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Dumas' classic: The solemnity left out and the sex put back in

The Three Musketeers: A Novel

Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Richard Pevear

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Viking / 704 pages / $35

We live in something of a golden age for literary translation.

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Though American publishers bring out only about 1,000 translated works every year, many are of stunning quality, and Richard Pevear's wonderfully vivid new version of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers surely is among them.

Thanks to scholarly and artful translators such as Gregory Rabassa and Michael Henry Heim - to cite just two examples - Gabriel GarcM-ma MM-arquez and Milan Kundera are indispensable landmarks on our contemporary literary landscape. Over the past decade or so, we've also seen a remarkably fruitful reconsideration of many foundational works in the literary canon. The Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson have given us striking new versions of Beowulf and Dante. Richard Howard provided a new reading of Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma that was at once fresh and faithful, while Edith Grossman did the same for Cervantes' Don Quixote. Loath as many of us might be to part with our copies of Richmond Lattimore's translations from the Greek, Robert Fagles' Iliad and Odyssey are better than good.

The husband-and-wife team of Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has provided some of the most notable retranslations of classic novels, working through Dostoevski, Gogol, Bulgakov and, most recently, Tolstoy. Oprah Winfrey's endorsement made their terrific Anna Karenina a surprise best-seller, and their War and Peace already is one of the most highly anticipated books of 2007's fall season.

Somehow, Pevear found the time in all this to do a solo translation of Dumas' The Three Musketeers, and his industry is every English-speaking reader's good fortune. First of all, there's the sheer pleasure of giving yourself over to the exuberant - one might almost say uninhibited - energy of Pevear's rendering. Whether through calculation or inclination, it's exactly the right tone to revive a great and vital story made rather solemn and sodden in previous English-language versions.

Visual and verbal references to The Three Musketeers are so ubiquitous in our culture that this is a book almost everybody thinks they've read, but almost nobody has - at least not to the end. One of the delights in Pevear's version is the way in which he recaptures the dramatic urgency of Dumas' original. In part that's because he understands its origins so well. The Three Musketeers and Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo are foundational works of what we now recognize as popular culture.

If they remind contemporary readers of matinee serials, televised soap operas or cable costume extravaganzas, it's because all these are, in some sense, descended from Dumas' creations.

As Pevear points out in his concise but illuminating introduction, The Three Musketeers was coincident with "a new development in journalism: the practice of serialization. The publishers of two newspapers, La Presse and Le SiM-hcle, had hit upon the idea of expanding their readership by lowering their annual subscription rates. One means of attracting and keeping a larger audience was the publication of serialized novels, known as 'romans feuilletons.' "

For that reason, Pevear goes on, "each installment had to end with a tantalizing 'curtain line'; there could be no lengthy descriptive exposition in the manner of Balzac or Stendhal; the action had to start up at once and never flag." (It was about this time that the phrase "to be continued" appeared in print in an edition of Revue de Paris.) Dumas, son of a soldier who rose through the ranks to become a general in France's revolutionary army and grandson of an Afro-Carib woman who had been a slave in Haiti, was already an accomplished dramatist when he began turning out his serialized novels. Their wild popularity soon made him the most popular - and highly paid - writer of his day.

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Pevear's translation allows us to understand the reasons for this anew. Here, for example, is his rendering of the famous opening to the novel's 61st chapter, "The Convent of the Carmelites in BM-ithune": "Great criminals bear a sort of predestination with them that enables them to surmount all obstacles and to escape all dangers until that moment which Providence, grown weary, has marked as the shoal on which their impious fortune will founder.

"It was so with Milady. ..."

She, of course, is the English spy and femme fatale at the center of many of the book's plot twists. In this translation, we meet her anew because Pevear has returned to Dumas' original and - not to put too fine a point on things - put the sex back in The Three Musketeers.

The best previous English-language translation was made by William Barrow in 1846 (it is still in print). As Pevear writes in a note, "Its one major flaw is due, I assume, not to the translator, but to the greater delicacy of English manners at the time: All of the explicit and many of the implicit references to sexuality and to the human body, matters that Dumas dealt with rather frankly, have been removed." The results are, as this translator charitably puts it, sometimes "strangely vague."

Not so in Pevear's version. This is how he translates the consummation of d'Artagnan's passion for the scheming but devastatingly attractive English spy: "D'Artagnan, for his part, had reached the fulfillment of all his wishes: It was no longer a rival that was loved in him, it was he himself who seemed to be loved. ... Then our Gascon, with the dose of confidence we know in him, compared himself with de Wardes and asked why, when all was said, he, too, should not be loved for himself alone.

"He thus abandoned himself entirely to the sensations of the moment. For him, Milady was no longer that woman of fatal intentions who had frightened him momentarily, she was an ardent and passionate mistress abandoning herself entirely to a love that she herself seemed to feel. Some two hours went by like this."

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No wonder newspaper circulation went up.

It's also interesting how, in his faithfulness to Dumas' original, Pevear makes of the impetuous Gascon, d'Artagnan, a more resonantly contemporary character. In this translation, the aspiring Musketeer is much less the idealistic, Byronic figure recent treatments have made of him and much more the calculating young man on the make.

In 1868, as Dumas' health failed, his son paid a call and found him reading. When the young man inquired about the book's title, the author replied, "The Musketeers ... I always promised myself that, when I was old, I'd decide if it was worth anything."

"Well," asked the son, "where are you?"

"At the end."

"And what do you think?"

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"It's good," Dumas replied.

Now, thanks to Richard Pevear's translation, the rest of us can nod in agreement.

Tim Rutten is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.


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