Classics Can Be Entertainment, Too

Quite often, when we read a classic, we use phrases such as “It was a difficult book to read, but it had such depth that it was worth it.”  The problem often seems to be that archaic language combined with sentence and paragraph structures that are no longer in fashion, as well as the fact that some of the contemporary references are obscure to modern readers make it difficult to enjoy the flow of the narrative first time around.

Many scholars approve of this.  If the classics are available to all, they think, then anyone can read them.  While we’re often in complete agreement with this point of view (we like our elitism) it’s also nice when a classic is accessible to all.

The Three Musketeers Engraving

One such work is The Three Musketeers.  It’s one classic book where watching the film becomes completely unnecessary to modern readers, as the text itself is nonstop action and adventure, wrapped in the respectability that comes with reading a 19th century novel.  And it’s French, too.  It’s the perfect way to pretend to be an intellectual without having to suffer through something like Middlemarch.  It’s not one of those books you read just to say you’ve done it.

The reasons for this are twofold…  Let’s start with the least obvious.

If you’re reading the book in English, then you’re reading a translation from the original French.  While translations can be much more tortuous than the original (read Chapman’s Homer if you don’t believe me), as the world advances, translators have realized (thank whatever deity you happen to worship) that a translation is not an opportunity for them to dazzle us with their writing but a chance to make the authors intent shine through.

That means translated books are often written in cleaner language than the original, and also in more modern form (especially if the translation is relatively new), both of which make the original more accessible.

The Three Musketeers First Edition Title Page

I think one of the great beneficiaries of this trend is Borges.  In the original Spanish, you don’t just have to deal with the difficult ideas that old Jorge Luis liked to play with, but also the intentionally erudite language he employed.  The English translations I’ve seen of his work are much more accessible.

I don’t know enough French to be able to say whether the same thing has happened to Dumas, but based on my English-language reading, I think it’s likely.

The second reason is the obvious one.  The story actually has a plot in which interesting things happen.  While introspection and character growth are very rewarding, they do not make for entertainment.  The Three Musketeers shows a lot of character traits, and even traces their evolution, but it doesn’t sacrifice a roaring good tale to do so.  Instead, it weaves these details into the tapestry of the plot.

In fact, a surprising number of the great classics–those anointed by the classicists of the prewar eras as opposed to the unfortunate and blinkered modernists, and their ridiculous postmodernist successors–seem to adhere to this formula, which begs the question: will some of the existential books we are supposed to revere today still receive any sort of recognition in fifty years time?

I doubt it.  But one thing I’m sure of is that generations of readers will be enjoying The Three Musketeers and that Hollywood will be cranking out reboots of the story every couple of years or so (happily, Brian Adams should be retired by then).

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