Behind the Iron Mask

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Alexandre Dumas, 1857; photograph by Nadar

As a boy I wanted above all other professions to be a musketeer. After Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, read to me by my father, I carried on myself with the sequels, Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask. They were, though I didn’t want to admit it, a bit disappointing: somehow the verve of d’Artagnan and his companions had grown old and gone darker. Then someone gave me the same writer’s The Count of Monte Cristo. It was the longest book I had ever held in my hands. It filled the whole of a summer, in one of those reading experiences best described by Proust, where the fictional became a screen between self and reality, a bright mist that made the ordinary both trivial and tolerable. Some of its 1,500 pages eluded me—various slow-acting poisons and exotic narcotics were hard to follow over the many chapters it took them to work their mischief. But the nightmare imprisonment of Edmond Dantès in the Château d’If in Marseilles harbor, his escape self-sewn into the shroud prepared for his companion the Abbé Faria, then his return in multiple disguises to wreak vengeance on his persecutors were, and remain, unforgettable.

Alexandre Dumas, who lived from 1802 to 1870, stands alongside Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac as one of the most extravagantly fertile narrative producers of all time. The three of them make of the first half of the French nineteenth century an extraordinary moment for fabulation. It is of course easier to grant the classic status of Balzac, who has endured and prevailed despite the distaste of classically minded critics for his often inflated prose. And if Victor Hugo has fallen out of fashion, Les Misérables finds continuing reincarnations (his other novels are very much worth reading too, especially his last, Ninety-Three, on the French Revolution).

Dumas is a somewhat different case. Even more than Balzac, he stands as an example of what the midcentury arbiter of literary taste Sainte-Beuve called “industrial literature”: cliff-hanger novels produced for serialization in the daily newspapers, work paid by the line and thus favoring great length (Dumas’s complete works run to over 100,000 pages). Dumas notoriously created a writing “factory,” parceling out parts of the production process to collaborators. In the case of The Count of Monte Cristo, it was especially Auguste Maquet, his long-suffering assistant, who did the plot outlines and researched locales and details of dress and manner. Dumas, though, seems to have done the writing himself. Maquet yearned for recognition by posterity, but it is Dumas alone who was solemnly entombed in the Panthéon, in 2002.

“Prodigious” is the word that best seems to describe Dumas’s output, whether in his novels or in the dramas that had an important part in the evolution of French theater. And the term applies as well to the man, who conceived himself in colossal proportions befitting work—and an …

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