I’m filing this update from my phone so it will be shorter. But it’s a post so that should count for something, right?
I spent the weekend reading “The Black Count,” by Tom Reiss, a Christmas present from my sister from a couple of years back. See, I do make my way through the stacks of books that pile up and aren’t immediately devoured.
The book is about General Alexandre Dumas, father of the French novelist and inspiration for many of the characters in Dumas’ books such as “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Three Musketeers.” The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was highly regarded by reviewers.
Indeed, the book was engaging and I was able to get through it quickly and without feeling like it was a slog. Reiss writes about an exciting period of French history–the revolution, Napoleon’s rise and conquest in Egypt and his return to France–and he writes from the perspective of Dumas, a mixed-race swordsman and general who was a hero to the French military.
Race permeates the book in a unique way. While not necessarily about a specific struggle for civil rights, the book shows how France was generally more enlightened than many other countries in the same time period, granting equal (or close to equal) rights to blacks and mixed-race individuals like Dumas. While he had reached a rank that no other person of color had reached, it wasn’t that fact that made this such a remarkable story. Far more crucial to the story were Dumas’ specific exploits on the field, his leadership and his perseverance despite difficult circumstances. So in that regard, I liked how Reiss treated race in the book–as a backdrop to the biography, one that illuminates a period of time where race was considered much differently than it was in America.
I had one criticism of the book. The author repeatedly inserted himself into the narrative, switching into first person to describe an extraordinary document he discovered or an experience he had when researching the topic. In fairness, his anecdotes were usually (but not always) value-added (ugh, such an awful business term, right?) but they stuck out in a way that disrupted the flow of the book. It was jarring to have the author show up every so often in the book. I would have put them in the footnotes. But I suspect the author was caught up with the story of Dumas and his adventures. So when Reiss got a French Deputy Mayor drunk and convinced him to crack a safe to uncover documents about Dumas thought to be lost forever, Reiss may have been channeling his inner Edmond Dantes or General Alexandre Dumas. It’s a forgivable miscalculation and one that I’m certain would have tempted me if I had gone to the lengths Reiss did to research this book.
“The Count of Monte Cristo” is one of my favorite classics. It’s about playing the long game and besting your enemies. It’s the one book I always want to go back and reread but its heft always cures me of the temptation. But “The Black Count” is also a study of “Monte Cristo” in that much of the story is inspired by the life of the author’s father, General Dumas. In a way, we learn how the author Dumas was able to dream up the stories in his novels. He took a dose of his father’s life stories and invented classics that live on nearly 200 years later. And perhaps Dumas the General’s greatest gift to his son was his penchant for exaggeration. Reiss rightly raises his eyebrows about some of General Dumas’ war stories, discounting their likelihood. (He surely never lifted his horse with his legs.). It detracts not one bit from the narrative in the “The Black Count.” The story is still thrilling and inspiring.
Reiss ends the book noting that there is no current statue or monument to General Dumas in France (which is certainly not suffering from a shortage of monuments, as the author notes) and that seems wrong. Dumas’ military heroism and his legacy as a ceiling-busting person of color certainly merit more attention and recognition. Maybe Reiss needs to get another Deputy Mayor drunk and convince him to commission a statue. Until then, we’ll have this book.
Thanks for reading.