Keely's Reviews > Scaramouche

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
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Aug 17, 11

bookshelves: pulp, adventure, italy, reviewed, swashbuckling, historical-fiction, favorites
Read from July 23 to August 13, 2011

Seminal novels have a curious tendency of being very much unlike the genres they inspire. It's something I've explored before, in The Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Virginian (western), and The Moonstone (mystery), and Scaramouche definitely resembles the latter two in how they stray from what we might expect.

Firstly, we have an unusually introspective, complex protagonist. Much less the dashing hero, we are shown a doubting cynic, a recluse who sees the cruel inequality of the world and does his best to avoid it. Yet it is a world he must live in, and so he finds himself thrust again and again into complications from which he strives to extricate himself.

The second similarity with those other formative works is the quirky, meandering plot. It is certainly not what we would expect; we bear witness to only two swordfights in the book, one at the beginning, and one near the end (though a few others are mentioned).

The very beginning of the book is concerned mainly with the political philosophies which lead to the French Revolution. But we dispense with that rather quickly, and spend the following two thirds of the book exploring the forms and history of the Commedia Dell'Arte.

But, of course, I don't have to explain about that vital and influential form to you. Like me, you probably grew up around Commedia actors, and over a hundred or so scattered performances, witnessing the infinite variations on the theme and marveling at the extemporaneous wit of its sprightly practitioners. Perhaps you, like me, had a little stuffed bear named for the old miser, Pantalone.

But even a cave-dweller who had never heard of the Commedia, and did not recognize it in Pagliacci, Punch, and Pantos could derive amusement from the ways Sabitini explores it. His is not precisely a scholarly analysis, but more of a playful jaunt through the style, relating its plots and characters to the overblown melodramas which politics and social status inevitably produce.

At length he leaves the Commedia behind, and we are treated to an amusing view of the different forms and schools of fencing, and of its vital place in a culture of duelists--the ideal culture for a swashbuckling tale. Like most young men, I spent my time as both student and tutor of swordsmanship, so this was another delightful moment of youthful nostalgia--though again, Sabitini merely plays on the surface of the art of fencing. I could have done with a more in-depth discussion of line, distance, and form, perhaps with some diagrams, but it was amusing, nonetheless.

I was able to quickly guess the two-part 'twist' ending, but that was hardly bothersome, since it was only a small part of the book. It did nothing to lessen the delightful verve with which it was written, the complexity of the characters (including a very sympathetic villain), the many and varied inspirations, and the concise structure of the plot. Scaramouche is lively, intelligent, and like most pulps, devoid of pretension, showing once again that the best way to promote skill and wit is simply to demonstrate them.
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Quotes Keely Liked

Rafael Sabatini
“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche


Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Gobnait (new)

Gobnait Good morning. I'm looking forward to your review. :)


Keely Good morning, yourself. Guess I'll have to think up something good enough to amuse you.


message 3: by Gobnait (new)

Gobnait That should not be too difficult. I am easily amused. :)


message 4: by Daniel (new)

Daniel You really took me back to my own childhood: morning practices in the courtyard, the flagstones still retaining the chill of the night before, the maestro sitting in his chair, sipping a coffee from his favorite, chipped china cup, calmly calling out our mistakes as we warmed up with basic stances and strikes...

Very nice review.


Keely Thanks; it brought me back, too. Nice to read something that accords with experiences.

I was actually talking to a woman the other day when her boyfriend walked up and suggested we duel for her. I told him I felt it was my responsibility to reveal that I had beaten the Minnesota state epee champion numerous times, at which he retracted the obligation.

Life imitates art?


message 6: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Brilliant. Although, now I feel obligated to reveal that my comment was a tongue-in-cheek homage to your review, which I read as a tongue-in-cheek comparison between a fictional upbringing that involved fencing and Commedia. Seeing as you did, in fact, grow up with fencing, I only respect your review all the more.

In reality, I only took a single fencing class as a teenager. I did fight for the kendo team throughout college, though, so I can appreciate the practice of swordsmanship at a young age.


Keely The review is more of a tongue-in-cheek recognition of just how bizarre my upbringing must have been, in that it allowed me to feel immediately familiar with a world of French improvisational theater and sword fighting, which I can hardly imagine is the experience of most modern readers with this book.

Somewhere between the period thespians, madrigal groups, master block printers, bookbinders, armorers, and mother's metal band, I begin to feel like an arrival from some alien world . . .

But yes, I think kendo counts.


message 8: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Keely wrote: "The review is more of a tongue-in-cheek recognition of just how bizarre my upbringing must have been, in that it allowed me to feel immediately familiar with a world of French improvisational theater and sword fighting, which I can hardly imagine is the experience of most modern readers with this book.

Somewhere between the period thespians, madrigal groups, master block printers, bookbinders, armorers, and mother's metal band, I begin to feel like an arrival from some alien world . . ."


That does sound like a singular childhood–and, from an outside perspective, an adventurous one. The block printing and bookbinding must have been fascinating.

In my case, kendo can count thanks to a wonderful instructor, who considered Yoda an idol, who loved to tell stories about the samurai, and who often segued into philosophical monologues about being a warrior. I miss those moments.


Keely Yeah, sensei moments are good.


message 10: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Heh, I fenced as a teen as well, so perhaps your background isn't quite so weird. I'm jealous of the block-printing, though. I really like the arts that require technical know-how, but am too lazy to acquite it for myself.


Keely Yeah, I wish I were out there taking classes and learning new things, but that costs money.


message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Yeah, the local art museum keeps torturing me with their advertisements for $150 an hour classes on things I'm quite interested in.


Keely That's just cruel.


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