Alexandre Dumas is once again — still, always, forever — with us. There he is in Umberto Eco’s new novel, The Prague Cemetery, aiding Giuseppe Garibaldi and his redshirts during the fight for Italian unification. And there he is up on the silver screen, for at least the 200th time, with a splashy new 3-D version of one of his most durable tales, The Three Musketeers, a voracious movie franchise that has drawn on talents ranging from Douglas Fairbanks to Christopher Walken and Charlie Sheen. Dumas has been dead for more than 140 years, but he refuses to go gentle into that good night. What’s his secret? How does he manage to continue to engage readers and moviegoers year after year after year? The answer, I believe, is that Dumas had the good sense (and the good fortune) to do the following seven things:
1. He Came From Humble Origins
Perhaps the central fact of Dumas’s life was that he was of mixed race, a “quadroon.” His paternal grandparents were a French nobleman stationed in Haiti and a Creole woman of mixed French and African descent. Their son became a general in Napoleon’s army, but he fell out of favor and his own son, Alexandre, was born into poverty in 1802.
2. He Worked Like a Galley Slave
No writer ever succeeded without hard work, and Dumas often put in 14-hour days producing more than 200 books, plus plays, stories, and a small mountain of journalism. Soon after arriving in Paris from his native Villers-Cotterêts, he was writing hit plays, followed by hit novels. After turning one of his plays into a serial novel, he opened a production studio with a team of writers who cranked out hundreds of stories. Dumas used many collaborators during his career, most notably Auguste Maquet, who helped him write dozens of plays and novels, including Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Maquet would later take Dumas to court seeking joint rights to their collaborations, but the court awarded him financial damages while Dumas retained the rights to the works. It was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. After the court case, neither man, working alone, produced any memorable work.
3. He Lived Large
Dumas was as colorful as any of the characters who populated his fiction. As his biographer André Maurois would later put it, “Dumas was a hero out of Dumas.” He amassed and spent several fortunes, ate and drank like a king, kept mistresses, fathered illegitimate children, ran a theater, built a mansion, and showed resourcefulness when it came to dodging creditors. He traveled to Belgium and later to Russia before arriving in Italy during the Risorgimento in 1860. Simone Simonini, Umberto Eco’s supremely unreliable narrator in The Prague Cemetery, winds up aboard the ship that is carrying Dumas to Sicily. “Dumas welcomed me with much cordiality,” the fictional Simonini reports:
He was wearing a pale brown lightweight coat and looked unmistakably like the half-caste he was — olive skin, protruding, fleshy, sensual lips and a head of frizzy hair like an African savage. Otherwise he had a lively, wry expression, a pleasant smile and the rotund figure of a bon vivant… I remembered one of the many stories about him: some impudent young Parisian had made a malicious reference in his presence to the latest theories suggesting a link between primitive man and lower species. Dumas replied: ‘Yes sir, I do indeed come from the monkey. But you, sir, are returning to one!’
4. He Was a Peerless Storyteller and Unapologetic Entertainer
Simonini disparages a couple of redshirts because they are “storytellers like Dumas, embellishing their recollections so that all their geese are swans.” Guilty as charged. Dumas did his historical research, but he had the good sense not to let facts get in the way of a good story. Unlike his contemporaries Balzac and Dickens, he shunned realism in favor of escapist entertainment, and so instead of taking his readers into the salons and slums of Paris, he took them back to the 17th century (The Three Musketeers and its sequels), back to the French Revolution, back to the aftermath of Napoleon’s downfall earlier in the 19th century (The Count of Monte Cristo), always back. Many critics dismissed him as a lightweight, but readers couldn’t get enough. Like Dickens, Dumas sold many of his novels as serials, which called for brisk action, constantly rising and falling fortunes, and titillating cliff-hangers. And, as with Dickens, you sometimes get the sense that Dumas had one eye on the meter — that is, that he was a little too well aware that he was getting paid by the word. But readers didn’t complain. They were too busy devouring Dumas’s tales of unjust imprisonment, stock market swindles, buried treasure, blackmail, back-stabbing, suicide, poisoning, kidnapping, forgiveness, revenge, and countless other human virtues.
5. He Would Have Hated – and Loved – the New Three Musketeers Movie
Though Dumas surely would have recognized the new Musketeers movie for the dog it is, he just as surely would have appreciated it for keeping the franchise alive until the next adaptation comes along. The cast of this new 3-D version looks like it was culled from an L train full of hipsters headed for Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The shining exception is Christoph Waltz, who plays duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu. Waltz is such an interesting actor that I would pay money to watch him paint a door, but here he is given some wooden lines — “Evil is just a point of view” and “I am France” — that would have dismayed Dumas, a master at writing dialog.
6. He Died Broke and Happy
If every smart person’s goal in life is to die broke, then Dumas was an unqualified success. But while a lesser man would have bemoaned the cruelties of fate that left him penniless on his deathbed, Dumas had this to say about death as it approached him in 1870: “I shall tell her a story, and she will be kind to me.”
7. He Figured Out How to Stay in the News
Dumas was still making news more than a century after his death. He was buried in the town of his birth and remained there until Nov. 30, 2002, when French President Jacques Chirac ordered the body transported in solemn procession to its rightful resting place in the Panthéon in Paris, where Voltaire, Rousseau, Émile Zola, Victor Hugo, and other French immortals are entombed. Dumas would have loved the spectacle. During a televised ceremony, the coffin was flanked by four Republican Guards dressed as the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their sidekick D’Artagnan. Chirac said France was “repaying an injustice which marked Dumas from childhood, just as it marked the skin of his slave ancestors.” Two centuries after his birth, Dumas had finally overcome his humble origins.
The critic Jules Machelet has called him “an inextinguishable volcano.” Don’t expect the lava to stop flowing anytime soon.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]