Every great event has a literary precedent, which is why, when we gaze at certain vast occurrences, we instinctively think of Virgil or Shakespeare or Dickens or Dostoevsky; and during the last couple of weeks I have been thinking about Alexandre Dumas. It is because of the dashing three fine young American friends on the Amsterdam-to-Paris high-speed train, and their British fellow-passenger, and their gallant and victorious struggle against the terrorist. During the first days after the incident I must have googled every two hours in search of new information about these people and their adventures, until new information became hard to find. And yet, even now fresh details emerge. And, with each lately unearthed fact or eyewitness account, I ruminate anew over Spencer, Alek, Anthony, and the intrepid Brit, Chris, which leads me to contemplate with ever greater intensity the glories of Athos, Aramis, Porthos, and their intrepid Gascon friend, d’Artagnan. And—by marvelous circumstance—I am in a position to contemplate.
This is because, many years ago, I read a book by Mario Vargas Llosa in which he explains that, as a boy in Lima, Peru, he read The Three Musketeers in Spanish and was, of course, overwhelmed, as boys tend to be, and was drawn into the world of literature. And, as an adult, he became curious about his childhood experience, and he purchased a copy of the book in French in its elegant, leather-bound, fetish-object, Pléiade edition. But he was afraid of being disillusioned, and he never got around to reading it. Which made sense to me. A copy of The Three Musketeers in the Pléiade edition has therefore ended up occupying an honored place on my own shelves. I have always wanted to emulate Vargas Llosa.
Only, I have not known how to leave the thing unopened. The parallels between life and literature have been too strong. These press conference accounts by the dashing three Americans and their older British friend—these accounts do make it seem as if the lot of them might almost have been chanting, “One for all, and all for one.” The scene of those people at the Élysée palace, being knighted for their valor by President François Hollande—this might almost have been the scene of d’Artagnan at the conclusion of the novel, receiving his promotion from Cardinal Richelieu. And the costuming—what is anyone to think? The spectacle of the young Americans arriving at the Élysée dressed in their regionally authentic khakis and polo shirts aroused a good-humored commentary here and there on the topic of American fashion and the American spirit of informality, but what struck me was the coordinated panache, as if those young warriors had arrived in a swirl of plumes and capes, designed to reveal their arm muscles. And so, I have opened the pages.
Am I disillusioned? A wee bit I am. The masters of the 19th-century novel knew how to write for adults and children at the same time, which is a lost art in our present era; and their cross-generational abilities have sometimes allowed modern opinion to suppose that Hugo or Dickens or Hawthorne or Melville must somehow be children’s writers, which is a big mistake, obviously. And yet, if the mistake has been made about these gods and titans of literature, I had held out a hope that maybe Dumas, too, has been wrongly classified. Only, no. The Three Musketeers is not, in fact, a feat of poetry, nor is it a dark masterpiece of the mature moral imagination, cleverly disguised under a cloak of derring-do. And yet, there is joy in The Three Musketeers. Dumas loves his swords and horses and taverns and wine-bottles and secret letters. If he does not invest these things with additional meanings, if it is because he finds them to be already perfect. He has the entertainer’s mania. He seems to be saying, “Wait until the next chapter!” And, in one chapter after another, he composes scenes that mount in intensity until, at the grand climactic moment, his three musketeers and their fourth and redoubtable friend begin to repeat, one after another, a single phrase, signifying a manly unity, as if in barbershop harmony; and the repeated and choral phrase fills their author with an exuberant and powerful glee. Isn’t this why we read anyone at all—to share in some writer’s delight? We enjoy the overflow.
Dumas loves his gothic plot-lines. I am fascinated to rediscover the central female character in the novel, the mysterious and seductive Milady, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful, who annoyed me at age 11 or so, when I gave the book my serious attention. The continual reappearances of this character seemed to me a pointless obstacle standing in the way of the next duel. Age 14 would have been a better moment to read the book. Today I see that Milady is one of the great demonic women of literature. The brand of criminality on her shoulder—it is the fleur de lis—only adds to her allure. The best scene in the novel is her encounter in the Carmelite convent with a young novice who turns out to be d’Artagnan’s other mistress and who asks plaintively, “Are we rivals?” And Milady convinces her they are not, which may even be true, from a certain standpoint, because, if Milady is possibly d’Artagnan’s mistress, she is certainly his enemy. She is the novice’s enemy, too. Milady poisons the poor girl to death.
At the end of the book, a man in a red cloak and a mask mysterious arrives and announces himself to be the executioner of Lille and reveals the whole satanic truth. He tells us that Milady was once a young and beautiful nun. But, from her home in the convent, she seduces a priest. She incites the priest to go on a crime rampage to raise cash to allow the two of them to make a break for freedom. The priest is caught. He turns out to be the executioner’s brother! He is imprisoned, but the criminal young nun seduces the prison guard, and the priest escapes. He and Milady depart for a life of opportunism and, on her part, false marriages, which causes the priest to hang himself. The first of those marriages is to poor old Athos, who has suffered in silence ever since. Milady rises to a position of wealth and sumptuous comfort. Repeatedly she tries to murder poor d’Artagnan. She conspires with Cardinal Richelieu. She commits other murders. And, considering the extent of her crimes, the whole group of musketeers, together with Milady’s brother-in-law, demand her execution in what amounts to the single greatest scene of choral repetition anywhere in the book. “The death penalty,” says d’Artagnan, followed by Porthos, Aramis, and the brother-in-law. “You are condemned and you are going to die,” says Athos, her husband. And the executioner of Lille beheads her! Such is the climax of the most popular boys’ novel ever written. Do the professors know about this? It is a wonder that The Three Musketeers has not been suppressed.
Back to the Amsterdam-to-Paris train. Just this past Saturday, Le Figaro in Paris was able at last to interview Passenger 2 on the high-speed Thalys train. This person is Mark Magoolian, a French-American professor who teaches English at the Sorbonne. Magoolian has been hospitalized because, when he saw the terrorist on the train, fending off a brave assault from Passenger 1, he launched his own assault and grabbed the AK-47. The terrorist had a second gun, a Luger pistol, and shot Magoolian in the shoulder and the neck. He fell to the floor, dreadfully wounded. And he saw Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos virtually leap through the air to take the terrorist down. It was Spencer Stone who, having been badly cut in the thumb, saved Magoolian’s life by stanching his wound and chatting with him (“You’re from Virginia? Me, I’m from California!”) to prevent him from losing consciousness. Magoolian has not spoken to the press until now.
But what about Passenger 1? This man is Damien A., said to be a 28-year-old French banker, who, having been the first to attack, fell to the floor. Damien A.’s identity has not been revealed. He is said to prefer anonymity. President Hollande has said that he, the president, understands this preference.
Now, Damien A. is a real person, and he must have his reasons, and I do not wish to amuse myself by spinning whimsical theories at his expense. Still, it does occur to me that participation by a masked character—figuratively masked, in this instance—has got to be the most Dumasian element of all in this affair. I picture the young banker as a fictional character, then—a figure from a Dumas melodrama about the Thalys train. Who would such a character be, as conjured by Dumas? Could he be the sort of criminal whose scale of criminal achievement has elevated him into the category known as “banker”?—whose anonymity the French state has decided to protect, in consideration of his heroism, and of his wealth? A sort of male Milady? Or could Passenger 1 be a secret agent, on duty for France, whose identity and purposes on the train cannot be revealed for reasons of state? Maybe he was trailing the terrorist all along and does not want his cover blown because, meanwhile, he has been trailing other terrorists, as well. Or his name is being kept out of the news as a favor to the king of Morocco for reasons known only to a conspiracy consisting of Gen. Sisi and Benjamin Netanyahu. Or, how should I know? I am not Alexandre Dumas. But it is certainly a case for Alexandre Dumas—which is another way of observing that, in the summer of 2015, the success of the real-life passengers in overpowering a crazed jihadi is certainly an occasion for an extended joyous moment of celebratory book-reading and story-inventing and boyhood nostalgias.
To read more of Paul Berman’s analysis for Tablet magazine, click here.