This biography (according the the New York Times blurb on the front it’s a “richly imaginative biography” – what does that even mean?) of the the father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo is compelling. Reiss uses Dumas (the father) as a kind of emblematic symbol of France’s remarkable changes during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Bankrupted by their support of the American Revolution, France begins an at times reckless exploration of various forms of government and revolution that mark Dumas’ rise and ultimate fall during Napoleon’s second act.
In order to sustain his narrative, Reiss has to provide a fair amount of supporting context, including, for example, France’s abolitionist spirit, the Haitian Revolution, and Napoleon’s machinations. Some of these diversions are more interesting than others, but the narrative in variably suffers when the noble Dumas is not at center stage.
Reiss clearly admires his subject a great deal and laments, in the end, that there is no statue of him currently in France. He seems to have been a remarkable soldier, an ethical man (in a time when the wind was constantly changing) and, to the best of his abilities, a strong family man. Aside from a bit of a temper, Reiss finds no flaws with Dumas, a black man who flourished at a time that was transformative (in both good and bad ways) in the history of France. And his race does matter. It is symbolic of the changing winds in France that he, deeply devoted to his country, succeeded because of his aptitude and courage in his military career and then was finally diminished because of his race.
It’s always funny with biographies. Just as reading Baldwin’s biography prompted me to think about reading more of his work, this one has me thinking about The Three Musketeers. But it’s too soon, I think.
This is a good book. Pulitizer Prize worthy? I’m not so sure.