Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fortune's Fool by Rafael Sabatini


When digging around for an adjective to describe Rafael Sabatini's works, I keep coming up with the word “trashy”. Even when they are very, very good, they are still just the fairy floss, the costume jewellery, of literature. Sometimes Sabatini's characters are more believable, his dangers more frightening, or his themes more profound; sometimes, he simply delivers a work that irks more than it pleases.
Such is Fortune's Fool. Colonel Holles is...where to start, really? A terrible blow in his youth sent him reeling from a good career in Cromwell's army into a more desperate and dissolute existence as a mercenary in the Low Countries. Having wasted ten years of his life, he drifts back to his homeland when Holland goes to war with England, but his friends advise him not to seek military employment in England—he bears the same name as his father, a regicide, and if that name should come to the attention of Charles II, he might expect no mercy whatsoever.
Holles's roving, hard-drinking, gaming lifestyle has left him with only the money he carries in his pocket, and that he soon loses. Faced with destitution in a London which is yielding by slow inches to the terrifying plague, only a chance encounter with the man whose life he saved fifteen years ago stands between Holles and starvation. Unfortunately for him, the service this man, now the Duke of Buckingham, requires of him is repulsive in the extreme: to aid by force the Duke's hitherto unsuccessful wooing of Sylvia Farquharson, the brilliant new actress...
It may sound interesting, but this book is plagued by shoddy workmanship. Characters which have important roles to play in the first third, or half, of the book vanish never even to be seen again. The plot feels like a succession of smaller plots, not an overarching whole. And the drama sinks often to the lowest depths of maudlin sentimentality.
Both the disjointedness and the sentimentality are actually built into the book's concept, which is right there in the title. The title, by the way, is probably taken from a line in Romeo and Juliet—when Romeo kills Tybalt, and realises that he has just put himself forever beyond the acceptance of his bride's family, he cries, O, I am fortune's fool; this is Colonel Holles's watchword. Fate, Chance, Fortune, whatever you want to call it—the whole book turns on it. Luck giveth, and Luck snatcheth away. Mainly the latter. Because the book is about a man tossed about on the storms of chance, it really cannot have a Providential, tightly-woven, loose-ends-tucked-in narrative. And because Holles is the plaything of impersonal fate, nothing he does is his own fault. Repentance is only possible when one owns and acknowledges his sin; it becomes meaningless when, if only Fate had been kinder, the repentant one would never have found himself in his situation. The only alternative is remorse and maudlin self-pity, which bogs down the whole second half of the book as Colonel Holles struggles to rebound from his now deeply-entrenched dissolution.
In addition, Sabatini's attitude to the Civil War, the Puritans and the Cavaliers, is somewhat puzzling. Early in the book, he says of one character, that “it is impossible that he could have served his country worse than by the restoration of the Stuart dynasty.” Sabatini recognises the deep moral decrepitude of Restoration London as exemplified by the licentious Duke of Buckingham, and displays it in its full repugnance. Yet he is by no means friendly to Puritans, nor indeed to any sincerely religious person: “there was in all the world no vice that Holles found more hideous than virtue driven to excess.”
Well, that's a damnable lie. Virtue may be twisted. It may be superseded by a corresponding vice. But virtue itself can never cease to be a virtue; it is impossible to have too much of a truly good thing. One cannot, for example, give too much glory to God; that is the very reason of human existence. Nobody—nobody in or over creation—has ever been too virtuous; not Christ Himself.
Though God is mentioned here and there in Fortune's Fool, He is clearly not enthroned. The book is deeply humanist in tone, borrowing more from classical tragedies depicting mankind as victims more sinned against than sinning than from the Truth. One by one, all the dreary milk-and-water tropes of humanism are checked off: sinful man as victim rather than criminal; blind chance pursuing this innocent victim; moderation in everything as the most sublime height of virtue possible; mere human allegiances set above every man's deepest and most awful duty to God.
In addition to this, the book just isn't very well-written. Sabatini does grip you with the tale of his hero's terrible, terrible misadventures, and there is a duel scene that is as good as anything he has written, but the lead-up to this masterpiece of melodrama is slow, and the book meanders afterwards through the maudlin swamps of its hero's self-flagellation, which just gets tiresome towards the end, especially after the heroine has offered her forgiveness for the umpteenth time.
Overall, the book had some nifty plot points I was glad to pick up and file away for future use. The heroine really is nice and sensible, and you've got to love the part where the Duke of Buckingham hires ruffians to assault her just so that he can come splendidly to the rescue and win her heart; and she sees through him like a windowpane, not taken in for a second—it's lovely! Also later on, she is rescued from his Hateful Embraces by one of the most original and grandly sensational occurrences in the history of fiction!
I would almost recommend reading the middle part—chapters fifteen to twenty—just for the fun of it, and then leaving the book alone, as I cannot really recommend reading the whole thing.
Fortune's Fool is not yet in the public domain.

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