I. "THE ANJOU WINE"
The reader must be prepared to witness the most sinister scenes.
-E. Sue, THE MYSTERIES OF PARIS
My name is Boris Balkan and I once translated The Charterhouse of Parma. Apart from that, I've edited a few books on the nineteenth-century popular novel, my reviews and articles appear in supplements and journals throughout Europe, and I organize summer-school courses on contemporary writers. Nothing spectacular, I'm afraid. Particularly these days, when suicide disguises itself as homicide, novels are written by Roger Ackroyd's doctor, and far too many people insist on publishing two hundred pages on the fascinating emotions they experience when they look in the mirror.
But let's stick to the story.
I first met Lucas Corso when he came to see me; he was carrying "The Anjou Wine" under his arm. Corso was a mercenary of the book world, hunting down books for other people. That meant talking fast and getting his hands dirty. He needed good reflexes, patience, and a lot of luck-and a prodigious memory to recall the exact dusty corner of an old man's shop where a book now worth a fortune lay forgotten. His clientele was small and select: a couple of dozen book dealers in Milan, Paris, London, Barcelona, and Lausanne, the kind that sell through catalogues, make only safe investments, and never handle more than fifty or so titles at any one time. High-class dealers in early printed books, for whom thousands of dollars depend on whether something is parchment or vellum or three centimeters wider in the margin. Jackals on the scent of the Gutenberg Bible, antique-fair sharks, auction-room leeches, they would sell their grandmothers for a firstedition. But they receive their clients in rooms with leather sofas, views of the Duomo or Lake Constance, and they never get their hands-or their consciences-dirty. That's what men like Corso are for.
He took his canvas bag off his shoulder and put it on the floor by his scuffed oxfords. He stared at the framed portrait of Rafael Sabatini that stands on my desk next to the fountain pen I use for correcting articles and proofs. I was pleased, because most visitors paid Sabatini little attention, taking him for an aged relative. I waited for Corso's reaction. He was half smiling as he sat down-a youthful expression, like that of a cartoon rabbit in a dead-end street. The kind of look that wins over the audience straightaway. In time I found out he could also smile like a cruel, hungry wolf, and that he chose his smiles to suit the circumstances. But that was much later. Now he seemed trustworthy, so I decided to risk a password.
"He was born with the gift of laughter," I quoted, pointing at the portrait. and with a feeling that the world was mad . . . "
Corso nodded slowly and deliberately. I felt a friendly complicity with him, which, in spite of all that happened later, I still feel. From a hidden packet he brought out an unfiltered cigarette that was as crumpled as his old overcoat and corduroy trousers. He turned it over in his fingers, watching me through steel-rimmed glasses set crookedly on his nose under an untidy fringe of slightly graying hair. As if holding a hidden gun, he kept his other hand in one of his pockets, a pocket huge and deformed by books, catalogues, papers, and, as I also found out later, a hip flask full of Bols gin.
". . . and this was his entire inheritance." He completed the quotation effortlessly, then settled himself in the armchair and smiled again. "But to be honest, I prefer Captain Blood."
With a stern expression I lifted my fountain pen. "You're mistaken. Scaramouche is to Sabatini what The Three Musketeers is to Dumas." I bowed briefly to the portrait. "'He was born with the gift of laughter. . . .' In the entire history of the adventure serial no two opening lines can compare."
"That may be true," Corso conceded after a moment's reflection. Then he laid the manuscript on the table, in a protective folder with plastic pockets, one for each page. "It's a coincidence you should mention Dumas."
He pushed the folder toward me, turning it around so I could read its contents. The text was in French, written on one side of the page only. There were two types of paper, both discolored by age: one white, the other pale blue with light squares. The handwriting on each was different-on the white pages it was smaller and more spiky. The handwriting of the blue paper, in black ink, also appeared on the white pages but as annotations only. There were fifteen pages in all, eleven of them blue.
"Interesting." I looked up at Corso. He was watching me, his calm gaze moving from the folder to me, then back again. "Where did you find it?"
He scratched an eyebrow, no doubt calculating whether he needed to provide such details in exchange for the information he wanted. The result was a third facial expression, this time an innocent rabbit. Corso was a professional.
"Around. Through a client of a client."
He paused briefly, cautious. Caution is a sign of prudence and reserve, but also of shrewdness. And we both knew it.
"Of course," he added, "I'll give you names if you request them."
I answered that it wouldn't be necessary, which seemed to reassure him. He adjusted his glasses before asking my opinion of the manuscript. Not answering immediately, I turned to the first page. The title was written in capital letters, in thicker strokes: LE VIN D'ANJOU.
I read aloud the first few lines: "Apr?s de nouvelles presque d?sesp?r?es du roi, le bruit de sa convalescence commen?ait ? se r?pandre dans le camp. . . ." I couldn't help smiling.
Corso indicated his approval, inviting me to comment.
"Without the slightest doubt," I said, "this is by Alexandre Dumas p?re. 'The Anjou Wine': chapter forty-something, I seem to remember, of The Three Musketeers."
"Forty-two," confirmed Corso. "Chapter forty-two."
"Is it authentic? Dumas's original manuscript?"
"That's why I'm here. I want you to tell me."
I shrugged slightly, reluctant to assume such a responsibility.
It was a stupid question, the kind that only serves to gain time. It must have seemed like false modesty, because he suppressed a look of impatience.
"You're an expert," he retorted, somewhat dryly. "As well as being Spain's most influential literary critic, you know all there is to know about the nineteenth-century popular novel."
"You're forgetting Stendhal."
"Not at all. I read your translation of The Charterhouse of Parma"
"Indeed. I am honored."
"Don't be. I preferred Consuelo Berges's version."
We both smiled. I continued to find him likable, and I was beginning to form an idea of his style.
"Do you know any of my books?" I asked.
"Some. Lupin, Raffles, Rocambole, Holmes, for instance. And your studies of Valle-Inclan, Baroja, and Galdos. Also Dumas: the Shadow of a Giant. And your essay on The Count of Monte Cristo."
"Have you read all those?"
"No. I work with books, but that doesn't mean I have to read them."
He was lying. Or at least exaggerating. The man was conscientious: before coming to see me, he'd looked at everything about me he could lay his hands on. He was one of those compulsive readers who have devoured anything in print from a most tender age-although it was highly unlikely that Corso's childhood ever merited the term "tender."
"I understand," I answered, just to say something.
He frowned for a moment, wondering whether he'd forgotten anything. He took off his glasses, breathed on the lenses, and set about cleaning them with a very crumpled handkerchief, which he pulled from one of the bottomless pockets of his coat. However fragile the oversized coat made him appear, with his rodentlike incisors and calm expression Corso was as solid as a concrete block. His features were sharp and precise, full of angles. They framed alert eyes always ready to express an innocence dangerous for anyone who was taken in by it. At times, particularly when still, he seemed slower and clumsier than he really was. He looked vulnerable and defenseless: barmen gave him an extra drink on the house, men offered him cigarettes, and women wanted to adopt him on the spot. Later, when you realized what had happened, it was too late to catch him. He was running off in the distance, having scored another victory.
Corso gestured with his glasses at the manuscript. "To return to Dumas. Surely a man who's written five hundred pages about him ought to sense something familiar when faced with one of his original manuscripts."
With the reverence of a priest handling holy vestments I put a hand on the pages protected by plastic.
"I fear I'm going to disappoint you, but I don't sense anything."
We both laughed, Corso in a peculiar way, almost under his breath, like someone who is not sure whether he and his companion are laughing at the same thing. An oblique, distant laugh, with a hint of insolence, the kind of laugh that lingers in the air after it stops. Even after its owner has been gone for a while.
"Let's take this a step at a time," I went on. "Does the manuscript belong to you?"
"I've already told you that it doesn't. A client of mine has just acquired it, and he finds it strange that no one should have heard of this complete, original chapter of The Three Musketeers until now. . . . He wants it authenticated by an expert, so that's what I'm working on."
"I'm surprised at your dealing with such a minor matter." This was true. I'd heard of Corso before this meeting. "I mean, after all, nowadays Dumas. . ."
I let the sentence hang and smiled with the appropriate expression of bitter complicity. But Corso didn't take up my invitation and stayed on the defensive. "The client's a friend of mine," he said evenly. "It's a personal favor."
"I see, but I'm not sure that I can be of any help to you. I have seen some of the original manuscripts, and this one could be authentic. However, certifying it is another matter. For that you'd need a good graphologist . . . I know an excellent one in Paris, Achille Replinger. He owns a shop that specializes in autographs and historical documents, near Saint Germain des Pr?s. He's an expert on nineteenth-century French writers, a charming man and a good friend of mine." I pointed to one of the frames on the wall. "He sold me that Balzac letter many years ago. For a very high price."
I took out my datebook and copied the address for Corso on a card. He put the card in an old worn wallet full of notes and papers. Then he brought out a notepad and pencil from one of his coat pockets. The pencil had a chewed eraser at one end, like a schoolboy's pencil.
"Could I ask you a few questions?" he said.
"Yes, of course."
"Did you know of any complete handwritten chapter of The Three Musketeers?"
I shook my head and replaced the cap on my Mont Blanc.
"No. The novel came out in installments in Le Si?cle between March and July 1844 . . . Once the text was typeset by a compositor, the original manuscript was discarded. A few fragments remained, however. You can see them in an appendix to the 1968 Garnier edition."
"Four months isn't very long." Corso chewed the end of his pencil thoughtfully. "Dumas wrote quickly."
"They all did in those days. Stendhal wrote The Charterhouse of Parma in seven weeks. And in any case Dumas used collaborators, ghostwriters. The one for The Three Musketeers was called Auguste Maquet. They worked together on the sequel, Twenty Years After, and on The Vicomte de Bragelonne, which completes the cycle. And on The Count of Monte Cristo and a few other novels. You have read those, I suppose."
"Of course. Everybody has."
"Everybody in the old days, you mean." I leafed respectfully through the manuscript. "The times are long gone when Dumas's name increased print runs and made publishers rich. Almost all his novels came out in installments that ended with 'to be continued. . . .' The readers would be on tenterhooks until the next episode. But of course you know all that."
"Don't worry. Go on."
"What more can I tell you? In the classic serial, the recipe for success is simple: the hero and heroine have qualities or features that make the reader identify with them. If that happens nowadays in TV soaps, imagine the effect in those days, when there was no television or radio, on a middle class hungry for surprise and entertainment, and undiscriminating when it came to formal quality or taste. . . . Dumas was a genius, and be understood this. Like an alchemist in his laboratory, he added a dash of this, a dash of that, and with his talent combined it all to create a drug that had many addicts." I tapped my chest, not without pride. "That has them still."
Corso was taking notes. Precise, unscrupulous, and deadly as a black mamba was how one of his acquaintances described him later when Corso's name came up in conversation. He had a singular way of facing people, peering through his crooked glasses and slowly nodding in agreement, with a reasonable, well-meaning, but doubtful expression, like a whore tolerantly listening to a romantic sonnet. As if he was giving you a chance to correct yourself before it was too late.
After a moment he stopped and looked up. "But your work doesn't only deal with the popular novel. You're a well-known literary critic of other, more. . ." He hesitated, searching for a word. "More serious works. Dumas himself described his novels as easy literature. Sounds rather patronizing toward his readers."
This device was typical of him. It was one of his trademarks, like Rocambole's leaving a playing card instead of a calling card. Corso would say something casually, as if he himself had no opinion on the matter, slyly goading you to react. If you put forward arguments and justifications when you are annoyed, you give out more information to your opponent. I was no fool and knew what Corso was doing, but even so, or maybe because of it, I felt irritated.
"Don't talk in clich?s," I said. "The serial genre produced a lot of disposable stuff, but Dumas was way above all that. In literature, time is like a shipwreck in which God looks after His own. I challenge you to name any fictional heroes who have survived in as good health as d'Artagnan and his friends. Sherlock Holmes is a possible exception. Yes, The Three Musketeers was a swashbuckling novel full of melodrama and all the sins of the genre. But it's also a distinguished example of the serial, and of a standard well above the norm. A tale of friendship and adventure that has stayed fresh even though tastes have changed and there is an now an idiotic tendency to despise action in novels. It would seem that since Joyce we have had to make do with Molly Bloom and give up Nausicaa on the beach after the shipwreck. . . . Have you read my essay 'Friday, or the Ship's Compass'? Give me Homer's Ulysses any day."