I was thrilled when I learned that Alexandre Dumas would be touring The Classics Circuit this spring.
You see, I have been intending to pick up his books for ages, and yet I never have. I fully expected to love them, but they are so big, the commitment seemed so huge.
But at the end of last year I decided that it was time. That in 2010 I would read The Count of Monte Christo. I wasn’t brave enough to commit to that book for this tour, but I looked for a shorter book. A book that would act as a warm-up, getting me used to the style and enthusing me before I picked up the big book.
I knew that the Hesperus Press had a little book that would fit the bill. One Thousand and One Ghosts is just one hundred and sixty-four pages long in their edition!
It is, I think, a book with a lot to say about that period, but by knowledge of French history is rather sketchy and so it’s difficult for me to say how effective that is.
An unnamed narrator – later revealed to be Dumas himself – is visiting an old friend in the country. He leaves the company to explore his surroungs, and in time he arrives in the local village.
And that’s where the real story begins. He sees a man, clearly disturbed and drenched with blood. Stunned, he watches as the man approaches the village mayor, and declares that he has murdered his wife.
Dumas is caught up in the story as a police witness.
The man is plainly terrified and determined that he must be imprisoned. And equally determined that he will not, as the law requires, accompany the police to the scene of the crime as the law requires.
After much pressure the man declares that that after beheading his wife with a sword while she knelt in the cellar to get wine from the barrel, he picked up his wife’s head and she bit him on the hand and wouldn’t let go! And then when he did put the head down it did let go – to say: “You wretch! I was innocent!”
The mayor, the only person who believes the man’s story, invites Dumas to his home. The talk, quite naturally, turns to the remarkable events of the day, and members of the company tell stories of their own experiences of the strange and supernatural. Wonderful, diverse stories, and the revolution and the guillotine are significant in each one.
Dumas leaves, but the stories stay with him.
One Thousand and One Ghosts is a strange little book.
There are lots of loose ends. What happened to the house party? What happened in the murder case? What happenened when all the stories were told? I have no idea. But it didn’t matter – I was swept along by the wonderful drama and storytelling.
And that drama and storytelling carried me through as the book evolved from a record of a visit to the country, to a crime story, to a gothic tale, to a portmanteau novel of the supernatural …
Yes, the pages kept turning and I loved the journey. But there was one thing missing. Characters. The pages were full of people, they spoke, they acted, they reacted, but I could find nothing of their hearts and minds. Difficult of course, in what is effectively a series of short stories and a framing story, to fit everything in.
Is that a fatal flaw in Dumas’s writing I wonder? I do hope not, because there was so much to enjoy in this little book: great storytelling, high drama, fine prose, a real flavour of the period…
Time to visit some other tour stops and find out!
Translated by Andrew Brown