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]
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester recommended by AndrewThe subtitle says it all: “A tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary”. In this engaging slice of history (with a narrower focus than his later The Meaning of Everything), Winchester zooms in on the intersecting lives of two men: Professor James Murray, who oversaw the committee which collected the submitted definitions, and Dr. W. C. Minor, formerly a respected American doctor and medic in the Civil War, who then transplanted to England, and at the time of his 10,000-plus contributions to the dictionary was a psychotic murderer and inmate at a mental institution.The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary recommended by NoahIt sounds ridiculous, but I never travel without my O.S.P.D. Published by Merriam Webster, Inc. for Hasbro, it is the game of Scrabble’s one and only arbiter, from AA to ZYZZYVA (a tropical weevil and a damned hard word to make, given the fact that there is just one Z tile.) My Third Edition, with gold embossed lettering on a stately green hardcover, never sits on the shelf for very long since I became addicted to the Scrabulous application on Facebook. I may be a bit old for social networking, but opening a Scrabulous game with someone faraway by playing ZODIACS for 106 points? Priceless. And as long as I’m using my O.S.P.D., and not online references, it’s not cheating – at least that’s what I tell myself. Scrabulous may carry a price for its creators, who have been sued by Hasbro. If only life came with an O.S.P.D., such disputes would be so much easier to settle.The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron recommended by TimothyIn 1933, British author Robert Byron, a distant relative of Lord Byron, embarked on an 11-month journey with a friend across the Middle East, eventually ending up in India. Along the way he kept a journal – full of caustic wit and genuine discovery – later published as The Road to Oxiana. The book offers an historical look at the people and places of the Orient through the eyes of a privileged and opinionated traveler who makes his way by boat, bus and stolen horse. The journal can be enjoyed either in its entirety or by reading accounts of select cities, such as Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Kabul and many others in between. The entries, each noting the date and city elevation, range from descriptions about the joys of bargaining to verbatim accounts of memorable conversations concerning local customs. To be sure, Byron occasionally makes sweeping generalizations about the ethnic groups he encounters. While in Baghdad he writes: “The hotel is run by Assyrians, pathetic, pugnacious little people with affectionate ways.” More favorable opinions are formed when Byron gets to know people beyond monetary transactions.At its best, travel writing offers a healthy balance of observation and attitude. And if you’re lucky, the author will not shy from the self-revelation inherent when encountering new cultures. Byron accomplishes both. In his final entry, upon returning home, Byron expresses the timeless sentiment of a world traveler: “I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas recommended by EmreI am easily impressionable. And sometimes my tendencies are highly ephemeral. Yet, for some obscure reason, I have a constant longing for that of the old, which – absolutely – can no longer be had. That is why I venture to recommend The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas to you fellow readers. Granted, it is a classic so oft cast in movie renditions and referred to in modern language that you – just as with the author’s Three Musketeers – might think you know all its details, but Dumas’s Count is still likely to entrap you in the mysterious ways he moves. Born into the lower classes and securing for himself the promise of a decent lower middle-class status, Edmond Dantes, the protagonist, is cast off society’s script as it unfolds with Napoleon’s return to the throne and immediate downfall. But Dantes lives on in the depths of a dark prison cell, and once free, plots a magnificent return, beautifully articulated by his vengeance. If you thought anyone vengeful, peek into the Count of Monte Cristo’s schemes and you will quickly change your mind, not to mention that you will appreciate them for their brilliance and ability to make you fly through upwards of 1,200 pages. Hefty as it might be, and outdated as honor might seem in our age, The Count shines a romantic light on the magnificent Parisian society of the early- to mid-1800s, providing the modern reader with a gripping story, colorful characters and a reflection on times and thoughts that may seem far away but are very much a part of our lives today. See also: Max on The Count.Setting Free the Bears by John Irving recommended by MaxIt was John Irving who introduced me to contemporary fiction. As a young teenager, his novels were the first I digested with an adult mind. Though it pains me to note that his later novels have been sub-par at best, the novels of his most fertile period – Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hotel New Hampshire and of course The World According to Garp – are nearly unparalleled. But often given short shrift is the book that started it all: Setting Free the Bears. Where some of Irving’s novels can sometimes suffer from baroque plotting, Bears is refreshingly direct and light-hearted. Written when Irving was just 25, he submitted the book’s initial draft as his Masters thesis at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Kurt Vonnegut was a professor). The book offers a pair of free-spirited protagonists on a motorcycle adventure through Austria and a plan to liberate the animals in Vienna’s zoo. As is so often the case with Irving, things go awry. Though regarded as one of Irving’s lesser works, Bears is good fun that lays the groundwork for the books that made him famous.The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen recommended by PatrickPeppered with references to MFK Fisher, this beautiful, readable novel could be described as the seminal work of foodie fiction (although such an appellation would belittle it). Hugo Whittier has removed himself to his ancestral home on the Hudson River, where he’s dying from a disease that could be cured if only he’d stop smoking. Hugo is the quintessential antihero, a sardonic, narcissistic curmudgeon grown prematurely old. He struggles to stay out of the affairs of his brother, who is stumbling headlong into divorce, and his estranged wife, who has appeared suddenly seeking reconciliation. Hugo is perfectly rendered, in all his self-centered glory. As a bonus, the book contains a ripping recipe for Shrimp Newburg.