Les Couples Impairs

Browsing at the library recently, I came across Napoleon's Exile by Patrick Rambaud, latest in a series of novels about Napoleon (The Battle and The Retreat are earlier volumes).

In the Afterword/Notes ("Notes for the Curious"), Rambaud conducts a conversation with himself on whether or not his Napoleon books are "historical novels". In the process, he draws a comparison I've never heard before, but I think is worth repeating here:
"The term, certainly reductive, even contemptuous, refers to adventure stories telling timeless tales of love and revenge in exotic settings. [...] ...the chosen era serves as a backdrop, you can easily replace the fortified castle with a Florentine palace or an English building; it doesn't change anything."


"Dumas, exactly! The cycle of the Three Musketeers, that's the historical novel in its pure state!"

"No, I don't think so. His characters can't be transposed in time. You can't imagine them in our own time, or in ancient Greece, during the Crusades or among the pirates of the Caribbean. They tell us of the transition, in France, from the Baroque to the Classical age."

"I don't see ..."

"At the beginning we're in the reign of Louis XIII, an age damaged by feudalism, and Richelieu knows it, he fights the feudal lords. You have a sense of bravado, of sworn oaths, emtional outbursts and decent food. Twenty years later, it's all changed. Under Mazarin, our musketeers are out of step: honor has been replaced by cunning, negotiation and politics. With the accessiohn of young Louis XIV, in the novel Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, the state winis the day, the aristocracy makes way for the burgeoisie, and Colbert installs centralized power. You have to adapt or go under. Our musketeers pass through that precise age, when society is being transformed around them. They are nostalgic, they have plenty of regret but no remorse. By the end they have lost their illusions. It's the finest novel of passing time."

"Like Proust? Are you joking?"

"I'm not joking at all. And anyway, Proust was thinking about Dumas when he wrote the Recherche."


"One day he revealed his project to his friends. To help them understand, he said, 'You see, it's like Vingt Ans Apres.' Leon Daudet was there, and he corrected him: 'No, it's more like Bragelonne.' "
Dumas and Proust, together again for the first time. Thoughts of a French television sitcom rise inexorably, with big loud Dumas and fussy little Proust as mismatched roommates.

But I like the idea of redefining "historical novels" (and I think Napoleon's Exile is definitely one, despite Rambaud's denial) as, not just adventure stories, but as depictions of society in transition. This seems to me to add an extra layer of complexity and value to the best of the genre, on top of the common literary value of depicting how the characters of the story change and grow. (In that context, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath could be considered as a historical novel.)

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