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Reviews (ADR)

from Reviews (ADR)
concerning L' Horloger

     A short novel, best characterized as a horror story with supernatural elements, set in the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium), Paris, and Vienna in the 1750's. Despite the brevity of the book, it packs enough plot to supply a work of four or five times the length. L'Horloger is perhaps Dumas' goriest novel, filled with innocent people being murdered by poison, burning, or explosion.
     The grave-digger Jacob Behaegel and his new wife have their wedding night interrupted by the sight of two men exhuming a corpse. Jacob chases the men away and is astonished to discover that the exhumed corpse has returned to life. The ex-corpse turns out to be one Margarita, who tells her story to a historical figure, the Hapsburg crown prince Joseph II (1741-1790) traveling incognito. Margarita traveled to Lapland (!) and made a pact with the devil, receiving a magic ring as a sign of her betrothal to Satan. By means of the ring, Margarita is able to revenge the murder of her daughter, and form a successful band of robbers in Hungary. Repenting her sins, Margarita seeks forgiveness, but is unable to remove the satanic ring from her finger. Margarita returns to Belgium, dies, and is buried, until awakened by her excavation. Margarita has been exhumed by Petrus, member of the robber band and murderer of her husband, who cuts off her finger to gain the ring.
     Petrus' band is living in a cave in a Belgian forest. They despoil yet another family, leaving two Flemish children, Fritz and Nettchen, orphans. The orphan children are taken in by the magistrate of the Belgian village of Onoz. Young Fritz recognizes one of his father's murderers and shoots him dead. The dead robber is found to have a large quantity of gold in his possession. Part of the band of robbers descend on Onoz and murder the magistrate before being gunned down by the villagers. Meanwhile, Margarita and Joseph II blow up the remainder of the band in their hideout. There are only two survivors: an orphan child and Petrus, who escapes.
     Fritz grows up and decides to go to Paris to apprentice himself to the celebrated French clockmaker Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807) [Berthoud developed the first marine chronometer rugged enough for routine shipboard use]. En route, he meets two other young men, both orphans like himself, Nicholas (a chef) and Bernard. Nicholas, we learn, is the orphan survivor of the destruction of the robber band, saved by Margarita.
     Bernard and Fritz work for Berthoud, and Nicholas becomes head chef at the best restaurant in Paris. The owner of the restaurant is Petrus. Petrus seizes the three young men and Berthoud at breakfast and imprisons them in an underground catacomb. Margarita arrives just in time to save them, and Petrus flees.
     Fritz, now a skilled clockmaker, gains imperial favor by repairing the shattered glockenspiel of the Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and by successful espionage leading to the capture of Dresden by Austrian forces (1760). Margarita finally catches up with Petrus, kills him, and retires to a convent. Fritz marries Petrus' innocent daughter.
     The late F. W. Reed argues that this book was only "touched up...lightly" by Dumas. I must respectfully disagree. Many of the themes in this book reflect Dumasian concerns. Margarita's temporary immortality reflects that of the Wandering Jew in Isaac Laquedem which Dumas was writing at about the same time. The notion of a pact with Satan was one that Dumas would explore in the far superior Le Meneur de Loups a few years later. The three young men of humble station traveling to Paris to make their way reflect a bit of Dumasian autobiography that is common to many of Dumas' books.
     However, this is still a curious and badly constructed work. The first five chapters, covering the exhumation of Margarita, are awkwardly written and plotted. One can identify the hand of Dumas in certain individual paragraphs, as he tries to bail the author out of some expositional jam. However, the middle of the book is pure Dumas. The last few chapters sound like Dumas, but read more like a plot summary, with one event crowding on another, than a novel.
     A reasonable hypothesis, in the absence of other evidence, is that Dumas started with somebody else' work, tried to fix it, gave up at about chapter six, and started writing or rewriting it himself. Towards the end, he tired of the story, and crammed the ending into a couple of chapters.

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