Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Black Count - Tom Reiss

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte CristoThe Black Count was another book I was reading as catch-up for the online book club over at The Deliberate Reader, but I was also planning on doing a "Read This, Then That" with it and The Count of Monte Cristo (also read for book club catch-up) because, uhm, the subtitle of The Black Count is "Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo."  Unfortunately, that didn't work out so hot, for a couple of reasons.

The Black Count is supposed to be a biography of Alex Dumas, father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who served in the army during the French Revolutionary era.  Reiss tries to make the argument that it was Alex Dumas' experiences that inspired The Count of Monte Cristo, but honestly, after read the whole book, I can only see a few tenuous connections; the strongest points of influence don't even have to do with a Dumas/Edmond Dantes connection, but rather in general constructions and side characters.  The only connection between the two directly is that Alex Dumas was imprisoned for two years.  Edmond Dantes was imprisoned for fourteen.  But whereas Dantes was thrown into prison because he'd been framed, Dumas was imprisoned because he was an actual prisoner of war and had made the mistake of winding up in a territory that was at war with the revolutionary French Republic that he served.  So honestly, I don't think that "Alex Dumas inspired Edmond Dantes!" is an argument that holds water; Reiss even quotes Alexandre Dumas in the prologue of the book, from when the novelist said that he was inspired by a news article about a serial killer and added a revenge plot to bulk it up when he wrote the book.  But that doesn't mean that this book was bad... just wasn't, predominantly, about Alex Dumas.  The first several chapters build up the Dumas family history, it's true, but after that the focus of the book turns largely to the French Revolution as a whole, and with a particular focus on the time when Napoleon was rising to power.  Reiss' main goal actually seems to be to illustrate what a jerk Napoleon was, and he uses Dumas to illustrate that point rather than to actually tell Dumas' story in and of itself.  I think it was an interesting book--I wrote my senior thesis for university on the French Revolution, and particularly on the noyades de Nantes, the mass mass drownings that Reiss mentions briefly here, but I actually hadn't known about a lot of the Napoleonic parts that Reiss goes into.  This is probably because no one really knows whether to properly include Napoleon in the main Revolution or not, and so it gets a bit jumbled up when it's taught.  I learned a lot on those aspects, and about things that happened outside of Paris, which, again, classes don't typically go into.  But once the revolution actually gets underway, Dumas himself really falls into the background as Reiss lets us know about everything else going on, so I think putting this forth as a book that's really about Dumas is a bit of a stretch.

So, overall, an interesting history book...but a biography, or something about the "real" Count of Monte Cristo?  I think not.

3.5 stars out of 5.

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