Dumas -- the exploits without the heart; Alexandre Dumas: The King of Romance, by F. W. J. Hemmings. New York: Scribner's. $12.95.
In this new biography Professor F. W. J. Hemmings undertakes to depict the life of a man whose manifold talents and widespread fame prompted his contemporary, Victor Hugo, to write, "The name of Alexandre Dumas is more than French, it is European; and it is more than European, it is universal." Hemmings provides a generally lively and entertaining account of Dumas the lover, the defender of liberty, the man of the world -- a character fit for one of his own d'Artagnan romances.
But Dumas the writer figures in all these almost incidentally -- Hemmings makes no pretense of offering a comprehensive evaluation of his work -- and even less time is spent on the world in which Dumas lived. This concentration on the picturesque is the source of the book's best moments, but it also contributes to its lack of depth.
Remembered now for his novels "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo," Dumas was first known to the literary audience of his time as a playwright, one of the founders of the Romantic movement in the French theater. After producing a number of popular and profitable dramas, he followed the example of one of his main early influences, Sir Walter Scott, and turned to writing the novels that were to bring him worldwide renown. Besides these, he turned out travelogues, memoirs, and a flood of newspaper journalism -- an output so prolific that the standard edition of his complete works runs to 301 volumes.
Dumas was the very opposite of the reclusive artist toiling without the recognition of society. He was adored by the literary society of Paris and praised by almost all who knew him for his wit, charm, and generosity. His relations with women were notorious.
Relying on vignettes and anecdotes, Hemmings details Dumas's numerous affairs and his single, failed attempt at married domesticity.
Besides the liaisons, Dumas's life embodied enough romanticism to justify the book's subtitle (drawn from the name given him by his last mistress). The son of one of Napoleon's generals, Dumas was what the people of his time called, in a somewhat uncomplimentary tone, a "quadroon" -- his grandmother was a Haitian slave. He left the rustic scenes of his boyhood, where he acquired his lifelong delight in hunting, fishing, and riding, to try for fame as a writer in Paris. Ironically, he secured a job to support himself there because he was alreadym so good a "writer" -- his beautiful handwriting was exactly what was required of an office copyist.
As his literary and social career blossomed, Dumas remained a politically active republican. His exploits ranged from the conventional (he stood, unsuccessfully, for election to the National Assembly) to the spectacular (fighting "on the barricades" in revolutionary riots).
Dumas sailed to North Africa, visited Finland, and trekked to the remote stretches of Russia, where a Buddhist prince feasted him on raw fillet of horse, camel steak, and roast bustard. And finally -- as though it were a requirement for all titanic authors of his era Dumas went bankrupt, losing the palace he had built and all the trappings of his fabulous wealth but retaining his unflagging self-confidence and the esteem of society.
Hemmings's episodic approach enlivens every page, but also leaves a certain amount of dissatisfaction. No glimpse is ever provided of Dumas's own heart -- why he made the crucial turn from classicism to romantic drama, why he was so promiscuous, why republicanism so sparked his imagination. It is as though the man never emerges from behind his actions; the reader is left wondering to some extent just whom it was who was doing all these things. And the lack of information about life in France during Dumas's time hampers the understanding of any reader not familiar with the maze of revolutions, restorations, empires, and republics that constituted the French political scene so important to Dumas.
But the engaging figure Hemmings does present lets us see why readers -- from the abbot in the north of Russia to the village storyteller in Iran, from Queen Victoria to a homesick Spanish schoolboy -- made Dumas's work a part of the literature of the whole world. He infused his work with the variety and vigor of his own life.