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October 28, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Last Cavalier

Being the Adventures of Count Sainte Hermine in the Age of Napoleon

Alexandre Dumas, translated from the French by Lauren Yoder

Pegasus Books: 752 pp., $32

"I imagine myself as fortunate as if I had discovered El Dorado," wrote Claude Schopp, the scholar who found the manuscript of Alexandre Dumas' "The Last Cavalier" in the dark depths of the Archives de la Seine sometime in the late 1980s. The 118 chapters that form the author's last novel were serialized in the newspaper Journal officiel, from January to October 1869. It was intended, writes the present edition's editor in a "Note," to be "the missing piece of the gigantic novelistic puzzle in which Alexandre the demiurge planned to include all of French history from the Renaissance up until his own day, from 'La Reine Margot' up until 'Le Comte de Monte-Cristo.' " It was still unfinished when Dumas died, on Dec. 5, 1870.

Schopp worked for 15 years, establishing the novel's text from the serialized segments. It was published in France in 2005, titled "Hector de Sainte-Hermine." How such an enormous work was concealed for so long is a question Schopp attempts to answer in his preface, "A Lost Legacy," although not entirely satisfactorily -- something about Dumas' imminent death and trembling hands and collaboration with friends. Dumas died near Dieppe, during the Franco-Prussian War. As the Prussian army approached, his sole legatee, Louis Charpillon, a notary and justice of the peace, buried his valuables, including the manuscript of "Hector de Sainte-Hermine." Five days later, the Prussians arrived. Eventually, Charpillon dug up the novel and gave it to a notary in Rouen.

Hector de Sainte-Hermine, the novel's hero, is a nobleman from the Juras, whose father, the Compte, was guillotined defending the Bourbons. Hector's two older brothers also died for the royalist cause. Hector has sworn an oath of loyalty to the Bourbons, but he is, tragically, in love with Mademoiselle de La Clemenciere, a young Creole who lives under the protection of Josephine, wife of Bonaparte. Freed of his oath after Napoleon is crowned, Hector is sent into the army as a simple soldier. His lover, faithful to Hector, enters a convent where she lives for 12 years. She writes a letter to King Louis XVIII, begging him to send her Hector's body when he dies, so that she can bury him with her family. He agrees. She sends Hector a potion, Romeo-and-Juliet style, to simulate death, and Hector's body is carried to his long-lost beloved.

The rise and fall of Napoleon fascinated Dumas, who was the son of a Republican general and the grandson of an aristocrat and a black slave. Of his many works, Schopp tells us, "The Last Cavalier" is closest to his personal and ancestral history. "Each book has its own destiny," Dumas often remarked, quoting Latin grammarian Terentianus Maurus. "The Last Cavalier," grand, adventurous, bold and human, is a fitting last novel for such an ambitious writer.

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The Acts of King Arthur

and His Noble Knights

John Steinbeck

Viking: 402 pp., $29.95

JOHN STEINBECK read Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur" (first published in 1485) in 1911, when he was 9 years old. He began working on his interpretation of the book in 1958 and stopped in late 1959, before he had finished. It was his only work of fantasy literature. Steinbeck did a great deal of research, and yet early in the book he began diverging in significant ways from the original. His portraits of women, such as Morgan Le Fay and Guinevere, are far more modern and more human than Malory's. Gawain's ego and vulnerability are also more fully rendered, as is the tragic, pathetic love of the elderly Merlin for the young sorceress Nyneve, who trapped him in the cave.

The landscape is vivid, pure Steinbeck, as in this passage describing Uther Pendragon's first night with Igraine at Tintagel castle, the night that Arthur was conceived:

"When Uther and Merlin and Sir Ulfius rode through the starlit darkness toward the sea, the fog moved restlessly over the moors like wispy ghosts in floating clothes. Half-formed mist people crept with them and the forms of riders grew changeable like figures of cloud."

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com

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