Michael Chabon: Charmed by a Dashing Brigadier
You might know that by 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was heartily sick of Sherlock Holmes. So he arranged to have his great creation tangle with a murderous arch-villain named Professor James Moriarty beside a high waterfall on a convenient Swiss Alp. You may also know that 10 years later, Conan Doyle was obliged by financial pressures to reveal to a grateful world that Holmes had merely staged his own death.
But did you know that in between gleefully killing off Holmes and somewhat reluctantly reviving him, Arthur Conan Doyle created another great fictional character, one who easily rivals Holmes — if not for intelligence, then for heroism, bravery and dash? A character who exceeds Holmes in the one trait in which the great detective, by his own admission, was always deficient: a rich and lovable humanity. This hero, a handsome, charming and resourceful cavalry officer serving in the Grand Army of Napoleon, has only one tragic flaw, though in his own eyes, of course, it is his glory and his single greatest advantage in life: He is a Frenchman.
His name is Brigadier Etienne Gerard, and he starred in 17 short stories that Conan Doyle wrote, with a palpable sense of liberation, after pushing Holmes off that Alpine ledge. In their day they were almost as popular as the Holmes stories, but I have to confess that even though I'm a lifelong Sherlockian, I had never heard of the good brigadier until his exploits and adventures were recently collected in a single volume.
In its pages you will find adventure, action, romance, love and self-sacrifice, hair's-breadth escape and reckless courage, gallantry, panache and a droll, backhand humor that rivals that of P.G. Wodehouse. You will also find yourself, even more than with the celebrated stories of Holmes and Watson, in the hands of an indisputable artist. For more than any other adventure stories I know, these stories have a power to move the reader.
Etienne Gerard, like all Frenchmen ever conceived of by Englishmen, is vain, conceited, self-important and blind to anything that does not touch directly on his honor. He is also tender, affectionate and sensitive. Even though his heart is so filled with love for himself, he still manages to open it to the plight of those who arouse his admiration. He sees the humanity in everyone, even Napoleon, who makes a number of cameo appearances.
Anyone who has laughed as the taunting Frenchmen of Monty Python and the Holy Grail hurl lunatic insults (and livestock) from their castle onto the heads of Arthur and his knights knows how much the English love to make fun of the French and their scorn for Englishmen. And Conan Doyle might very easily have contented himself and his readers with the humor in that ancient friendly enmity. But the grace, in the truest sense, of Conan Doyle's artistry is that his work is always so much better than it needed to be.
Conan Doyle placed himself, imaginatively, into the heart, soul and boots of a French cavalry officer, a man sworn to fight and kill Englishmen. With humor, affection and real insight into a soldier's life, Conan Doyle bridges the gap between him and his dashing popinjay of a hero. His artistry bridges the gap between our century and his, between a world lit by torches and whale-oil lamps and our own, between a time when war was still conducted face to face and our dehumanized era of collateral damage and target-rich environments. That act of imaginative sympathy is the requirement and blessing of literature. And it calls forth a similar act in the mind of the reader. It's one that few writers have ever pulled off more touchingly and winningly than in these unjustly forgotten tales by a great master.
You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.
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