Books: Prodigious Belcher

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KING OF PARIS (504 pp.)—Guy Endore —Simon & Schuster ($4).

Three roaring literary lions bestrode the narrow Paris of the mid-19th century. All three wrote enormously, loved widely, spent wildly. Honore de Balzac was the greatest novelist. Victor Hugo was the greatest poet. Alexandre Dumas pere ate the most.

The brothers Goncourt described Dumas once: "a kind of a giant with the hair of a Negro, the salt beginning to mix with the pepper, and with little blue eyes buried in his flesh like those of a hippopotamus, clear and mischievous; and an enormous moon face, exactly the way the cartoonists loved to draw him . . . You at once the showman of freaks and prodigies, the vendor of wonders; the traveling salesman for the Arabian nights." At all hours of the day and night, Dumas shoveled food into himself as into a coke furnace. Groaning from violent stomach cramps and unable to sleep, Dumas had no option but to go to work "with both hands, one hand writing as fast as it could, while the other was massaging his belly and coaxing from deep within him one lugubrious belch after another." His doctor put him on a diet (cold beef, olive oil, milk, cucumber salad, thrice daily, with hot chocolate between meals), but Dumas' eructations were so little lessened that he returned to his favorite, bouillabaisse. Dumas cooked this dish himself and liked to down six helpings of it at a sitting. A doctor who partook of it once spooned some of the juice into his pocket flask, explaining he could use it to scorch off warts.

The reality of the great Dumas' life was so fantastic that Dumas' friends and enemies caught its contagion and piled reams of further fantasy upon it. Dumas' chest really was covered with medals (of what orders, he never cared), so up sprang the legend that if Dumas were spun round, further rows were revealed dangling from his back. He wrote with such rapidity that people refused to believe that he wrote at all—Dumas, they said, was just the pen name of a five-man syndicate. Dumas (who loved to out-legend his own legends) denied this. "My valet," he said, "used to write [my books] for me, but he now pretends that he is also capable of signing them with his own name, so of course I had to dismiss him."

As a result it is almost impossible to know what is true or false about most of Dumas' life. His autobiography is no help: over 1,000,000 words in length, it covers only the early years of his career. Now Scriptwriter Guy Endore (who, according to his blurb, "reminded his classmates of the young Shelley") solves the problem by arguing that the legends help to reveal the man. He has collected them all into a gigantic bouillabaisse of a book which gives the impression of being organized by an excited jackdaw. It is called a novel, presumably to allow the author to use any colorful incident he chose without the hampering need for accuracy. The fact that Dumas survives Author Endore's treatment is decisive proof that even a bad biography cannot destroy a really great man.

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