I love reading classic literature. Books become “classics” for a reason. They’re usually great reads, decades and even centuries after they were written. So I plunged into CAMILLE by Alexandre Dumas, fils (not to be confused with Alexandre Dumas, père) with high expectations. After all, this is a tale that has been made into multiple movies, plays, at least one opera — surely this must be a riveting and romantic book. Right?
Okay, this review might contain some spoilers. But since the author announces on page one that the heroine dies, I can’t imagine what bits of information I could accidentally impart to top that whopper. Indeed, the heroine dying seems to be the whole point of the book, since the author spends the first 20% of the story apologizing to the reader for writing about a prostitute (although he is too squeamish to use that word). It’s important that she die. The author assures us at the outset that she will die, because he obviously believes that the horrific suffering of the sinner is the only justification for our reading the book. In the 19th century, you weren’t allowed to just enjoy a story. It had to be “improving” in some way, or vast swathes of the reading public would refuse to read it. I thought this attitude prevailed only in Victorian England and, to some extent, in America. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that it also, all too clearly, prevailed in France — of all places.
Okay, let’s get past the opening spoiler. I can see that an up-front announcement of tragedy might work in some books. You know, it could, in skillful hands, lend a poignancy to everything that follows. But when the author then launches into a series of apologies and justifications along the lines of “I know I shouldn’t be writing about a fallen woman, and you certainly shouldn’t be reading a book about a fallen woman, but I promise to appease your nasty Victorian prudery in the end, so feel free to take all the salacious pleasure you want in reading this book” — he’s now annoyed me so much that I have to read something else for a while.
When I pick up the book again, it gets worse.
CAMILLE is written entirely in the first person. At first, it is narrated by a fictional guy — not Alexandre himself, heavens no; he’s ashamed to feature a fallen woman as heroine, so it has to be narrated by some fictional guy who pities them — who wanders through Paris, attending estate sales, expressing morbid curiosity about the recently-dead Marguerite (who is inexplicably NOT named Camille), pontificating about morality, and making excuses for the book he is about to inflict on us. Then, through a series of improbable events, this guy encounters a distraught young man who was Marguerite’s lover. And now, incredibly, we are subjected to that clumsy device that no writer worth his/her salt would ever dream of using: the double narrator.
Please don’t make me open the book and find the passage where he switches voices. Trust me. He doesn’t really switch voices, just narrators. It runs something like this: “So I sat him down, and this is what he told me. ‘I first met Marguerite when …” And off we go, into the rest of the book, which is now being told by a guy to another guy, who is, in turn, relating it all to us. Ai yi yi.
Since there is absolutely no discernible difference between the two narrators — they have the same attitudes, the same warped morality, the same blind spots, the same tendency to speak in endless paragraphs — why did the author put us through that exercise? For a while, I hoped it was because the dimwitted “hero” also died. That would make sense. A dead hero couldn’t narrate his story. But no, the hero survives. ??!!
Some of the book is autobiographical, based on the author’s relationship with the stunning Marie Duplessis, who died
at the age of 23. (I’m inserting her portrait so you can see what a loss she must have been.) You can sort of tell what part is autobiographical. The dunderheaded
author/hero (for the two are interchangeable)
devotes only a paragraph or two to the charming quirk that gives the book its name: the
fact that the heroine surrounds herself with camellias. Usually they are white camellias, but for five days every month they are red. The author mentions this unique signature and calls it puzzling, claiming that nobody ever knew why, for five days of the month, she carried red camellias instead of white. Gentle Reader, can YOU think of a reason why a woman who made her living by having sex with rich men might adopt a signal of some sort to indicate when she was, um, unavailable for commercial transactions?
Alexandre Dumas, fils, you are an idiot.
The camellias never appear again, mind you. After announcing the camellia thing at the beginning of the book — and titling the book based on the heroine’s camellia habit — we are immersed in a story where the heroine never touches a camellia, never mentions a camellia, and never explains why she seems to have lost her professed passion for camellias.
As a novelist, I would be ashamed to make such a mistake. And I’m very sure my editors would insist that I fix it. They would also insist that I ditch the “double narrator” device. And probably the dead heroine. And the TSTL hero. (That’s “too stupid to live,” in case you haven’t seen the acronym before — and nowadays, it’s the kiss of death that ensures your book will never see publication.)
Example: The hero adores the heroine, who sacrifices pretty much everything for him. He swears up and down that he will love her forever, promises he will never leave her — and wonders why she seems melancholy and troubled and keeps asking him to repeat his promises so often. This is another point that strikes me as autobiographical, because despite faithfully relating it, neither the fictional character nor his creator seems to have a clue what the underlying cause of this behavior may be. Can’t this moron take a freakin’ HINT? She’s hoping that if he says it enough times, it will finally … somehow, some way … hit him like a thunderclap that he ought to MARRY HER. How can he “never leave her” unless he marries her? But no, it never so much as crosses his mind. In fact, he eventually points out to his father that he has toed the line in this regard — he considers it a VIRTUE that he has not, and never will, commit the horrifying, unspeakable sin of giving this woman his name. This “noble” soul who adores him, and whom he supposedly adores, is, even in his besotted eyes, a whore. And his actions guarantee that she always will be. Some hero, eh?
So how, how, how, did this book become a classic?
It has to be the opera, the plays, and the movies — none of which I have seen. Maybe if we were freed from the idiocy and cruelty of the 19th century Frenchmen who control the book’s narrative, and perceive the story from the outside, as it were — just the characters, enacting the story — yeah, that would have to be better.
Even so, I doubt if we’ll be seeing any remakes of CAMILLE in the near future.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it.