"The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexandre Dumas (1850)
"For a blunderer, the souvenir he had evoked was a rather skillfully contrived piece of baseness; for by the remembrance of his own fete he, for the first time, perceived its inferiority to that of Fouquet. Colbert received back again at Vaux what Fouquet had given him at Fontainbleau, and, as a good financier, returned it with the best possible interest."
Alexandre Dumas was born the same year as Victor Hugo, and died five years earlier. He is known for his romantic adventure novels, of which "The Man in the Iron Mask" is one. He wrote all of his famous books in collaboration with Auguste Maquet, a man who may have contributed more to Dumas' fame than even Dumas himself would have liked to admit.
"The Man in the Iron Mask" is also the sequel to "Louise de la Valliere," and features the famous Three Musketeers. This book finds Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan much older and wiser, and the four become embroiled in a plot involving a mysterious masked character who inhabits the Bastille. The ultimate fate of this masked character is never adequately addressed in the novel, and we are left to wonder whether Aramis' plan truly succeeded.
My favorite part of this book was the labyrinthine sort of courtly etiquette which D'Artagnan lives and breathes. Nothing is ever said directly, and conversations follow a tortured, circuitous route around their intended subjects. One imagines that anyone attempting to navigate the court of Louis XIV would have found in a slip of the tongue disastrous consequences, and in the counsels of friends and foes alike there would have lurked a multitude of meanings, both intended and unintended.
As an adventure novel, this book works admirably, even if the fate of the man in the mask is bungled. One surprising thing about this novel is just how dark the ending is, featuring an extended meditation on old age, the passage of time, and the vanity surrounding earthly attainments. I'm not saying that "The Man in the Iron Mask" is an overly profound sort of book, but it does offer some startling reflections on politics, sexuality, and the way that life ought to be lived.
If it's a bit uneven and long-winded it can be excused these faults. It's still a good book, and it - unlike some of the characters that populate its pages - has aged extremely well.