Lawrence Ellsworth has been reading and writing adventure fiction for the past five decades, but Alexandre Dumas, the 18th century Frenchmen behind “The Three Musketeers,” has quickly become the focus of his career.
“Dumas was a storyteller,” Ellsworth said in admiration to the audience gathered at Politics & Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse Saturday afternoon. “He brought his characters to life with really vivid dialogue that was very sharp and pointed and staccato for its time.”
The accomplished writer, editor and translator appeared at Politics & Prose to celebrate the recent release of his translation of Dumas’s “The Red Sphinx.” The book, published on January 3, marks the first English translation of a tale that first appeared in a French magazine in 1865. Originally titled “The Comte de Moret,” “The Red Sphinx” follows the trials and tribulations of the Comte de Moret and the love of his life, Isabelle de Lautrec, in the days following the events of “The Three Musketeers”.
Before launching into a reading from his work, Ellsworth spoke of his own background with the historical adventure fiction genre, what drew him to Dumas and the long scavenger hunt that led him to “The Red Sphinx.”
Ellworth’s love of adventure fiction has deep roots dating back to his early childhood. His father was a fan of the adventure pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s, and ensured that his son was exposed to the same influences.
The father-son activity soon turned into a passion.
“Poring through the libraries for any book in which the hero wore a sword soon led me to Dumas, Sabatini, Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s historicals,” said Ellsworth. “I pretty much wallowed in swashbucklers while I was growing up.”
In the early 1970s, after feeling like the genre was “played out” for good, he discovered the Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser films “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers.” Watching these films proved there were still new ways to approach it, giving Ellsworth renewed faith in historical adventure fiction as a whole.
Despite his love for the films, it took Ellsworth three decades to examine the original story that had inspired them. When he finally began to read, he was disappointed by his findings.
“It wasn’t until around 2000 when I was sketching out a novel set in early modern France that I really started digging into the 1844 novel, ‘The Three Musketeers,’ and its sequels,” said Ellsworth. “I wasn’t satisfied with the available English translations, which were all pretty old and creaky.”
Disregarding his lack of experience with the French language, Ellsworth decided to turn to the original French versions of the novels, slowly learning as he translated each page. The lover of adventurers found that his difficult work paid off as he read the story as Dumas meant it to be told.
“Dumas was a strikingly modern writer for his time, with dynamic prose and crackling dialogue that was all too often stilted and stiffened when rendered into English by his 19th century translators,” remarked Ellsworth, who actively works to maintain Dumas’s recognizable voice in the translations he produces.
It was in translating “The Three Musketeers” that he first found references to “The Red Sphinx,” which Dumas had never finished. Ellsworth began to hunt for the lost work, finally finding it in a used bookstore in Paris.
As he devoured the vintage Dumas, he again found himself frustrated at the words before him, sending him on another mission to uncover the secrets behind Dumas’s stories.
“After seventy some chapters of Dumas’s hallmark adventure, romance, and intrigue, the story just stopped, unfinished,” he said. “I wanted to know why and how, and so I dug deeper.”
This research led him to another story about The Comte de Moret and Isabelle, “The Dove.” A novella, the tale “relates the climax of their great love affair, concluding it with a satisfyingly dramatic finale.”
Finding the missing ending, Ellsworth decided to combine “The Red Sphinx” and “The Dove” to create the first full English translation of the Comte de Moret’s tale, and quickly found himself loving his new project.
“Once I got used to the rolling rhythm of his writing, translating Dumas’s prose into contemporary English was a lot of fun,” said Ellsworth. “Nobody loved his own characters more than Dumas, and they’re brimming with life.”
This project turned into his latest release, which he promises stands on its own, feeling “right at home on the shelf” next to “The Three Musketeers”.
After delivering a lively reading of an early chapter of “The Red Sphinx,” Ellsworth’s jovial tone turned more somber. His final words, addressing the tumultuous state of the country, encouraged everyone to find their inner swashbucklers and adventurers rather than standing idle as events continue to unfold.
“What is Zorro, who is Robin Hood. . . but people who follow their personal code of right and wrong despite the dictates of a temporary tyranny,” began Ellsworth. “This is not fiction, but it is our story, and it is time for us to tell it rather than do what we’re told.”
“Each of us, each of you has a code that tells you what is right and what’s wrong,” he continued.
“If doing what’s right conflicts with doing what you’re told, it’s time to find others who believe as you do, join with them, and resist.”