A more fitting introductory quote to this post could not be provided by any other than the legendary Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who happens to be the subject of the post. This excerpt is from "The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard," my most recent literary obsession, as well as any other italicized passages herein.
We all know Doyle most famously for his tales of Sherlock Holmes - but it was for his other, lesser known stories, which he hoped to be remembered. Doyle was an adamant fan of writing historical fiction, a passion exacted through his stories of Brigadier Etienne Gerard and also with "The White Company" and "Sir Nigel" - related novels detailing the adventures of Sir Nigel Loring, commander of The White Company, a band of archers who fought during the Hundred Years' War. When I read "The White Company" a few years ago I became quickly enthralled by it's mastery and beauty in describing the chivalrous acts of the fictional band, and the book (firmly seated in my personal list of the top 5 best novels, ever) gladly introduced me to Doyle, who has since become one of my favorite authors. But enough about the Company, we are gathered here today to praise Etienne!
"Gerard," He [Napoleon] cried, "you are a marvel!" I did not wish to contradict him, and it brought a flush of joy upon my cheeks to know that he had done me justice at last.
This book (or rather two, originally published separately as "The Exploits..." and "The Adventures...") is certainly one of the greatest treasures the NYRB has seen fit to republish. There are 18 short stories in all that preserve Gerard's exploits, each one a satirical masterpiece commenting not only on the British view of the French at the time, but on the system of British attitudes (now seen through the eyes of a frenchman). It can certainly be praised along side such great satires as "Gulliver's Travels" and "Player Piano".
Gerard portrays himself as gallant hero, fierce fighter, amorous lover, brave commander and loyal servant of his hero and master, Napoleon Bonaparte - amazingly, each of these assertions are completely true. What makes Etienne a comic figure is his bearing and adamant (and repetitive) declaration of these traits.
As an officer, I have always been ready to sacrifice myself for my men, though the Emperor would not have thanked me for it, for he had many men, but only one - well, calvary leaders of the first class are rare.
He was nervous and ill at ease, but my bearing seemed to reassure him. It is good to be in contact with brave men.
Despite his faults, Gerard does show himself to be a first class swordsman and a man of great bravery in service of his Emperor - the combination of these conditions create a truly memorable and thoroughly enjoyable comic character. He is apparently a forerunner to the comic/adventurer figures we can see in entertainment today. "Exploits and Adventures" pulls you in and keeps you anchored until it has been fully consumed, Doyle's amazing ingenuity with the structure of the short story is rarely matched. He is a true master of adventure writing.
So, read it - I dare you not to fall in love.
Never have I had so delightful conversation. Most women make the mistake of talking rather too much about their own affairs, but this one listened to my tales just as you are listening now, ever asking for more and more and more.
Now if only someone would jump on the ball and see fit to make "The White Company" and "Sir Nigel" widely available once more, I could rest happy.