Rafael Sabatini’s “Scaramouche”

BLOG #9, SERIES 5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #27
RAFAEL SABATINI’S SCARAMOUCHE
February 26, 2014

As mentioned in our January 29 blog, our daughter Michelle suggested we pose one question to our Book Club members each month. By responding (on Facebook), we could thereby get more discussions in motion.

So here is Question #2: As you have journaled your book-related thoughts, what kind of mental dialogue with yourself has resulted? In other words, what do you find is most helpful in enabling you get to the essence of a given book?

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Few historical novels are more beloved than this one. Certainly, it has long fascinated me. In fact, I have now read it around six times down through the years. And that’s unusual for I rarely read a given book more than once.

One reason for my returning to the book again and again has to do with my intense interest in the time period in which Sabatini sets the action: the French Revolution. That disruptive out-of-control time period that separates Louis XVI from the Napoleonic Empire. That French revolution breaking out a scant thirteen years after our American revolution.

Like most historical fiction readers, I’m not much interested in historical novels that are not true to their time period. I guess, in a way, I too like to have my general history reading sugar-coated by excitement and romance based on the author’s prior historical research of the time period.

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Scaramouche has been filmed twice: first in 1923, and second (and more significantly) in 1952. Directed by George Sidney, and screenplay by Ronald Millar and George Froeschel. Star-studded cast includes Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Janet Leigh, Mel Ferrer, Henry Wilcoxon, Lewis Stone, Nina Foch, Richard Anderson, and Robert Coote. The highlight is the climactic sword duel–longest in cinematic swashbuckling history.

The book begins with a famous line: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

It takes a little while to get through the scene that triggers the rest of the almost unputdownable plot. But there’s far more to the book than mere action, intrigue, and romance: At the heart of it is this great truth: To know all is to forgive all.

It is not a book to read and forget: rather it is a book that keeps on giving as long as you live.

Rafael Sabatini’s life (1875-1950) was almost as eventful as his action-packed novels. He was born in the then small town of Jesi, Italy, near the seaport of Ancona. Apparently, he was illegitimate [not even a factor today in American when almost half of all children are born out of wedlock]. You will note in Scaramouche that the stain of his own birth gave Sabatini the incentive to dig deep into the issue in his fiction. Sabatini’s parents were well-known opera singers who traveled the world. His mother was English.

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Sabatini grew up in England and Portugal, exposed to many languages. Early on, he fell in love with the borderland between England and Wales. In Porto, Portugal, Rafael attended a Catholic school. A few years later, the Sabatinis returned to Italy, this time to Milan. The son was then sent to a school in Switzerland. Here he added French and German to his linguistic arsenal. He spent most of his teenage years here.

When he was seventeen, his father sent him to Liverpool, England to immerse himself in the business world. But he soon turned to writing romances instead. By 1899, he was selling his short fiction to national magazines such as Pearson’s Magazine, London Magazine, and Royal Magazine. But once he devoted himself to full-time writing, he generally produced a book a year.

During World War I, he became a British citizen. In 1921, it was Scaramouche that catapulted him to world-wide fame; in fact, the book became an international best-seller. In 1922, Captain Blood sold even more copies.

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His novels were set all over Europe, and in the New World as well. If you are anything like me, you will have developed such an addiction to his historical fiction by the time you finish Scaramouche, you will set about tracking down the rest of them for your library. Here they are:

  •  The Tavern Knight, 1904
  •   Bardelys the Magnificent, 1906
  •   The Trampling of the Lilies, 1906
  •   Love-at-Arms, 1907
  •   The Shame of Motley, 1908
  •   Saint Martin’s Summer, 1909
  •   Anthony Wilding, 1910
  •   The Lion’s Skin, 1911
  •   The Life of Cesare Borgia, 1912 (history)
  •   The Justice of the Duke, 1912
  •   The Strolling Saint, 1913
  •   Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, 1913 (history)
  •   The Gates of Doom, 1914
  •   The Sea-Hawk, 1915
  •   The Banner of the Bull, 1915
  •   The Snare, 1917
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: First Series, 1918-1938
  •   The Historical Nights’ Entertainment: Second Series, 1919
  •   Scaramouche, 1921
  •   Captain Blood, 1922
  •   Fortune’s Fool, 1923
  •   The Carolinian, 1925
  •   Bellarion, 1926
  •   The Nuptials of Corbal, 1927
  •   The Hounds of God, 1928
  •   The Romantic Prince, 1929
  •   The Minion, 1930
  •   The Chronicles of Captain Blood, 1931 (or Captain Blood Returns)
  •   Scaramouche the Kingmaker, 1931
  •   The Black Swan, 1933
  •   The Stalking Horse, 1933
  •   Captain Blood, 1936 (or The Fortunes of Captain Blood)
  •   The Lost King, 1937
  •   The Sword of Islam, 1938
  •   Master-At-Arms, 1940
  •   Columbus, 1942

If possible, secure a Houghton Mifflin hardback with dust-jacket. However, Bantam sold untold thousands in paperback form.

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The London Olympics — A Retrospective

BLOG #35, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE LONDON OLYMPICS
A RETROSPECTIVE
August 29, 2012

What a show London threw for the world!

And that’s one thing London appears to do better than any other city in the world, unexcelled as they are in royal pageantry.

Every four years of our lives–barring world wars–, the world gathers for another Olympics. The Winter Olympics, since they disenfranchise the Southern hemisphere countries, can never be truly global. In today’s electronic world, it would be almost unthinkable for any nation to do a no-show for a Summer Olympics for its very place among the family of nations is at stake; not to show up would represent a worldwide black eye. Indeed, these Olympics can truthfully be said to represent the most-watched spectacle on earth. Hence the sheer amount of money and effort expended for bragging rights for specific events.

Each Olympics of our lives gifts us with a new set of heroes and heroines. The coin of the realm is medals, with Gold equating the laurel wreaths of ancient times. One moment, an athlete is unknown; only seconds later, the athlete’s name and image is transmitted on every computer screen in the world. One moment, an athlete may be facing a minimum wage future; only seconds later, endorsements worth millions! No wonder they cry, when they have to settle for fourth place, for not to earn at least a Bronze is to be saddled with an achievement that doesn’t even make a blip on the media screen.

Especially is this true in the U.S., where, sadly, the only medal that appears to count is Gold. On talk shows, Silver and Bronze winners rarely are even approached for interviews. This is, of course, a far cry from the Olympic ideal: To be honored for the effort represented by the achievement of edging out their competitors in their native countries–and thus earning the right to show up in the quadrennial Olympic parade of nations. Tragically, this U.S. led perception that only Gold counts has seeped into the global Zeitgeist and distorted it as well.

The Olympics creates its own royalty. In this respect, case in point is Ethiopia’s most famous runner. So idolized is she that in her home nation she has achieved such a level of idolatry that she is treated as though she were empress of that former monarchy.

The same is true with the so-called “fastest man on earth,” Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Yet even he had to re-earn this status, beating out an up-and-coming Jamaican who had defeated Bolt in Jamaican pre-trials, proving that past laurels are ephemeral at best: lasting only until someone else comes along who proves better, stronger, or faster.

Or if further proof of fame’s short shelf life were needed, we’d need look no further than Michael Phelps, the Superman of swimming. Even though his supremacy in prior Olympics had seemed absolute, he came into the London Olympics under a cloud of doubt, which early meets did little to dispel as in several cases he failed to medal at all. The big question had to do with whether archrival Ryan Lochte might supplant him. But then Phelps awoke, and the lion roared once again, and he finished his astounding Olympic career with 22 medals, 18 Gold, making him perhaps the greatest Olympian ever. At least for now. Next Olympics, in Rio, it will be someone else’s opportunity to shine and inevitably Phelps’ medals will lose their luster. As Robert Frost famously put it in his poem by the same name, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Prior to the Olympics, all around the world, in each nation, as Olympic tryouts took place, those who excelled became locally famous, high hopes held out for the best of them. This local fame crescendoed as each team was sent off to London. In some cases, this early fame proved to be justified; in the majority of cases, it would not, and that early fame wouldn’t even last long enough to accompany the athlete back home.

We couldn’t help but note this phenomenon in the case of our state’s Wunderkind, Missy Franklin, temporarily lauded nationally, lauded as well in Colorado. In her case, however, the hype proved to be justified for she went on to win five medals (five Gold and two World Records). More significantly than that, however, she emerged from the games as America’s new sweetheart, her infectious joie de vivre lighting up every room and venue she entered; and not coincidentally energizing every team meet she participated in. Just as significant, if not more so, had to do with her parents’ determination to value their daughter’s right to a normal growing up over the siren call of professional sports and the money it could shower upon her if she’d just renounce normal girlhood in favor of becoming a cog in professional sports’ straightjacketing and mass-produced squirrel cages, akin to the State-run sports programs operated by medal factories such as China and Russia, in which the athlete’s parents are provided few opportunities to interact with their children.

Nor should we forget the way the so-called “Flying Squirrel” Gabby Douglas, captured the adoration of every little girl in the United States.

A serendipity had to do with the sight of the world’s most iconic couple, William and Kate, reveling in the sights and sounds of the games like any other couples sitting in the stands.

These, of course, are but a few of this year’s crop of Olympians who capture–at least temporarily–hearts all around the world.

See you in Rio!

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

BLOG #22, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL

May 30, 2012

 

 

 

Roger Ebert’s review of this new British film doesn’t begin to do it justice:

 

                                    Travel Comedy.  4 ½ stars.  PG-13.

                                    The hotel of the title is a retirement

                                    destination in India for “the elderly

                                    and beautiful.”  It has seen better days,

                                    and if you want to see what the better

                                    days looked like, just examine the

                                    brochure, which depicts a luxurious

                                    existence near Udaipur, a popular tourist

                                    destination in Rajasthan.  To this city

                                    travel a group of seven Brits with

                                    seven reasons for making the move.  As

                                    we meet them jammed on the bus from

                                    the airport, we suspect that the film will

                                    be about their various problems and that

                                    the hotel will not be as advertised.  What

                                    we may not expect is what a charming,

                                    funny and heartwarming movie this is,

                                    a smoothly crafted entertainment that

                                    makes good use of seven superb veteran

                                    actors. (Roger Ebert, Universal Uclick)

                                    124 minutes.

 

It is far more than a travel comedy.  As funny as many of the lines are situations are, undergirding it all is a serious premise.  It reminds me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (ostensibly, merely a collection of stories told to each other by medieval pilgrims; but in reality, all Europe is being terrorized by a plague that is no respecter of persons or age groups.  It is a plague that strikes indiscriminately and suddenly: today you are healthy, tomorrow you are dying, often horribly).  Marigold Hotel is just as serious, beneath the humor and vibrantly alive scenery and people of India.  In truth, each of the seven Brits is in India for a reason.  In most cases it is for reasons each of us knows all too well: we are all dying, tied as we are to a terminal existence.  But what tortures us most is not the mere ceasing to breathe, but being marginalized, being pushed aside, having to dither in the grandstands of life watching the only players that matter fight it out.  Discovering how little our grown children need us any more—and by extension, the grandchildren as well.  Reallizing that all too often our children or others usurp control of our financial assets.  Ruefully becoming aware that we have inadequate resources to maintain the quality of life we are used to.

 

In times past, before the State assumed responsibility for the needs of its elderly, families took care of their own and lived together or in close proximity, intergenerationally.  In such a world, there were many contributions the elderly could make.  That is much less true in our age of separation of senior citizens from the day-to-day flow of those still active and creating products and services.

 

Another key dimension of the film highlights the aging protagonists’ continued yearning to be loved and cherished, for physical intimacy even though with lower wattage.

 

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” older people miraculously have their youth restored to them; at least that’s what they think, and act accordingly.  Since their restored youth is all illusionary the results are grotesque.  In Marigold Hotel, each character is all too aware of their aging, yet each still longs to have their aliveness, their youthful vigor, return—even if it be briefly or for but one last time.

                                                                                                                                                            Marigold Hotel, itself as aged and dilapidated as they, is an inspired setting.  The young Indian hotel owner/manager and his vivacious and lovely sweetheart provide intensity contrast to the lack of it in the guests.  Another layer of meaning is that the old hotel dates back to the days when the British ruled India, and the wisdom articulated then by such writers as Rudyard Kipling still resonating today in such immortal works as “If.”  Almost ironically the descendants of India’s erstwhile conquerors return in order to rediscover meaning in their lives.

 

Miraculously, the aged hotel proves to be a catalyst—not necessarily to a rebirth of youth for the characters, but to a prolongation of their sense of belonging, of camaraderie, of esprit de corps, of friendship, of being needed, of being given the opportunity to contribute again, of being respected again, and last but anything but least: a sense of renewed excitement with the dawn of each new day (in that sense, a rebirth of joie-du-vivre).

                                                                                                                                   

The one character who is unable or unwilling to accept the call of India, returns to England without her husband who—oh, you’ll just have to see and experience the film for yourself!

 

It is not a film young people would understand very well.  However, it is a must for every senior among us, and almost an equal must for all those older children and care-givers who interact with society’s seniors.  As to why, that is something each film-watcher will know for a certainty before the screen credits roll.

 

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The film also segues beautifully with my May 9 blog on Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

A FAIRY TALE ROYAL WEDDING

Indeed, that’s what the April 29, 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton was—a fairy tale. Wisely, the greatest folk tale anthologists end their fairy tales with marriage; not with the inescapable troubles, tribulation, and traumas that, as predictably as day following night, assail all brides and grooms. The “And they lived happily ever after” is tacked on for the benefit of children, for they are satisfied with nothing less.

Given that millions of marriages around the world take place every year, it’s strange, is it not, that the most memorable ones take place in the West? I’ve often wondered why that is—that is, I did until I realized that great romance is possible only if the man and woman are equals. Only within the framework of Christianity is this possible, each wedding consisting of a bride and a groom who mirror Christ’s love for His created beings He loved enough to die for. So look around the world and search for another template to equal this one. What do you discover? Whenever polygamy is permitted—such as is true in the Muslim world—, there can be no equality at the altar. Nor in the matriarchal societies or in any society in which either sex is considered of less value than the other (as in China and India where boys are prized and girls are consistently devalued). And well over a third of this earth’s total population resides in those two societies.

Inescapably, the wedding of William and Catherine is being compared with the wedding of Charles and Diana. Only in retrospect and by comparison do we realize that the earlier wedding (also touted as a fairy tale wedding) was anything but a fairy tale wedding. For a number of reasons: (1) the bride and groom hardly knew each other (having spent only some 21 hours in each other’s company prior to the wedding); (2) the former was an arranged dynastic marriage of unequals; (3) neither of them was in love with the other; (4) the bride was forced by the palace to undergo the indignity of a physical examination in order to certify her as a virgin – the groom was exempt from questioning on the issue; (5) the “kiss” was forced and a sham on his part; (6) when asked if he was in love with his bride, Charles famously quipped, “Whatever that is.” It would later be observed that “Charles was the only man in the world not in love with Diana.”

Not so with William and Catherine: (1) They knew each other very well—indeed intimately—after an eight-year courtship; (2) in this case, the prince married a commoner; (3) both were unmistakably in love with each other, tender and empathetic and kind and supportive of each other; (4) the virginity issue was not ever raised; (5) not merely one kiss–but two; in each case, it was almost like spontaneous combustion, ignited by but a single look into each other’s eyes; (6) both clearly know what love is.

The wedding itself and the pageantry varied little from the standard British royal template, except that it was obvious that William and Catherine put their own individualistic stamp on theirs, unlike the former, planned and orchestrated as it was by the Palace.

But Charles was not all to blame for his condition. Many years before, when but a child, he’d been left with his nanny and servants for half a year while his parents went on a tour around the empire on the royal yacht Britannia. When they finally returned, little Charles rushed into his mother’s arms—not! She stopped him cold in his tracks—with an outstretched hand! A handshake all she had to give her lonely son.

But William and Harry were raised by a loving mother—and it showed . . . in so many ways. Eventually, after Diana’s untimely death, Charles did the best he was capable of in his role of single-parent. And clearly, Catherine comes from a loving united family, uncrippled by separation or divorce.

William and Catherine are beginning their married life in a simple five-room house (on a wind-swept Welsh island) devoid of butlers and servants; she will cook their meals. On the other hand, it is said that Charles has never in his entire life even squeezed toothpaste onto his own toothbrush!

* * * * *

Over two billion people watched—and half a billion more streamed—the April 29 wedding. Within mere hours, Catherine catapulted into superstardom: the most iconic face in the world.

And Americans, as always, continued to express their devotion to, and fascination with, the British monarchy by getting up in the middle of the night to watch the wedding. Perhaps because, deep down, the British royal family is still ours too; after all, we were ruled by them for 174 years (as compared to the 222 years of our republic). So why do the British and Commonwealth peoples revere the monarch so? For today, all royal power is vested in the elected Prime Minister.

One British news commentator expressed it this way last week: “True, we respect the Prime Minister, but we are subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen. In fact, no civic function begins without all singing, “God Save the Queen!”

The April 29 royal wedding, with its million people loosely attending in London alone, confirms this incredible bond between a people and their royal family—a relationship based on love rather than mandatory obedience to.

So in conclusion, the marriage of William and Catherine is not a fairy tale just because of the incredible choreography of every perfectly orchestrated second of the proceedings, but because both the bride and groom appear to love each other so deeply that perhaps for them there may be a future about as close to “happily ever after” as our troubled world ever permits.

* * * * *

Next week, it will be back to the Caribbean.