By Sara Winegardner
WASHINGTON – Lawrence Ellsworth has been reading and writing adventure fiction for the past five decades; but Alexandre Dumas, the 18th century Frenchman behind “The Three Musketeers,” has quickly become the focus of his career.
“Dumas was a storyteller,” Ellsworth said in 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 writer, editor and translator appeared at Politics & Prose to talk about the recent release of his translation of Dumas’s The Red Sphinx. The book marks the first English translation of a story that first appeared in a French magazine in 1865. Originally titled The Comte de Moret, The Red Sphinx follows the adventures of the Comte de Moret and the love of his life, Isabelle de Lautrec, in the days following the events of The Three Musketeers.
Despite spending his childhood poring over adventure-fiction, Ellsworth did not encounter Dumas’s The Three Musketeers until much later in his life.
“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.”
Despite having no knowledge of French, Ellsworth decided to turn to the original French versions of the novels, teaching himself the language through the translation process. 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,” said Ellsworth.
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 read 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.”
“For one thing, the Paris newspaper, Le Louvelle, in which the story was being serialized, had hit hard times in 1866 and suddenly ceased publication,” said Ellsworth. By this time, Dumas was 64 and struggling to keep up with the weekly turnaround on his chapters.
Ellsworth learned something more from his research that would ultimately be the force behind The Red Sphinx.
“The Red Sphinx wasn’t the first story Dumas had written about Moret and Isabelle,” Ellsworth said. “Fifteen years earlier, he’d written a novella called The Dove that relates the climax of their great love affair, concluding it with a satisfyingly dramatic finale.”
Finding The Dove answered Ellsworth’s question as to why Dumas left The Red Sphinx unfinished.
“He’d already written an ending for those characters a decade and a half earlier,” Ellsworth said. “Why revisit it? For him, the story was over.”
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 does not require any prior knowledge of the events of Dumas’s other stories.
“The novel is entirely successful in its own merits,” said Ellsworth. “I think you’ll find it feels right at home on the shelf next to The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and The Man in the Iron Mask.”
Ellsworth’s final words, addressing his take on the 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 [Reality] 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.”