Elusive Brothers in Arms

By Stewart, Robert | The Spectator, November 12, 2005 | Go to article overview

Elusive Brothers in Arms


Stewart, Robert, The Spectator


THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK by Roger Macdonald Constable, £17.99, pp. 348, ISBN 1845291018 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

THE FOUR MUSKETEERS by Kari Maund and Phil Nanson Tempus, £17.99, pp. 223, ISBN 0752435035 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

History and fiction have their differences. The most obvious and the most important is that scrupulous historians hesitate to say anything for which they cannot provide some form of documentary evidence. But history and fiction are also more alike than is usually acknowledged. Both historians and novelists seek to show how the world operates (or operated) and both do so on the basis of fragmentary knowledge, the one chiefly from whatever survives in the various forms of historical record, the other chiefly from perceptions acquired from life in the world. The demarcation is less clearly defined than it once was. For some time -- at least since the publication of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood 40 years ago -- genre boundaries have been collapsing everywhere. The deliberate blurring of the traditional boundary between the representational and the real occurs not just in the 'non-fiction novel' and what was dubbed the 'new journalism' of Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson, but also in conceptual art and the mixing of fact and faction in drama-documentaries on television.

Historical novels have always crossed the boundary. They could, after all, not otherwise exist. That Alexander Dumas' Four Musketeers were drawn from the lives of real persons is, from the literary point of view, neither here nor there. Nor does it matter that Dumas got his information largely from the untrustworthy faux-memoir of Charles d'Artagnan published by Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras in 1700. Kari Maund and Phil Nanson point out that the Musketeers were not, as Dumas had them, actually present at the famous siege of La Rochelle in 1629, but they wisely waste little energy in trying to trip Dumas up, since doing so would have no bearing on his literary reputation. The Four Musketeers were obscure characters of no historical significance. They owe what Maund and Nanson call their 'golden immortality' to Dumas.

For Roger Macdonald their importance is that they have provided him with a route to what he considers to be the discovery of the true identity of the Man in the Iron Mask.

How convincing his detective work is it is difficult for a non-expert to determine. But it is a curiosity that whereas Maund and Nanson openly and repeatedly have recourse to conjecture, usually shrewd, occasionally flighty, to construct the barest narrative of the Musketeers' public actions, Macdonald serves up the most minute of details. …

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