Having Fun

David Coward

  • Viva Garibaldi! Une Odyssée en 1860 by Alexandre Dumas
    Fayard, 610 pp, €23.00, February 2002, ISBN 2 213 61230 7

Alexandre Dumas was a force of nature. The 650 or so books he published might not seem an extraordinary tally for such as Barbara Cartland, who could dictate six thousand words between lunch and tea, or Georges Simenon, who rarely spent more than a fortnight on a novel. But Dumas was not merely a novelist: he also wrote plays, travel books, memoirs, histories, accounts of great crimes plus a mass of ‘occasional’ writings which include his vast Grand Dictionnaire de cuisine.

Even as a novelist the scale of his achievement seems scarcely human. The Three Musketeers (1844), the first episode of a saga totalling a million and a quarter words, is as long as five Simenons, yet fills just two of the 310 volumes of the Calmann-Lévy edition of his complete works. These run to some 37 million words, or an average of 16,000 words written weekly over four decades and 15 titles a year. Among them are novels both long and short which contain, it has been estimated, four thousand main characters, nine thousand secondary roles, and 25,000 walk-on parts. Nor is there any way of calculating his sales during his lifetime. In 1893, however, his son reported that in the two decades since his death, six hundred of his books had been re-serialised in newspapers, nearly three million volumes had been sold, and eighty million instalments had been issued as weekly parts.

Dumas said he was born without even bootstraps to pull himself up with, but he chose his parents well. His mother was an innkeeper’s daughter who gave him unstinting love and his father was a stupendous role model. Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie was born in Santo Domingo in 1760, the illegitimate son of a French-born Marquis and Marie-Cessette Dumas, a plantation slave. Disowned by his father, he returned to France in 1786 and, taking his mother’s name, became a soldier. During the Revolution, he rose through the ranks and was a general at 33. He was a man of commanding presence, great courage and colossal physical strength: it was said that ‘the Black Devil’ could hold four rifles at the end of his outstretched arm, one finger in each barrel. In Egypt in 1799 he quarrelled with Napoleon, accusing him of putting personal ambition before Revolutionary principles; he was sent home. On the way, his ship was detained in Southern Italy by Ferdinand, King of the Two Sicilies, then at war with France. For two years he was left to rot in Brindisi castle. In a neighbouring cell, the geologist Dolomieu, another prisoner of war, applied himself, using soot, a stick and the margins of Bibles, to the composition of The Philosophy of Mineralogy. It was a bit like Edmond Dantès and the abbé Faria in the Chateau d’If, except that the General, his health and career broken, returned to France in 1801 and died of stomach cancer in 1806. Alexandre was four.

From his father, he inherited healthy appetites and the dark skin and tight curls which would later prove a boon to caricaturists. He grew up at Villers-Cotterêts, fifty miles north-east of Paris, where he was happy and largely impervious to education. At 15 he was set to work in a lawyer’s office but dreamed of literary glory. In 1823 he moved to Paris, where he read insatiably, and wrote unperformable plays, overheated poems and a collection of stories which, when it was published in 1826 at his own expense, sold four copies. His father’s old colleagues, not wishing to resurrect their Napoleonic youth, were reluctant to help. Instead, Dumas acquired a well-connected mistress who eased his entry into fashionable social and literary circles. Soon, he was one of the Jeunes France intent on breathing passion and life into the bloodless literary tradition and it was he who, in 1829, with a violent, sensational play set in the 1570s, scored the first success of the new Romantic drama.

The literary revolution for which he had struck the first blow was confirmed by Hugo’s Hernani in 1830, the year of France’s second revolution. During the July Days, Dumas manned barricades and dodged bullets. Single-handedly, he overpowered the bemused and unresisting garrison of a gunpowder store at Soissons and then, in a splendid uniform of his own design, he toured the royalist Vendée to drum up support for Lafayette’s National Guard. Undaunted, he returned to the fleshpots, to new mistresses and his writing table.

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