by Alexandre Dumas
translated by Tina A. Kover
2007 (originally 1843) • 336 pages • Modern Library
You may have recently seen that The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones recently wrote an article about how the late Terry Pratchett was not a genius—where he cops to never reading Pratchett in his entire life before calling his work trash and not real literature. I’m not linking you to it, dear reader, because I want your day to go well, and also because we’ve been here a thousand times at the screeching ghostly foothills of the false dichotomy of high and low culture. To reiterate: the line between high culture and pop culture is largely imaginary and constructed mostly of ideas of whose work really counts (which is why dead old white guys are vastly overrepresented in the Western canon, a thing also agreed upon by dead old white guys.)
Case in point: Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest writers in history, wrote a scene where a man fights a shark. It’s all art, baby.
Georges is one of Dumas’ most little-known works—so little-known that even some of his most devout English-speaking fans didn’t know it existed. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who both found Dumas and the relative racial freedom of France inspirational as writers of color, never seem to have read or heard of it. And Frederick Douglass, who loved Dumas’ work enough to make sure to see Dumas-related sites around France while visiting, criticized Dumas for never writing about race. Sometimes, there’s an air of gatekeeping around works in translation—there’s certainly something suspicious in the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo is so accessible to English speakers that it’s in American public domain but Georges is not.
Or was not, although it still remains more of a footnote in Dumas’ lengthy, lengthy bibliography. Published after slavery was abolished in Mauritius, where the novel is set, but before slavery was abolished in France, Georges is the story of Georges Munier, a mixed race man who returns to the island after being educated in Europe and having adventures all over the world. Despite being able to settle down comfortably wherever he chooses, his hatred of racial prejudice has made him determined to return to Mauritius and avenge the wrongs done to his peaceful father by the island’s wealthiest family, the Malmédies. He settles on dueling Henri de Malmédie and wooing his cousin, the beautiful Sara, but Henri refuses to duel him. When he discovers that Maritius’ slaves are planning a rebellion, he realizes that he has been thinking too small. But will the rebellion succeed?
Georges is classic, pure Dumas, which, to me, feels largely like falling into a pleasantly hot, fever-inducing bath. Intrigue! Excitement! Action! Adventure! Georges has balls, sea battles, and animal fights; willful young women who ride like Amazons, heroes capable of great feats of strength, and a wry, authorial voice. Tina A. Kover’s translation is clean and practically invisible, even going so far as to point out a joke—Jacques’ second-in-commend is nicknamed Ironhead in French, which Kover helpfully translates before reverting to his French name in the rest of the text. There’s even a glorious description of moonlight that veers, as Dumas rarely but welcomely does, into dark beauty:
Night had fallen with frightening speed, but flashes of lightning illuminated the sky so brilliantly and so often that the island was flooded with an eerie bluish light, which gave everything to cadaverous color of the bygone worlds Byron had visited on Cain, under the direction of Satan himself. (146)
The joy of seeing Dumas tackle race with his usual aplomb, though, doesn’t mean that Georges is the most progressive text on race, especially by modern standards. Yes, it is about a family of three men who all deal with their race differently. Pierre has internalized racism to the point that he finds it difficult to stand up to white men even in the most clear-cut situations; Georges treats the fight against racial prejudice as the great battle of his life; and Jacques is a slave trader. It is wonderful and it is welcome to see a classic novel deal with race so plainly. Georges gets to be a swashbuckling Dumas hero (there is literally, according to the narrator, no force on earth that can stop Georges), you root for a slave rebellion to win, and the story ends with an interracial couple firmly intact.
But there’s also the persistent idea that people of color are inherently warlike, childlike, and animal-like. No matter how much effort Dumas puts into showing that the Muniers are noble and capable, that’s haunted by the stereotypical behavior accorded anyone darker than the Muniers. (Georges is always described as very light-skinned.) There are plenty of scenes that try to derive humor from that, and plenty of scenes that reassure the reader that the Muniers are the kindest and most gentle slave owners that ever lived.The entire slave rebellion, so painfully planned out by the former slave Laïza and Georges, fails because the governor puts out barrels of rum and the majority of the slaves get drunk because they can’t help themselves. And, while Dumas does use Mauritius’ more international setting to explain things like the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, he also exoticizes other cultures wholesale.
It’s disappointing, to be sure; there’s a lot to unpack here, although, as a white woman, I am not the best person to do that. I really wish I could have seen Hughes, Wright, and Douglass respond to this novel, and look forward to reading any criticism of the novel I come across. But it still holds a very specific place in literary history, and I’m glad to have read it.
(Lastly and not actually related to the text at hand, why on earth is this Achille Devéria sketch not Dumas’ official author photo? He looks suspiciously foxy in it.)
I rented this book from the public library.