- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006


on Alexandre Dumas’



For the past year or so, France has been all a-flutter over the discovery of the last of the 646 works written by Alexandre Dumas, a novel no one has read — or indeed even known about — for over 137 years.

Twelve years ago, a Dumas scholar named Claude Schopp was browsing in the Bibliotheque Nationale through the microfilms of a 19th-century French literary newspaper the Universal Monitor when he stumbled upon a completely unknown novel, “The Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine,” signed by the author of “The Three Musketeers.”

Back then, novels were run as serials in weekly publications, sometimes, as was the case with this novel, never seeing print in hardback.

“Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine” (The Knight of Sainte-Hermine) became an instant bestseller in France in 2005, and publishers from all around the globe have been setting translators to work to bring this high-charged tale of adventure and derring-do — Napoleon and Lord Nelson play major roles — to the rest of the world. And what a tale, Dumas that master storyteller, has to lay before us.

Supremely cool, the youthful hero Monsieur Rene says, when asked about his past (he keeps his real name and title a secret for much of the novel), “I’m afraid my life isn’t of much interest. I’ve been a prisoner, a sailor, an adventurer, a soldier, and a tracker of bandits. Nothing very interesting in all that.”

True, the eponymous Chevalier has done all that, but so very much more. The youngest of three noble brothers, his father has gone to the guillotine at the height of the French Revolution. His oldest brother was shot; his next eldest brother led an anti-revolutionary group (his adventures get covered in yet another Dumas novel, “The White and the Blue”) and Rene is left to avenge the honor of his family, parrying and thrusting through all those 1075 pages.

But those were strange times with mixed loyalties. Rene was devoted to his country, but what did that mean when he found himself fighting alongside Napoleon in spite of his family alliances? (Interestingly, Dumas’ father was one of Napoleon’s generals who had a falling out with the emperor that left the family improvished, and the author with complex feelings about that historic figure.)

Dumas gives readers a touch of “The Count of Monte Cristo” in this novel, although Rene unlike the Count only spends three and not 14 years in prison before he escapes, winding up on the ship of the celebrated real-life corsair Surcouf. He sails to India and Burma, where he fights pirates, hunts tigers, duels on land and at sea, encounters beautiful women and crosses paths with Napoleon.

Oh yes, he takes part in the Battle of Trafalgar, where Dumas has him kill Lord Nelson. The action never slows down for a page. Talk of high adventure; Dumas really knew how to deliver the goods. What’s more, he not only serves up drama, he gives the reader meticulously researched background and history the likes of which we rarely encounter in fiction of today.

Incidentally, Dumas has another surprise waiting for you. The French have just published a novel banned by Napoleon III, that also hasn’t seen the light in well over a century. Titled “Isaac Laquedem or the Novel of the Wandering Jew,” Dumas retells the story of Christ and his crucifixion very powerfully indeed. He also works Cleopatra into his tale. Beat that, Dan Brown.

Cynthia Grenier is a Washington writer and critic.

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