Tuesday, May 06, 2014
RAFAEL SABATINI, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?
I've been working on the third book of my Tattooed Witch trilogy, The Tattooed Rose. I've had to do a lot of research because the book takes place in two settings - on the Great Ocean Sea (the Atlantic) and in the Caribbean (mostly Jamaica). I've had to study ship construction, typical crews, life at sea, sea battle techniques, as well as the history in and around 1550 in England, the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium, etc.), Portugal, and Spain. Also, a lot about piracy and the Brethren of the Coast, because one of my sub-plots (Joachin's) involves these. I have read a good half-dozen non-fiction reference books on sailing, piracy, etc., (Daily Life in the Age of Sail, The Spanish Main, Spanish Galleon, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, How History's Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away With It, among others) but they don't always tell me what I need to know. Sometimes, great fiction is what's needed to fill those gaps.
Enter Rafael Sabatini.
I don't know what I expected before I started reading Captain Blood. I think I expected the novel to be something like Treasure Island (which I've also read, but which is, after all, 'An Adventure Book For Boys'). I suppose I show my age when I say that, having grown up when there were still 'girl's books' (Nancy Drew) and 'boy's books' (The Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift series).
About Captain Blood, I couldn't have been more wrong.
Sabatini is a genius. His style is elegant yet direct, his characterization is sublime, complex, honest. My God, he's one of the most honest writers I know, delving into the human heart with more insight and sensitivity than I've come across in a long time. His plots are gripping, not just in Captain Blood, but also in Scaramouche, which I'm currently reading. In Captain Blood, I was constantly highlighting sections to which I'll return. His depictions of life at sea, etc., are exactly what I was looking for. His books are considered Romances (in the old sense), or 'Romantic Adventures'. Such dismissive terms for what he actually does.
I've had to put The Tattooed Rose aside to work on the substantive edits for The Tattooed Seer according to the excellent suggestions given to me by Lorina at Five Rivers. She only suggested a few changes, which again, led me to Sabatini. One of my characters in The Tattooed Seer is a Papal Nuncio, secretly a spy for England. Before taking his vows, he was part of an Italian commedia dell'arte troupe. Originally, I only mentioned this in passing in the book, but Lorina suggested I round him out so as to better reflect an important relationship which is key. After being so impressed with Captain Blood, I read Sabatini's biography, only to find that Scaramouche (which takes place during the French Revolution), has as its protagonist, Andre-Louis, who plays the role of Scaramouche with a commedia troupe.
I feel as if I've discovered a rare treasure in Sabatini. I intend to read all of his work, first for enjoyment, and then for study. His birthday was April 29, 1875, only a week ago. I wanted to post this note on his birthday as a way to honour and remember him, but other commitments got in the way. A rare and prolific writer, he published over thirty novels and numerous short stories in his lifetime. The inscription on his tombstone is the first line in Scaramouche. It reads: 'He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad.' An opening line like that no doubt reflects the man. I wish I had known him.
I can't recommend Rafael Sabatini enough. If you'd like to know more about his work, this website, The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini, The Last of the Great Swashbucklers is an excellent resource.
Below, is one of the many covers from his best work, Scaramouche.