Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Books I'm Reading: The Black Count

It's always a pleasure to read a book that lifts a deserving subject out of undeserved obscurity. Tom Reiss's The Black Count (I read the paperback edition, Broadway Books, 2012) paints such a vivid picture of General Alex Dumas that you wonder why his name was not better known before Reiss's book appeared (the general was quite famous in his day, but had been largely forgotten). Perhaps it's simply my own ignorance that's been lifted here, but, prompted by reading the story of the black count, I'm now reading a thick, recent biography of Napoleon.  Surprisingly, that book mentions Dumas only in passing, although Dumas became General-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps, distinguishing himself during the French campaigns against Austria in the 1790s, and acted as Napoleon's General-in-Chief of the Cavalry during the later Egyptian campaign. It seems history--or historians anyway--have slighted Dumas as deeply as Napoleon, who quickly grew jealous of the tall, strikingly handsome count, despite his having been one of the Emperor's most loyal and successful generals, treating him rather shabbily. Reiss's book is interesting not only for the details of General Dumas's life it presents but also for the background the book offers illuminating early life in the French colonies (specifically Saint-Domingue), the history of race-related legislation in France (which was remarkably forward-looking just before and during the French Revolution, although Napoleon rolled back much of the progress), and the connections between the life story of General Alex Dumas (who was imprisoned for years in a tower and poisoned) and the work of his writer son, Alexandre Dumas, who drew heavily on his father's experiences for his novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Meticulously researched, going back to original sources; half the fun of reading this book is following the first-person sub-narrative of Reiss's detective work.

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