Raphael Sabatini (1875-1950)

“He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.”

The foregoing quote is the opening line of this classic, immediately arresting and captivating the reader. Who, we wonder, can be “born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad”? We can’t wait to leap into the story’s breach. This, in my view, is the greatest opening line in all of fiction, and it is followed by a smoothly flowing, exciting and edifying novel that fulfills this early promise. This 1921-novel enables us to revisit and experience the causes of the late 1700’s French Revolution and to enjoy a creative, romantic plot, written beautifully, by an artist who paints with word images that make us reshape our wanting powers of observation and perceive portraits to be found in great, classic novels – a caliber of prose that simply does not exist in our language today.

Long before Sabatini gave his hero the name, Scaramouche (which is a play on the Italian word for “squirmish”), it was a name given to comics or buffoons in Medieval times and later in Punch and Judy shows and other theatrical genre, all antedating Sabatini. Sabatini’s Scaramouche (Andre-Louis Moreau, a well-educated but illegitimate son of a nobleman), however, is cut of a different cloth: a swash buckling adventurer, a thespian, a romantic, a swordsman, an orator, a philosopher, and a voice of reason and kindness, but (oddly to most) initially a voice against the French Revolution, until his best friend was butchered in a ludicrous duel which he had no chance of winning.

Sabitini’s Scarmouche looked at the comic side of people and events not because he was a fool, but because, like a good stoic, he accepted that he could change so little in life. Beneath his comic exterior beat a kind heart, a mind possessed of great knowledge and intellect and semi-hypnotic oratorical skills, and the courage to challenge the contemporary consensus. His contempt for the “Privileged” (nobility) and their treatment of the masses was stated thus: “A governing class is necessary in every society, but not necessarily a hereditary one…Absent inheritance, the best should always predominate…He was of too sane and logical a mind to gauge the depths of human insanity then revealed…his excessive honesty and oratory had burnt all his boats…” He became an outcast from his own family, hunted, driven into hiding within a career on the stage and, thereafter, as a fencing instructor, and, finally, as an orator to spur on the Revolution. In the end, as mob rule supplanted the nobility, with unbridled chaos and senseless brutality and killings, he realized: “[Y]ou must change man, not systems…Every system of government has failed in the end…Man never changes…He is always greedy, acquisitive, vile…Should we be better served if we replaced one ruling class [the nobility] by another [the mob]…Where there is power, there will always be abuses of it…The Revolution became the day of the rabble…a despotism of apes and brutes…a government by the whole of its parts…”, recalling Hugo’s Les Miserables and Pasternak’s chilling truth, in Dr. Zhivago, “Revolutions are good only on their first day.”

Although Scaramouche lands on his feet in the end, and with the girl of his dreams, he laments, “I recognize myself as part of this mad world…I can’t take any of it seriously, lest I lose my reason utterly,” recalling Voltaire’s sage view, “Laughter saves us from insanity…Laugh and make laugh.” In sum, Sabatini’s richly rewarding novel and his fascinating Scaramouche are admirable, lovable, entertaining and offer us an attitude that would enhance our abilities to deal with life’s disappointments. As does the author, “We part here, the richer for your acquaintance, ever your debtor, always your friend…” Sabatini, we long for your equals now.