Alexandre Dumas rides again – 137 years later
Yet another swashbuckler joins 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Count of Monte Cristo.'
Alexandre Dumas died 137 years ago, but he still has a new novel to offer readers this fall.
Indeed, the story of The Last Cavalier could serve as an example of the characteristic twist of fate found in Dumas swashbucklers such as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." Eminent Dumas scholar Claude Schopp discovered the vestiges of the manuscript while researching the novelist's life during the late-1980s at the National Library in Paris.
Schopp stumbled upon it while making a request for a long-forgotten scrap of information on Dumas. Instead he found a letter written by Dumas in response to a critique of a story set in the Napoleonic era. A little more probing led Schopp to "The Last Cavalier," a typically epic Dumas offering that runs 118 chapters – and still reaches no conclusions.
Dumas wrote the novel at the end of his life. It ran in serial form between January and October 1869. Dumas died in 1870.
"Nearly a year of serials!" Schopp recalls in his giddy introduction. "I can imagine that I must have been as happy as if I had discovered El Dorado."
Schopp took the serials, culled them, cleaned up the prose and punctuation and smoothed out other elements in much the same fashion Dumas himself did when transforming other epic serials into bound novels. The resulting manuscript arrived in French bookstores two years ago to the acclaim of critics and readers alike.
Now Schopp's polished discovery makes its debut in English, with a major assist from translator Lauren Yoder. All are to be congratulated, for "The Last Cavalier" reads like a Dumas classic.
Hector, the Count of Sainte-Hermine, serves as the novel's hero. As Schopp notes, Hector is an avenger, just as Edmond Dantes is in "The Count of Monte Cristo." Each man suffers as a bit player in political vendettas – and loses everything as a result.
Dantes loses the love of his life due to political machinations in "Monte Cristo," while Hector, on his wedding day, instead of marrying the woman of his dreams, honors an oath to a rebel leader wronged by Napoleon.
He fights Napoleon without regret. After all, Napoleon's ascendant power cost Hector his father and two brothers because of their sympathy to the displaced Bourbon kings. Whereas Dantes jettisons a plebeian past in favor of aristocratic airs while pursuing his life's revenge, Hector eschews his past by dropping his august title and diminishing his gentlemanly background.
Both novels share the classic Dumas trait of relentless storytelling combined with derring-do. James Bond, Indiana Jones, and many others owe a deep debt to Dumas, who stuffs his tales with thrilling exploits and exotic locales.
Hector traipses across the globe in search of adventure and, he hopes, a speedy death. On the latter count, he fails in spectacular fashion.
Thank God – or, rather, Dumas – for that. Hector's gung-ho globetrotting takes us from Paris to the jungles of Burma and beyond. He guts a shark with his knife while saving a sailor in ocean waters. In the East Indies, Hector kills a dozen tigers, staves off a four-foot python and trains elephants to protect his traveling party.
That is just the beginning. At every turn, Hector finds peril and perseverance. Dumas tells his tall tales with relish – and the genial wink of an eye.
Hector tries to lay low with the nondescript name Rene, but his exploits supersede mere nomenclature. Napoleon spared his life after losing track of Hector's political prison sentence, but doomed the erstwhile Count of Sainte-Hermine to a humbling role as a workaday soldier.
No matter. Hector shines wherever he goes, a zealous Zelig with courage to spare. He arrives on the cusp of the Battle of Trafalgar and kills Lord Nelson, the lone highlight in a day of loss for the French navy.
"The Last Cavalier" suffers from digression and disquisition – a malady common to Dumas novels. It's worth remembering that Dumas regularly wrote bloated serials in part because he was a prodigious storyteller and in part because he was a prodigious spender, eternally on the brink of bankruptcy. Dumas could best be described as the Stephen King of his day. (That is, if Stephen King had a retinue of mistresses and used Enron's accountants to look after his millions.)
Surely Dumas would appreciate the irony that it was his impassioned defense of a passage written about Josephine Bonaparte's profligate spending in "The Last Cavalier" that led Schopp to rediscover the novel at all.
No one with a pulse will be able to resist Dumas' lost classic, though its epic grandeur suffers a bit because it lacks an ending. It just stops. If nothing else, that frustrating lack of finality offers fitting tribute to this tireless storyteller.
Only death could silence Dumas.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.