The Black Count : Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

The Prologue to The Black Count, opens on 26 February 1806, the night General Alexandre Dumas died. The General’s son, Alexandre, was just four years old and away from home for the night. The young boy woke and felt on his face a comforting breath as if his father had exhaled before taking leave of the world.

Later the boy — Alexandre Dumas — was to become one of the most well known and loved novelists of the nineteenth century best remembered for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas would write: “I worshipped my father … I love him still with as deep and as true a love as if he had watched over my youth and I’d had his blessing to go from child to man leaning on his powerful arm.”

There is something captivating and heartwarming about a son’s love for his father and with that story, from the very first page of The Black Count, it is as though Reiss is shining a lantern into the eighteenth century illuminating with life and color a cast of characters who live their lives at most interesting moment in French history.

“To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas,” Tom Reiss tells us. And it is the novelist’s memory of his father that first intrigued Reiss and led him to investigate the life and career of General Alexandre Dumas. The Black Count tells the story of the General’s life, from his boyhood and early career to his development into a strikingly handsome, swashbuckling and successful military hero who led his soldiers to victory in the name of France.

Unusually for a man in his position, General Dumas was of mixed race. His military career spans the last years of eighteenth century France including the French Revolution and continues through the Napoleonic wars. Perhaps because of his background, Dumas had “thrown his life and soul fully behind the Revolution”, Reiss explains, suggesting that: “In a world where men of his color were slaves, revolutionary France was his promised land, even if he had to share it with some unsavory characters.”

Reiss draws on primary sources and presents excerpts from letters, memoirs and other documents to powerful and dramatic effect as he describes in color and detail historic events in which Dumas played a significant role. For all that The Black Count is a tale of wars and sword fights, of swashbuckle and history, it is also an intensely human story where, for example, Dumas has moments when he is struck down by depression which seems oddly modern until Reiss explains that “there was a well-established belief in the eighteenth century that depression was the cause of everything from infections to heart disease and cancer.” Similarly, the importance of family relationships, the love of Dumas for his wife, his daughters and son make him seem quite a contemporary figure as does his empathy for his compatriots. In 1796, for example, while with the Army in Italy, he writes of a soldier “unworthy to be called a Frenchman” and notes at the end of an arrest order: “You will also warn the hussars of that detachment that all the requisitions that they had the impudence to make in my name are void, and that all the cattle which have been taken must be returned immediately to their owners …”

Reiss’s passion for history is evident and his use of primary sources adds drama and color to The Black Count. The result is a cracking good story with plenty of notes and additional sources that will appeal to historians as well as fans of Alexandre Dumas’s novels and may well inspire readers to continue to explore this exciting and interesting period of French history.

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is published by Crown publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-0-307-38246-7; eISBN 978-307-95295-0.

An advance review copy was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Perhaps the greatest human achievement, Paul Auster suggests, is to be lovable at the end of life when the body is failing and indignities abound.

Winter Journal begins as a memoir of the body but moves through physical experience to maturity and acceptance in an essentially existentialist reflection on life from the perspective of middle age. Perhaps best described as a hymn to humanity, in Winter Journal Auster presents a meditation on existence that focuses on the individual to explore universal experience.

Notwithstanding a plethora of lists — the many places a body finds itself over the course of a lifetime, the houses Auster lived in at different times, the candies he liked as a child — Winter Journal is more meditative than narrative. Its focus is on the universal truth that each of us inhabits a single body for our time on earth — a body that is our constant companion when we are three years old and studying the insects at our feet and when we are sixty three and beset by the physical ailments of aging, a body that carries forward our childhood scars, our memories  and the multitude of mundane physical experiences that we share with all humanity.

Intensely human, Winter Journal is also profoundly personal as Auster shares details of the panic attacks he endured following the death of his mother and describes the guilt he still feels for failing to confront an uncle who was rude to a mourner at his father’s funeral.

There are insights into the writer’s life — from accounts of making a space to write in the various places that he lived to a  description of the role that watching dancers played in releasing his writer’s block just before his father’s death and, later,  how he uses walking as a means to “bring the words” to his writing.

Winter Journal is written in the second person thereby allowing Auster to speak directly to his younger self while at the same time creating an intimacy with the reader. Relatively short at just 240 pages, this is an intelligent and reflective everyman memoir that will strike a chord with many readers — particularly older readers who will find much to identify with in Auster’s poetic prose.

An advance reader’s edition was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.

True Compass – A Memoir by Edward M Kennedy

Like most Irish people, I have always had an interest in Edward M Kennedy or Ted Kennedy and his famous brothers.

Indeed, any Irish child of  the sixties will have memories of the Kennedys. Few other families can claim to have influenced history in quite the same way as the Irish American Kenndy clan – the glamour, the tragedy, the flawed greatness. And Edward M Kennedy was no exception. Whatever you think of the mistakes he made throughout his life, it is hard not to respect his attempts to learn from them. True Compass: A Memoir starts a little shakily and you have sense of it being written at speed but as he gets into his stride – and particularly in the chapters where he talks about John F Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Nixon, Carter and Clinton – you can’t help but be fascinated by Edward M Kennedy’s view. He is an intelligent and sharp observer and has some interesting insights. This Edward M Kennedy memoir makes me want to read more about that period. If you are dithering over whether to buy this or not, I don’t hesitate to recommend it. I found it readable and interesting.