near Mr. Shaw, whose heavy hand has crushed the frail wings of romance.  We were not at Versailles, not even at Vauxhall.  We shook hands in the absurd manner of the twentieth century, I to ponder on my lost romance, Mr. Sabatini to be “interviewed.”


There is a type of novelist who must always command our respect and admiration.  Mr. Joseph Conrad is a Pole, who has taught more than one English writer the rudiments of his trade; Mr. Maarten Maartens, a Dutchman, is one of our most distinguished English novelists; and finally comes Mr. Rafael Sabatini, an Italian master of the romantic novel.  These three writers are each distinct in methods and in language.  The greatest of these as a stylist is Mr. Conrad; Mr. Maartens has the most comprehensive group of actualities, the largest canvas for his play of human emotions; but in the rare and peculiar genre of the romantic novel Mr. Sabatini easily bears the palm.  In his hands the thing comes very near to artistic perfection.  He makes the romantic novel the very handmaiden of art.  It is primarily a thing made to please, to lull us into a pleasant forgetfulness, but it achieves distinction and even greatness because the tricks of the novel are in his hands also the graces of the novel.  They are not only welded together by the imagination of the novelist, but by the fine restraint and delicacy of the artist.  “Bardelys the Magnificent,” besides being an excellent story, is as fine artistically as a chastened [sic] goblet.  There is not only the “dash” of Dumas in it, there is also the debonair high spirits of Rostand.  “Bardelys” is on a smaller scale a prose “Cyrano de Bergerac”.

Mr. Sabatini is, as we have said, an Italian.  He was born in Jesi, Central Italy, in 1875: this in itself probably accounts for his fine feeling for romance and for his warm imaginative temperament.  He was educated in Switzerland and Portugal – a cosmopolitan – and coming to this country after a training and experience of the world that could not have failed to equip him admirably for the business of romantic novelist, he settled in Liverpool.  He was for a time on the Liverpool Mercury, then began to write short stories, and now at an age when most men have scarcely crossed the threshold of their career, Mr. Sabatini has reached the meridian of success, and can look back on his busy and triumphant past with pride and satisfaction.  It is a record of work and achievement worthy of sincere congratulation.

Having thus satisfactorily disposed of our facts, let us get back to our fancies and the more important business of criticism.  Mr. Sabatini represents that rare thing in modern fiction, a man with a distinct individuality of method, a light and graceful style and a fine gusto of romantic narrative.  He is no mere purveyor of light literature for the toiling millions – pray do not think so – there is nothing of the “coated lozenge” about his work; besides being a skilful and distinctive novelist he is also a serious historian.  In his pages the whole pageant of mediæval Italy lives and moves before our eyes in a manner that for want of a better word we might call “kaleidoscopic” – but the soul of the thing is there as well as the picture.  It is his supreme art to make history a living and luminous picture on the background of his romantic imagination.  There is here the “dash” of Dumas and something even more precious.  Dumas could write spirited and enthralling romances; none knew better than he the fine art of telling a story; he had a prodigal imagination, a riotous sense of colour and movement, could at least paint a portrait if he could not probe a soul like Balzac and Walter Scott, but he failed signally as an artist.  He was too exuberant, his prodigality was a burden that crippled him and kept him to the earth.  His brain was a garden in which weeds and roses grew in rank profusion.  Mr. Sabatini is not a disciple of Dumas – far from it: occasionally his methods recall those of the French romanticist, but there is something far more subtle in Mr. Sabatini’s work than the dash and braggadocio of Dumas.  There is something more here than the clatter of a cavalcade on a dusty provincial high road, the noisy brawling of cavaliers in a country inn and the melodramatic mysteries of that supreme master of mystery.  Mr. Sabatini says he is not influenced by any of the Latin writers, and I can well believe it, but the spirit and the temperament of the Latin writers are in his blood – he can no more escape it than he can escape his meridional nativity.  There is certainly more than a touch of Dumas in that high-spirited tale of how Bardelys set out to win a wife for a wager and its joyous ending, but there is also the spirit and atmosphere of Boccaccio in that superbly coloured romance of the Lord of Mondolfo, the “Strolling Saint,” went out into the wilderness to purge his soul of a sin of the flesh committed in the heyday of his young blood.  This is Boccaccio to the core: rich, sensuous, delicate; a wonderful tapestry of mediæval Italy, glowing like a prism.  All the myriad threads of romance are here caught up and woven into a perfect skein.  “The Strolling Saint” is a masterpiece of narrative prose, and gives us a minute and detailed picture of Italy and the times that recall the lively paintings of the Umbrian School.  There is another influence still in the work of Mr. Sabatini.  It is brought to perfection in “The Justice of the Duke” – a series of tales woven round the diabolic career of Cæsar Borgia – the Mephistopheles of Italian history.  We pass from the naive charm of Boccaccio and his golden “days” to the picaresque wit and gallantry of Cervantes, not so much the Cervantes of “Don Quixote” as the Cervantes of “Novelas Ejemplares.”  These little novels that Mr. Sabatini has woven round the personality of Cæsar Borgia recall insistently to me this minor masterpiece of Cervantes; but whether they are “exemplary” or not – either these “contes” of Mr. Sabatini or the “novelas” of Cervantes – that is a question that must be left to the discerning reader.  We should not like to venture an opinion.  Mr. Sabatini is such a blend.  He has not studied the masters of Spanish and Italian literature for nothing.

We have come to end of our space without saying one half of what we wanted to say about Mr. Sabatini’s work.  We had intended to touch upon his other novels, such as “The Lion’s Skin,” and his new book, “The Gates of Doom,” and more serious works like “Cæsar Borgia” and “Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.”  We cannot close without at least one quotation.  It will give one an idea of Mr. Sabatini’s methods of painting a portrait.  It is from that brilliant satire on the folly of human ambition, “Gismondi’s Wage”:

Benvenuto ambled on, cursing the cold and the emptiness of his stomach, and thrusting the numbed fingers of first one hand and then the other into his capacious mouth for warmth.  His garments that had once been fine, were patched and shabby, his boots were ragged, and in places a livid gleam from his sword peeped through the threadbare velvet scabbard.  On his head he wore an old morion, much dinted and rusted, by which he thought to give himself a military air; from under this appeared long wisps of his unkempt black hair, to flutter like rags about his yellow neck.  His white pock-marked face, half-hidden in a black fur of beard, was the most villainous in Italy.

François Villon to the life in an Italian setting.  We must go back to Robert Louis Stevenson for a better portrait.


I have not done with Mr. Sabatini.  There are lots more to be said about him and his work.  He is now writing a play in collaboration with Mr. Henry Hamilton, who was part author with him in the dramatisation of “Bardelys the Magnificent,” and when I see him again it will not be in the drab and grey purlieus of the Adelphi, but in some corner of old France, a garden of Italy, and then we shall meet on romantic terms and “make a leg” to each other, remembering Bardelys, and doff our feathered hats as was the fashion in the Golden Age.

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