Monday, November 15, 2021

Reading for the Plot

"All generalizations are dangerous, even this one."
--Alexandre Dumas

Dumas tells a story. His father, the great general was tasked with taking a fortified enemy position that was well defended on three sides and all but inaccessible on the fourth, as that was built atop a sheer rock wall. First the general had his armorer make crampons. Next, he warned the men he took with him up the mountain that night that any who fell to their certain deaths on the rocks below must not cry out and reveal the assault. "Three men fell; their bodies were heard bounding from rock to rock; but no cry, not a groan, not a murmur, escaped them." (Day-yam!) The survivors reached the palisades and started climbing again, but the general thought of "a better and quieter way." He took each man "by the seat of his trousers and the collar of his coat" and he threw them, one by one over the high wall and into the snow on the other side. Completely surprised to find the French in their midst, the enemy promptly surrendered.

It's a good story, no? Alexandre Dumas tells a good story. He loves a good story. He is a good story.

Obviously, I've finally started reading Dumas' My Memoirs. This is the proper book, mind, starting with Volume I, 1802 - 1821, rather than the selection of same I read some years ago. The original was published in five volumes, starting in 1847 when the author was at the height of his fame and fortune. The final volume brings him no further forward than his thirty-second year, well before his greatest novels saw print. (At the rate he wrote, had he completed his memoirs even so far as his middle age, the book would have exceeded both his Musketeers and The Count!) Like so many things Dumas started: newspapers, histories, architectural projects, farms, collaborations, revolutions, associations, love affairs, he didn't so much abandon his autobiography as get on with other things. 

The need to make a selection rather than reprint all he did write was hardly indefensible. This first volume is largely Dumas' biography of his father, a man willfully forgotten by history at the time, and much maligned by his contemporaries. Volume One runs to 308 very tightly printed pages in this edition. An admirable act of filial devotion then, but it must be admitted that no father probably ever gave a son better copy. Still, Dumas never met an official document to this end that he didn't think worth preserving entire; defending his father's military service with unabridged orders and commendations, and arguing the legitimacy of his father's birth with every dusty scrap he can find. Hard to fault him as a son, but as a writer? An editor might have done him no disservice, though a reduction from five to one hardly does the author or his autobiography justice. And how many good stories were left behind? 

Every English major knows the formula: story is who, what, and where and plot is how, when, and why. Simple, right? Modern theory, and a century ago the Modernists in particular, challenged this system and the underlying assumptions made about the function of narrative, the agency of the individual, the intention of the author, etc. Interestingly, I can't find much in the way of modern criticism of Dumas. His contemporaries all had their brief say, but mine can't seem to be bothered. (If one searches the Internet for "Dumas criticism and reviews," one will find articles on very fancy watches, and "reaction videos" from first time readers, uniformly young, not infrequently bored and or daunted, or conversely proud as punch for having read a big book read literally millions of times before. I mean... golly.) So what did his contemporaries have to say?

Like virtually everyone who came in direct contact with Dumas, the great critic Sainte-Beuve could be described as a friend. Didn't prevent him from accusing Dumas of introducing "industrial literature" with his "factory" of collaborators and prodigious output of popular journalism, history, and fiction. As with so much that has subsequently been written about the novelist, the critique concedes the author's genius as a storyteller, but concentrates on his profligacy and production. Dumas great friend and contemporary Victor Hugo pays moving tribute in a letter of condolence to Dumas fils, but even there is understandably shy of offering an opinion of the literary value of the work. It seems everybody loved Dumas, as most of his readers love him still, but always with a barely concealed hint of condescension.  For he's a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny -- l'ultime bonhomme -- but was he a serious writer? Was he an artist?

Reading even the very few reviews of newer translations, I am struck by the almost willful refusal to take the man seriously. Reviewing Pevear's translation of The Three Musketeers, Terrance Rafferty (from whom I took the Sainte-Beuve quotes) calls Dumas "shameless" and "joyful" -- and a genius -- but can't imagine a larger purpose in Dumas' cynicism about patronage, aristocracy, and royalty, or recognize as deliberate or important Dumas' emphasis on personal loyalty and bravery in preference to detailing a supposedly important battle. Really?

It would seem that the rather quaint notion that popularity -- real, sustained, all but universal popularity -- presupposes inferiority. Dumas' rediscovered novel, Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine was published in 2005 and sold better than 250,000 copies in France. Published in English as The Last Cavalier it was a New York Times Bestseller, as have been all the subsequent Dumas translations by Lawrence Ellsworth. Dumas has had nearly two thousand translations in fifty-four languages and many of his major novels remain in print in both French and English despite the ongoing abandonment of the classic backlist by major publishers. None of which proves his ashes worthy of The Pantheon, I suppose but it might at least give pause to the people who seem determined see Dumas as a hack. 

Reading Dumas again in middle age, I feel the want of serious contemporary criticism simply because it might address not his reputation but issues in my own reading. I could stand some help. I mean, is he really only concerned with story? Are his plots so absurd? I don't see that. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “Character is plot, plot is character.” By that standard, Dumas' plots don't strike me as so absurd. True, unlike Mr. Fitzgerald, Monsieur Dumas hasn't the habit of brevity and it can seem rather artless when the reader and possibly the author seems to lose track of the protagonist for what can feel like very long stretches indeed, but can anyone really suggest that character is not the central concern of The Count of Monte Cristo or that Edmond Dantes isn't changed by his circumstances? (Novelist Julian Barnes defined the function of plot in opera as the fastest means to deliver characters to the point "where they can sing their deepest emotions. " That seems more in line with the general gist of the Romantics, don't you think?) So just how absurd are the author's absurdities? How excessive are his excesses? Are carved emerald pill-boxes and Ethiopian cowboy lassos as silly as they sound to me, or are these things intentionally rococo because Dumas has something to say about wealth, and "new money" in particular? Obviously The Count's treasure cave is also Aladdin's, but what are we to make of all this talk of The Arabian Nights? Is it all just good fun? Doesn't feel like it, frankly. Worth remembering the Scheherazade had more than one purpose in telling stories too. 

I don't have the answers to these questions. I have formed a few opinions, but that can neither be helped nor of much use without some sort of critical support from my intellectual betters and so far they can't seem to be bothered. My suggestion then as we read The Count of Monte Cristo and or the multiple volumes of the D'Artagnan cycle -- as anyone reads Alexandre Dumas pere --  is of course to enjoy all the seeming absurdities of pirates and schemes and opium dreams, but maybe assume hereafter that like any major novelist of his period, Dumas had something to say about politics, class, injustice, tragedy, love, and all the rest. (I mean, there really isn't another major European writer of the period other than Dickens and Andersen whose personal history gave them a better right to criticize the society that ultimately worshiped them.) More, it is an altogether more interesting experience for me reading and rereading Dumas as a serious writer and not just as the man who tells The Count and The Musketeers. If I assume he meant to say something it doesn't feel at all absurd to notice that he did. Put it another way, I feel I know at least a little now of the who, what, and where of Dumas, and now I'm more interested in the how, when, and why -- of Dumas.

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