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Monday, 23 March 2015

Bill Richmond bookshelf: The Black Count by Tom Reiss


Over the next few months I’ll be taking the time to review some of the books, articles and research facilities which I have found useful during the decade-long process of researching and writing Richmond Unchained. So far in the series I have looked at Peter Fryer's Staying Power, Pierce Egan’s  Boxiana and the biographies of Tom Cribb and Tom Spring penned by Jon Hurley. Today I examine The Black Count, Tom Reiss' account of the life and times of General Alexandre Dumas, a talented soldier in Revolutionary France and father of one of the greatest storytellers of all time ...

The Black Count is a somewhat unusual choice of book for my 'Bill Richmond bookshelf' series, as it is a volume with no direct connection to Georgian boxing or, indeed, to Richmond himself.

True, the events of The Black Count take place within the same period of history as Richmond Unchained (Dumas was born in 1762, the year before Richmond), but the real link between this book and mine is in its purpose and intent - Tom Reiss set out to resurrect the reputation of a hitherto unjustly neglected figure from 'black history', and my aim with Richmond Unchained is exactly the same.

When I first read The Black Count in 2013, I had been researching Bill Richmond's life for ten years. I had always intended to write up my research into a full-length biography but, truth be told, I had allowed that ambition to drift and there was a very real danger that I was not going to get around to writing the book for several more years, if at all.

Reiss's passion to ensure Dumas's story was told and his remarkable life was appropriately honoured was infectious. Reading his book shook me out of my creative torpor; so consummately crafted was the narrative and so vivid, yet unpretentious, was Reiss's prose that I was immediately inspired to craft my Richmond research into a book proposal.  If I hadn't read The Black Count, I might still be sitting on my research and Richmond Unchained might still be unwritten ...

Anyway, that's more than enough egotistical self-reflection! Let's get back to the book at hand ...

The central figure of The Black Count is General Alexandre Dumas, a remarkable, larger-than-life man who was born in Saint Domingue in 1762 to a white French father and a black female slave. The mixed-race Dumas moved to France as a teenager and later enlisted in the army, ultimately rising from the rank of private to the heights of divisional general, playing a vital and prominent role in the Revolutionary Wars, and winning a reputation for military brilliance and bravery. He also fathered one of the greatest story-tellers of all time - a son, also named Alexandre, among whose works were immortal tales such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

Dumas senior was a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte and the connection and relationship between these two mighty men lies at the heart of the book, and provides it with plenty of its narrative energy. I won't spoil the book by giving away any more than that, but suffice it to say that Reiss's handling of the parallel lives of the two men, and how they intersect, is masterfully crafted as, indeed, is the whole book.

Reiss possesses an enviable talent for combining the rigour of a top historian with the narrative sweep of a master thriller writer. Combining these two forms within one book is a challenging feat that he accomplishes with aplomb. Impressively, he avoids the banality of lowest common denominator history and also ensures that he does not succumb to the breathless clichés of a paperback hack. The book is compulsive and thrilling, yet also possesses intellectual substance.

Ultimately, this is a book that deserves the accolade of 'masterpiece' because it works on so many levels: as biography, as a historical detective story, as a military thriller and as social and cultural comment. Many books of such technical brilliance fail to pack an emotional punch, yet, as well its immaculate word-craft, The Black Count is also infused with love. Indeed, it is, on a philosophical level, a compelling treatise on the importance of memory and love, and their interconnected nature.

Reiss's deep love of his subject shines through the entire book, yet he never falls into the trap of hagiography. However, the most touching demonstration of love within the book is the love of Dumas, the novelist, for his father, the great soldier - the love of a son for a man who, tragically, he barely ever knew. Through his painstaking research, Reiss advances the theory that Dumas used the pages of his novels to resurrect his father's memory and bring his spirit to glorious life, not only for himself but also for millions of readers.

This is a personal mission that Reiss honours nobly; indeed, he admits that he was inspired to write the book in the first place because of his own childhood memory of a vivid passage from Dumas' memoirs about his father. As he movingly explains towards the beginning of the book:

"To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget. The villains of The Count of Monte Cristo do not murder the hero, Edmund Dantès - they have him thrown in a dungeon where he is forgotten by the world. The heroes of Dumas never forget anything or anyone: Dantès has a perfect memory for the details of every field of human knowledge, for the history of the world and for everyone he has encountered in his life. When he confronts them one by one, he finds that the assassins of his identity have forgotten the very fact that he existed, and thus the fact of their crime.

I undertook the project of reconstructing the life of the forgotten hero General Alexandre Dumas because of that passage in his son's memoirs, which I read when I was a boy and have always remembered."

The Black Count stands as a beautiful epitaph for two great and charismatic men, both named Alexandre Dumas. It is an essential book for anyone with an interest in history, literature, the bonds between fathers and sons and the vital importance for all human beings of remembrance and love.

In short, it is a book for anyone with a pulse ... or, most important of all, a heart.

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