Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Alexandre Dumas

Paris, France                          Visited June 2009

A post about the great French author Alexandre Dumas, whose life was almost as interesting as the stories he told.  "All For One and One for All"

Alexandre Dumas was born Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie in July 1802 in Villers-Cotterêts, northeast of Paris, France.  His father Thomas-Alexandre took the name ‘Dumas’ as his last name to honor his mother (the younger Alexandre’s grandmother), a former Haitian slave.   

The author’s father was born in Haiti but came to France as a young boy.  An imposing physical presence, he joined the army and quickly rose to the rank of general by the age of 31.  He was a fearless and feared commander whose personal bravery led him into dramatic individual acts of heroism that made him a legend in the French army.  When Napoleon came to power Dumas soon found himself as the tip of the spear in many of Napoleon’s military campaigns.  But eventually General Dumas’ popularity among the troops and legendary status in French society collided with Napoleon’s colossal ego and he fell out of favor.  On a ship returning to France following his demotion by Napoleon in Egypt, General Dumas was captured and imprisoned in Italy for two years.  His health was crushed by the experience and he died five years later at the age of 43 in 1806.     

General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas's life furnished much real life material for the heroic characters in his son's later novels.  In 2012 historian Tom Reiss published a biography of the General's life titled The Black Count - Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.  The book is currently in production as a major motion picture.  

Alexandre the son was born following the General’s captivity and was only four years old when his father died.  The loss of status under Napoleon impacted the family General Dumas left behind, and Alexandre’s aristocratic French mother had to do manual labor in order to send her son to school.   But the teenage Alexandre dropped out of school to work.  Despite his lack of formal education the young man was a voracious reader.  In 1822, with the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the French Monarchy, the social status of the Dumas family was restored and 20-year-old Alexandre was able to obtain a position as an aid to the Duke of Orleans in the Paliais Royal in Paris.

Rendering of the author at about 27 years
In his twenties Dumas developed a passion for writing – mostly historical plays at the time – and he achieved success almost from the start.  By age 30 he was an established playwright.  In 1830 he took part in the revolution that ousted King Charles from the throne and replaced him with Dumas’ mentor the Duke of Orleans.  So the decade of the 1830s saw Alexandre Dumas prospering both in his literary vocation and in the highest realms of Paris society.  However, this did not keep him from experiencing the racial insults of those who looked down upon his mixed race heritage.  Dumas defended himself fiercely against prejudice, one time responding to a racial slur with the following:

My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends

Alexandre Dumas was a prodigious producer of literary work and an effective self-marketer, which was essential because he was an even more lavish spender.  He constantly lived at the edge of financial ruin throughout his life – with great wealth seeming to run through his hands like water.  In his mid 30’s he began to focus on the more lucrative genre of fiction writing, where he parlayed his popularity and flair for storytelling into a steady stream of well-regarded novels.  The works he is most known for are the adventure classics, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, its sequel The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Corsican Brothers (all published between 1844 and 1848).  But the total literary output over his lifetime included over 100,000 pages of writing.  His various novels have been translated into nearly 100 languages and have been the subject matter for over 200 motion pictures. 

A friend described Dumas in the following way,

"The most generous, large-hearted being in the world. He also was the most delightfully amusing and egotistical creature on the face of the earth. His tongue was like a windmill – once set in motion, you never knew when he would stop, especially if the theme was himself.”

Monte Cristo - the house Dumas built outside Paris which
now serves as a museum to the author and his family.

In 1840, at the age of 38, Dumas married an actress.  But throughout his adult life he carried on numerous affairs and had at least four children outside his marriage.  One son, Alexandre Dumas (called ‘fils to distinguish him from his father) became a noted literary figure in his own right.  In 1851 Napoleon III staged a successful overthrow of the monarchy and a Dumas was once again under the disdain of a Napoleon.  A combination of political disfavor and problems with creditors led him to leave France for Belgium, then Russia and finally Italy.  He continued to publish during this self-imposed exile, earning substantial royalties and spending them just as fast.  In 1864 the political climate had improved enough for Dumas to return to France.  He spent the rest of his years writing, philandering and enjoying his popularity among the French people.

Statue of Dumas in Paris

Dumas late in life

Alexandre Dumas died at age 68 of a stroke in Puys, France on December 5, 1870.  He was buried in his hometown.  In 2002 his body was moved to the Pantheon in Paris where he was buried among the greats of French literature, including Victor HugoJean-Jaques Rousseau,Voltaire, and others.  I had the chance to visit the Pantheon and see the simple Dumas crypt along side his contemporaries Victor Hugo and Emile Zola when I was in Paris for my 25th wedding anniversary.  My wife stayed outside on the plaza. 

Dumas' original grave in his hometown

Dumas Crypt in the Pantheon
Your blogger on the steps of the Pantheon in Paris

When I was in high school I picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and was utterly fascinated by the storytelling.  For a long time it was my favorite book.  When my wife and I were in France celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary I reread it and was once again enthralled by the tale of a man with unlimited means and the justice he metes out in the use of it.  Dantes rented a house in Paris in the novel at the address of 30 Champs Elysees.  We found the street number.  Nice but not quite the mansion depicted in the book.

Your blogger at 30 Champs Elysees

In the early 2000’s an unpublished Dumas novel was discovered.  After considerable scholarly research and editing the book was released in 2006 as The Last Chevalier.  It too became a best seller.     

Here are my favorite film adaptations of Dumas works in chronological order:

The Three Musketeers (1973).  Richard Lester's lavish slapstick film has little to do with the plot of the book but is a rollicking swashbuckler with a big name cast.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998).  A star studded adaptation of the story of the further adventures of The Three Musketeers stars a young Leonardo DiCaprio as well as Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne.  Probably should have been better than it was considering the cast.  

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002).  This is a serious and well executed effort to tell the story of Edmund Dantes starring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce.  The difficulty of telling the sprawling story in a two hour movie is a challenge, but its good movie watching with a beautifully filmed sword duel climax (not part of the novel).