Friday, January 11, 2013

Acté by Alexandre Dumas

Too much fact, not enough fiction
Acté, also known as Acté of Corinth, originally published in 1838, was the first historical novel written by Alexandre Dumas. The story takes place about AD 54, and opens in the Greek city of Corinth. Greece has fallen from the heights of its classical glory, and is now a colony of the Roman Empire. Acté, a beautiful Corinthian maiden, is gathering wildflowers along the seashore when a boat lands upon the beach. A handsome, dashing Roman steps ashore and is immediately bewitched by the Greek beauty. He has come to Corinth to compete in games of wrestling, chariot racing, and poetry. Over the course of his stay he sweeps the young girl off her feet, and when he departs he carries Acté back to Rome with him. Upon arrival in the imperial capital, she is shocked and dismayed to discover that her lover is none other than the ruler of the world himself, the Emperor Nero.

Acté was a real person, a mistress of Nero’s. In fact, every character in this novel is an actual figure from Roman history, with the possible exception of the most minor servants and soldiers. Dumas’s knowledge of Roman history and mythology is stunning. Each sentence positively drips with references to gods, legends, or historic personages from ancient times. In keeping with the tastes of his day, Dumas presents a Rome that’s relentlessly romanticized, populated by characters that seem as if they were carved out of marble. This picturesque portrayal will prove a bit off-putting to contemporary readers that favor a grittier, bloodier, sexier vision of Rome.

In his desire to accurately detail all the historical facts, Dumas ends up being a slave to the history rather than an interpreter of it. Several of the chapters read like non-fiction and carry about as much drama as a Wikipedia entry. When Acté meets up with a band of Christians, for instance, Dumas feels the need to summarize the entire New Testament. At about the three-quarter mark, Acté disappears from the narrative entirely, and we are provided with a multi-chapter account of the downfall of Nero. What’s lacking throughout is a little poetic license. The cleverly intricate plotting, the emotional drama, and the sense of humor Dumas showcases in masterpieces like The Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers books are absent from this book. The best chapter of Acté features a gladiatorial exhibition that is absolutely riveting. If the rest of the book had lived up to the standard of that chapter, this would have been a great novel.

This novel was the inspiration for another famous work of literature, the 1895 novel Quo Vadis by Nobel Prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, which tells the story of two fictional Christian characters who suffer Nero’s persecution. Quo Vadis is all around a much better novel than Acté, with a more exciting plot, more engaging characters, and a depiction of ancient Rome that rings truer in the eyes of the contemporary reader.

I’m a big fan of Dumas’s better known novels, and I enjoy stories of ancient Greece and Rome, but here the meeting of the two is hardly a match made in heaven. Though not a bad debut, it bears little resemblance to the excellent novels of the author’s later career. Fans of Dumas or historical fiction in general certainly won’t hate this book. It’s not terrible, merely a bit boring. Overall Acté comes across as a novel that’s competent rather than compelling.

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