Yay! Not only have I finished reading this behemoth, which took me forever (not entirely the fault of the book, I should make clear), but I’ve even, finally, finished writing a review of it!
But, first, a WARNING! – I always try to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but I found that really hard this time. I have still refrained from any detailed or specific spoilers about the plot, particularly its conclusion. However, I have assumed that after 173 years of high publicity, literally hundreds of stage, film, TV, graphic novel and musical adaptations (IMDB lists 200 screen works with “Monte Cristo” in the name; some are allusions or individual episodes or coincidence, but then there’ll be a bunch of other adaptations without that specific name in the title (Japanese versions ususally call it something else, for instance); even Wikipedia lists nearly 40 notable ones), not to mention sequels, prequels, and reimaginings, in dozens of languages (there have been 116 years of Japanese adaptations alone!)… well, I’m hoping that the broad, general, no-names-mentioned outline of what the novel is about will not be a spoiler for most of you. That said, if you want to remain completely, utterly, unimpeachably unspoiled and an entirely blank slate for your first reading of the book, read no further! And, I’d suggest, go and live in a cave somewhere until you get around to reading it, because otherwise I don’t know how you’re going to avoid these spoilers…
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Let’s begin with a compliment: The Count of Monte Cristo is one of those books it is impossible to label satisfactorily. Some books are good; some books are bad; Cristo is… well, you really have to read it to find out. At times, I thought it little more than dross. At other times, pure genius. It is riddled with flaws that undermine its brilliance… but it’s not entirely clear to me which flaws could be improved upon, and which are essential to the novel’s angular, singular nature.
Let’s start with what the novel is, and isn’t. The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel of revenge, in which a terribly wronged man, finding himself through luck and excellence in a position of power and wealth, decides to gain revenge on those who have wronged him. It’s an old story, with many imitators.
And it’s totally not the point.
Cristo isn’t, in the end, really a revenge tale at all. That’s why, for example, it is so little interested in the psychology of the revenant Dantès, who for most of the action of the novel is a masked enigma.
Instead, it’s… well, maybe it is a revenge story. But it’s not Dantès taking revenge – it’s the reader. Dumas creates a world his readers would have known intimately – a detailed, Parisian world, that seeks to take in all aspects of the society of his time. There is old Monfort, the military man (part of the “nobility of the cannon”, the upwardly-mobile cadre promoted through the wars of Napoleon and his successors). There is young Monfort, the trivial and high-strung rich dandy. There is Villefort, the iron man of the law. There is Danglars, prince of the new class of bankers and financial speculators. Beauchamp, the journalist; Château-Renaud, last of the old aristocracy; Debray, the apparatchik. The women, too, all seeking different ways of asserting independence (the villainnesses, that is – the real heroines, obviously, delight in childlike obedience…). There are bakers and inn-keepers, Corsicans and psychopaths, smugglers and brigands and soldiers, lesbians and paraplegics and harem-slaves… it’s not just so much a cast of characters as a miniature portrait of the world.
And above the world, there is God, and/or Satan: The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas makes repeated references to the story of “The Limping Devil”, in which Asmodeus accompanies a human around a city at night, removing rooftops so that the human witness can behold the depravities that take place behind respectable walls; in Cristo, the demon does not merely watch, but judges. Dantès, in the form of the Count, transforms himself into a God: he blesses the (extremely few) good, and destroys the (far more numerous) evil in a shameless piece of wish-fulfillment for the reader. [similarly, Dumas indulges in double-edged wealth-porn throughout, to both titillate his reader with riches and power, and to embitter them against those who unjustly possess these things when the reader does not].
That makes this a very different sort of novel from what we may be expecting. Because God is not an understandable character: she is a plot device. The Count emerges from out of the machine (largely off-screen), and procedes to Move in Mysterious Ways, remaining remote and inscrutable to both his fellow characters and to us as readers. This is the genius of the novel: in creating a being who is just as beyond the understanding of the reader as he is beyond that of those around him, Dumas is able not only to fascinate, but also to scare – the reader is left not understanding what has been set in motion, and unsure of how far it may proceed, without the usual comforting boundaries set by a familiar protagonist and a decorous author. That Dumas is able to do this at all is impressive; that he is able to do so in a novel of 1844 is shocking.
But to get that far, we have to set the story up, and here Dumas has great difficulty – and great ingenuity. In essence, the novel has four sections: in the first, the character of Dantès is established, through his own eyes; in the second, we are introduced to the character of the Count of Monte Cristo, primarily through the eyes of Franz d’Épinay; in the third, Monte Cristo arrives in Paris and sets about accomplishing his revenge; and the fourth tidies up loose ends.
It’s an ingenious plan indeed, because the second section breaks the continuity of the theoretical protagonist, and introduces us to the count the way that the outside world sees him. It also helps to create the atmosphere of paranoia and confusion that pervades the book: at first we see only peripheral glimpses of the Count, before he comes gradually fully into focus in the third section, and it is never entirely clear what is, or what is not, the Count’s handiwork, and what is authentic “reality” (in the sense of natural events unfolding without the machinations of an unseen hand). Dumas goes so far as to hurl seemingly irrelevent and unconnected things at us, making each chapter its own little story – some of which are plot-relevent, some of which are thematic foreshadowing, and some of which are just red herrings.
But the downside of this is that the novel is achingly slow to get going – in my 900-page copy, it takes 300 pages before the main story starts – and it reads less as a cunningly elliptical plot and more as an author who has no idea where he’s headed and is just writing whatever comes to mind at the moment. Bizarrely, not only is the Italian setting of the second section almost completely abandoned (just like the Marseille setting of the first section), but the protagonist we spend (in my copy) more than a hundred very-small-print pages getting to know, Franz, is then almost completely dropped for the rest of the novel (indeed, while people frequently talk about his impending re-entry into the plot, when he does arrive it’s a complete anticlimax). I have no idea why Dumas would do this! It’s one thing to abruptly shift away from one protagonist to another, but at least make him vaguely important later in the novel! Or, failing that, at least return to him as a protagonist for a little hindsight at the end!
Now, many of the (unending number of!) adaptations of the story simple drop the Italian section altogether, and from what I’ve said here, you can see why. Indeed, it seems as though most modern editions of the novel cut out that section, forming an abridged version nearly 100,000 words shorter. In a novel of nearly half a million words, being able to save that many words while barely impacting the plot seems like an understandable temptation for anyone who wants people to actually read this thing. 100,000 words is an entire novel in its own right, by today’s standards. And yet… and yet, something is lost in doing this. Transitioning straight from Marseille to Paris makes the novel rather less puzzling and off-putting, and removes much of the sense of anticipation that we get from seeing what sort of a man the Count is in Italy, and wondering what his plans are for Paris. It also robs the novel of Franz, which is a shame in its own right as he’s one of its most likeable characters, but also because although he plays little part later on, he is tangentially involved in the plot, and the fact that the reader knows more about Franz than the characters do is important in shaping our emotional reactions. More importantly, several elements of the Italian section are mirrored in the final, wrapping-up section, so that cutting out this ‘diversion’ takes away some of the pleasing symmetry of the construction (not to mention that it would take away all the groundwork that actually explains what happens at the end).
Indeed, I’d almost be more tempted to cut out the first section of the novel, and give us no sense of Dantès at all until we meet the Count. After all, the details of the first section matter little, and are mostly dull to read through – a man alone in a small stone cell is not a fascinating tale. Indeed, this would fit to a considerable degree with the style of the novel, in which many key events are revealed only through the narration of characters long after the facts – couldn’t Dantès’ own story likewise be one of these tales? [Given how many adaptations there are, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that at least one, a Japanese anime version, does indeed apparently cut out the first section in this way].
And yet, of course, that too would do serious damage to the work, or at least turn it into something quite different: without the early section, the Count in the rest of the novel is just a Macchiavellian villain, albeit one with a backstory. We need the detail, and the emotional engagement, to be able to see the Count as anything even vaguely sympathetic.
But it’s not just structuring that makes the first half of the novel heavy going. It takes a long time to get used to Dumas’… style. To see it, that is, as a style, and not just irritating incompetence as a writer.
Because by the standards of modern writing, a lot of this is frankly rubbish. Dumas’ prose is weighty and unreasonably convoluted, and prone to pretensions of grandeur; now and then this throws up a striking metaphor or powerful turn of phrase – but it’s a half-a-million-word novel, you’d darn well hope there’d be a couple of dozen good lines in the thing. More often, it makes brief scenes drag, and lengthy scenes interminable, particularly as he does not seem able to moderate his tone to meet the circumstances. The dialogue is worse – fair enough as polite-society masquerade, but struggling when it tries to move beyond that. Most difficult, as regards prose, are the extended sections of second-hand narration, in which Dumas seemingly forgets that he is writing words for the mouth of a character, and procedes to narrate in his own ornate author’s voice, even when the speaker is, say, a Corsican smuggler.
It creates an air of unreality that pervades the whole style of the novel. Quite a lot of chapters take place at the opera, and perhaps the book could best be understood as an opera in prose. And I don’t mean Donizetti (which we see in Rome) or Rossini (in Paris): we’re talking full-on Meyerbeer, complete with superfluous ballets. Emotions are heightened to ridiculous levels; characters even give soliloquys to the audience! Except that they don’t know they’re giving soliloquys. Dumas doesn’t dare be as experimental as that. No, the characters can only convey their feelings by talking out loud, and he frequently can’t think of anyone to have them talk to, so they just deliver paragraphs of muttering in front of witnesses who apparently don’t notice what they’re saying (which, to be fair, may not have been unrealistic given how little attention anyone in the novel pays to anyone else: at the opera, for instance, everyone just talks, even shouts, right over the performance, until they get to the bits with a fashionable celebrity singing their famous song). It’s part of a more general disinterest in the mechanics of who is standing where throughout – several times, two people have a conversation openly in front of other characters who surely aren’t meant to hear this, and at least once some people in a scene, having become irrelevent, simply vanish off the face of the earth without comment.
The same disregard is shown to continuity. Dumas often seems to be writing off the top of his head, and several times he either forgets what he’s written before, or just changes his mind. A character knows Spanish one chapter, and doesn’t know it the next; one character’s mother’s name changes between one chapter and the next, and so on. Dumas frequently gives dates, to anchor his story firmly in the reality of his day – but he has no interest in having those dates match one another (which would take diligence), or to have the dates and the historical references actually line up (which would take research, and who really cares who was king twenty years ago?). The first words of the entire novel are a specific date… and it’s a specific date that almost immediately contradicts the facts of the novel, despite the fact that it’s in about the most famous period then-recent French history (around and about the Hundred Days). Dumas simply picked a date and only later realised that he was a week or two out from where he needed to be… so just changed the dates accordingly later in the novel, and never bothered going back to actually edit the omnibus edition.
These continuity errors are minor – almost all of them are only apparent if you read the endnotes (or are paying a lot of attention and know a lot about French history). But it is… unsettling. Not just for the author’s laziness, but also because it undermines the rest of the novel. In a tale of lies and confusion, it’s important to be able to tell when an incongruity is significant, and when it’s just the author not bothering to keep notes!
Now, some sins have to be laid at the door of the translation and the publisher. This translation is… well, let’s be charitable and say it doesn’t fully let the text speak unimpeded to the modern reader. Maybe it was fine in its day… but it’s an impediment now. The word choice is not just ornate, but at times awkward – this is a translation in which people at least occasionally “ejaculate”, rather than “say” – as words have subtly shifted their meanings and connotation. Preposition use, in particular, is often subtly different from that of today, giving the whole thing the impression of a translation by someone who can make themselves understood, but who is not quite a native speaker – which may well be the case, for all I know. This edition – Wordsworth Classics – gives no indication as to the origin of its translation, but research online suggests that, like almost all English editions, this is an anonymous English translation first published in 1846.
Of course, some people might like the more archaic writing style of an 1840s translation; they may be fans of 19th century literature (though even then, this is far from the most accomplished writing of its day), or they may feel that this is closer to the experience a modern French reader might have reading Dumas’ original. And it’s true that there are passages of antique power here. But this is a novel almost half a million words in length, and, to be blunt, it would really help if the translation didn’t make every sentence marginally more difficult to understand than it needs to be. Most of the time, no particular sentence poses any distinct and noticeable problem to the reader; but the cumulative effect of so much extra work, over such a mass of text, does perceptibly add up. It’s the difference between a walk in a pleasant breeze, and a walk into the teeth of a gale: at any given moment, you may not have to lean too hard into the wind, you may not notice any great expenditure of effort, you may even enjoy the little challenge – but over the course of a long hike, a certain exhaustion does set in. And the issue becomes particularly acute when it comes to dialogue, where the cultural differences are already troublesome. It’s hard enough to understand the fine nuance of a conversational implication when translated from 1840s France to 2010s Britain; when the translation is from 1840s French to 1840s colloquial English idiom (via an anonymous translator of unknown capabilities), and left there for the 2010s reader to interpret for herself, I found myself always, at best, slightly unsure of the fine points of the intended sense, and at times frankly having to make educated guesses about even the overt, superficial meaning of a remark, let alone the ironies and connotations. Now, to be fair, a sense of constant uncertainty as to what’s really going on is pretty much an appropriate atmosphere for this novel, and I’m sure I didn’t miss anything of critical importance (Dumas, whatever his other virtues, is not a subtle writer, and anything significant (and many things that aren’t) is sure to be rephrased and repeated later on). But I can’t help but feel it would have flowed more, been more compelling, been less of a chore in the slower portions, if the translation were actually into, you know, recognisable, pellucid English.
In compensation for the translation, we do get notes, which not only offer some helpful contextual and textual hints (and some eyeball-rollingly obvious ones, but that’s to be expected), translations from Latin and so forth (apparently an 1840s English reader would have been expected not to need help with those), but also at times amusingly point out how stupid the translation is – as when the translator arrives at the same text (a letter) on three or four occasions in the novel, twice very close together, and offers a different translation each time, even though it’s exactly the same letter being read by different characters. It brings a smile, but personally I think I’d have been better served by the note-maker actually emending the text for me. I can understand that completely revising the ancient translation would have been a lengthy, and expensive, task that the cost of the book (free, in my case, which isn’t bad for a 900-page book in a small font) couldn’t possibly justify; but where the translation is so foolish that the editor feels a need to actually make a note to explain it, wouldn’t it be easier just to fix the problem in the text itself? It’s not as though there would be copyright issues. [I suppose there’s a theoretical utility in this approach, to enable schoolchildren to study the exact same text. But really… does it matter? A few words here and there? Does anyone study this in school anymore anyway? Couldn’t they all just get the same revised edition anyway?]
Not, it might be pointed out, that the notes themselves are as sharp as they might be. For example, when “Countess G –” refers to the Count looking like “Lord Ruthven”, and calls him that behind his back, it’s good that the notes point out that Lord Ruthven is the title character in Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, and that Polidori was a friend of Byron. But I had to rely on my own general knowledge to supply the facts that a) “Lord Ruthven”, the vampire, is an unabashed portrait of Byron himself (albeit presumably more vampire-y), and that b) Byron himself used the name “Lord Ruthven” as a pseudonym when travelling. This surely adds a bit of important context that the notes don’t provide! And lest I give the impression of someone too smug and trivia-beladen to need notes: it was only after looking this up online that I realised the really important facts that I did not know, namely c) “Countess G –” is believed to not be a fictional character, but to be the real-life Teresa, Contessa Guiccioli, who actually wrote a notable biography of Byron, and that d) she was sleeping with Byron at the time, and Byron himself called her “Countess G –” in his journals. Come on, guys. When a female character says “he reminds me of Lord Ruthven”, it’s not enough to say “Lord Ruthven is a character in a novel by a friend of Byron” – not when you could be letting us know “Lord Ruthven is Byron, and she used to have sex with Byron”. That kind of changes the connotation, doesn’t it? For one thing, it might suggest that the description is more flattering in intent (“he looks like the hot guy I cheated on my husband with” is different from “he looks like the creepy vampire from that popular novel”), and for another thing the fact that he reminds her of her dead boyfriend kind of puts a different complexion on her slight weirdness about him (rather than just “she’s a bit creeped out by him reminding her of a vampire she read about once”). Even if the scholars aren’t certain about the “G–”/Guiccioli connexion (I’ve no idea whether they are), it seems like it would be a theory worth mentioning!
Anyway, it is what it is. The real issue is the poor quality (at least by modern standards) of the translation itself; yet it’s apparently the same translation used in virtually all modern English editions. The only exception is that some recent Penguin editions use a new translation by Buss, which the internet tells me is universally believed to flow much more easily, while still remaining faithful to the style of Dumas. So unless you have a specific fetish for 1840’s writing, I’d suggest you get that one instead (and it does also have notes). I would say I was unfortunate to have this one, except that frankly, I’m kind of lucky to have actually found an intact copy at all, since so many editions rip out hundreds of pages in barely-advertised ‘abridgements’.
The 1840’s translation also apparently had to censor the novel for the English market, removing some explicitness regarding the lesbianism in the original text. This is a little intriguing, because in this edition the lesbianism is actually handled pretty well – through subtle, teasing hints at first, later become explicit, without ever being explicit. It’s the same way other violations of the (then) social norms are handled, and I quite like it – it makes its points clear in the end, while also letting the reader feel rewarded for paying attention, and feels more realistic than having everything be obvious at once. [Some, of course, would like a far more overt lesbian-romance subplot, either for titilation or out of a desire for representation (etc), and that’s understandable and in some ways a missed opportunity here; but given not only the era but the relatively minor significance of the characters and subplot to the novel, I don’t think that sort of focusing was ever going to be on the cards.] So I’m not sure what the translation might have cut – because I can’t imagine there’s anything actually explicit in the original, since it’s not seemingly explicit about anything. Maybe this edition, while leaving the rest of the translation alone, restores the relevent passages? Maybe not, but I suspect that if so the original presumably is just a little more obvious throughout, which doesn’t seem that important (given that, as noted, we’re presumably talking about subtle background plot vs unsubtle background plot, without significant foregrounding being an option here). Then again… although there’s no ambiguity left by the end, there’s never actually any overt declaration of romantic love by either party, and if that were in the original that would, I think, be an important change in how their story ended. [some might also say that their ending as shown here is homophobic. I think it’s just that nobody escapes from this story without paying some price, even if they’re innocent, and they at least do rather better out of it than many characters do.] But, not having read the original, I don’t know.
Anyway: the sins of the novel are no doubt multiplied by the exigencies of translation, and multiplied again on top of that by the limitations of this particular translation, which, while creating a certain pleasantly musty, cobwebbed tone, more obscures than conveys the content. Nonetheless, Dumas’ original itself certainly seems to have many flaws, in every regard, from the prose (insofar as we can can guess at it through the translation) to the structure and the pacing, to the characterisation (generally minimal in the extreme – the ‘characters’ are more archetypes than individuals, and the fact Dumas withholds any first name from the theoretically primary antagonist is telling), the backstory, the plotting, the thematic coherence, the scene-blocking, and… well, everything. It’s like the man’s never read a good novel and doesn’t know how they work. Which is, of course, true – the models available to Dumas in the early 1840s were limited in the extreme, and there’s a real sense here that the concept of the novel (that this isn’t just an opera on paper!) is itself being discovered as the author goes along.
If those flaws nearly fatally cripple the opening sections of the book, they recur with avengence in the terribly anticlimactic and unpleasantly muddled epilogue section. At root, Dumas here is faced with two problems he simply does not know how to solve: logistically, how to wrap up a threefold plot (the Count’s crusade against the three primary enemies who have wronged him, each of whom represents not only a different sort of failing in contemporary French society, but in some ways even a different sort of novel), plus all its sideplots, plus the ultimate story of Dantès himself, in a way that doesn’t feel haphazard; and how to reconcile the Satanic, amoral frenzy of the central part of the novel with both the innocent Dantès to whom we are originally introduced and, more importantly, the prevailing social norms and ethical expectations of his day – to end his novel satisfactorily, he must both ensure that his protagonist is not defeated, and that good triumphs over evil, but as his protagonist is horribly evil, this poses insurmountable problems.
Regarding the first problem, Dumas bungles it all so terribly that, again, many adaptations for the screen or stage restructure the ending into its more logical fashion. The difficulty is, that Dumas has chosen for his ultimate villain, and hence the final conclusion of the main plot, the least interesting of the three alternatives in every way. Faced with a choice between a character who is not interesting, but with whom the Count has complex and emotionally powerful issues that tie together the entire novel, or a character with whom the Count has no personal connexions and who is peripheral to the plot, but who in his own right presents by far the most compelling and complicated personality in the novel, Dumas takes the overlookable third choice, and centres his story on the one character who is neither significant nor particularly interesting (though he is admittedly entertaining). And then, bafflingly, he devotes almost all the plot to the other two characters, as though saying “now hang on, we can’t deal with you until the endgame…” for no plot-internal reason. It’s pretty much nuts, in terms of writing choices, and it’s just one of many ways in which The Count of Monte Cristo could be held up as an exemplar of how not to write a novel.
[It does have an advantage of allowing the two more interesting wings of the plot to maintain some balance between them, by theoretically promoting a third option over both of them. But this is seemingly accidental and doesn’t really justify the problems with emotional pacing that it causes.]
Similarly, regarding the second problem, Dumas makes the wrong choice, and does it badly. Given his dilemma, the “correct” choice would probably be to pivot – as the Count has been an off-screen or inscrutably present character for much of the novel, he should probably exit stage left, unredeemed yet tragic, while yielding the spotlight to some other, more admirable character. It would violate traditional rules of narrative, but it would probably work well in the context of the novel (indeed, there is some gesture in that direction). Dumas, however, is determined to obey all the rules and grab his happy ending at all costs, by instead trying at last to depict the Count as a good man, transforming the novel’s Iago (or Othello-become-Iago) into poor innocent Desdemona. But he leaves it so late, makes the transformation so Damascene, that it simply rings false (and takes a few creepy and unpleasant turns, leaving a bad aftertaste for modern readers, to get there) – and worse, hollow. Really any moral outcome for the Count is feasible – good, bad, or ugly – but if he wants to go for ‘good’ he needs to lay the groundwork sooner and work much harder at convincing us. [Admittedly, this would always have been difficult in a novel in which all conversations are lies, and the only way of seeing inside someone’s head is via a dramatic soliloquy.] Again, the adaptations tend to try to find some way around this – the excellent French TV adaptation with Gerard Depardieu in the leading role simply makes the Count far more likeable throughout. Yet that neuters the work, and makes it much more the prosaic revenge novel it’s often misremembered as.
Because it IS more than that. And it is also more than this catalogue of flaws. Because in between the over-long, deeply flawed opening and the over-rushed, deeply flawed close, there’s the real flesh of the novel, and that… that’s just brilliant.
When Dumas is on fire, everything is on fire. I don’t really understand how this can be. I’ve commented above on the weakness of both the prose – flaccid, predictable – and of the translation (obscuring, cloying). And yet somehow Dumas can take this prose, use it to tell an entire chapter of, for example, a paralysed man dictating a legal document slowly by blinking his eyes, and make it edge-of-seat thrilling. How does he do this? It’s not one chapter, it’s chapter after chapter after chapter, each one unique and individual, each one a little weird baroque of a short story, each one building on the last. The dull story becomes intriguing, the intriguing story becomes engaging, and then a point is reached where there’s just hundreds of pages of everything being on fire, and I was astonished that any writer could sustain such an extended literary explosion. [in some ways, the dull prose helps: the weight that drags like a millstone when little is happening becomes a tantalising rein on the action when everything is happening at once, and needlessly prolonging scenes starts to feel less like time-wasting and more like Tantric narrative…]
I think the key is something that’s often derided these days, something often relegated to “genre” works: storytelling. Dumas’ skill is not in his sociopsychological acuity – though he paints sharp vignettes with, if not amazing insight, then at least surprising honesty in his construction of characters who seem real and ordinary in their words and actions despite the heightened reality of their situations and the shallow symbolism of their natures – nor in his hit-and-miss prose (though there are, I’ll admit again, some memorable passages). Dumas’ skill is in telling a story. He spends half a book – multiple novels by the word-count standards of modern literary fiction – delicately setting up (sometimes in plain sight, sometimes hidden behind veils and mirrors) an elaborate, intricate domino run, and when the time is right he lights the touchpaper (of my confused mixed metaphors) and gives us hundreds of pages – multiple novels-worth! – of nothing but dominos teetering, tilting, collapsing, and occasionally bursting into flames. At the centre of this is the strange but inspired decision to turn poor Dantès into an essentially divine being, and to make him so distant from the readers – which harmonises perfectly with the general tone (driven by satirical intent) of deception, confusion, and politely-phrased naive cross-purposes that pervades the author’s depiction of high society Paris. Together, this, for want of a better term, tragedy of manners and the Count’s ability to set up his moves off the board, where neither his rivals nor his readers can see them coming, construct a hall of teasing mirrors hiding the waiting knives. At times, and even if only a primitive, rough-hewn way, Dumas seems to prefigure the delicious, delicate savageries of a Wilde or a Saki, but on a far larger scale, with the swashbuckling elan (and sometimes lack of fine detail) of an older style of storytelling.
[When I said that this storytelling is often confined to genre these days, it wasn’t an entirely off-hand remark. This is not a novel that is likely to appeal to genuine, informed fans of literary fiction (those, that is, who honestly like that stuff, rather than only out of ignorance of what else is possible). This is a novel that is, by modern standards, written to appeal to fans of epic fantasy, and high-stakes space opera.]
Dumas’ novel also offers an intriguing glimpse into his era. I was amused, for example, to see how the English were perceived – and to realise that the foppish Englishness we associate with later English writers like Wilde was itself an emulation of French manners half a century earlier. Dumas’ characters act like Wildean dandies (even if his wit is less dazzling than Wilde’s), and mock the joyless, mercantile English (who are portrayed much as later English writers would portray the American plutocrats). Unlike many writers of his era, he’s not afraid of puncturing society’s illusions, which gives us a much more lived-in 1840s than in a lot of other sources. I’ve mentioned, for instance, the multiple opera scenes, in which Dumas portrays the opera not as a sacred aesthetic ceremony, but as a noisy public forum, more like a modern sporting event. I was also particularly struck by the sheer cosmopolitanism of the culture – by how much Dumas expects both his characters and his readers to know. Byron is a towering figure in the background of everything, with constant allusions to Manfred, Lara, Don Juan and more, as well as to the man himself; so is Shakespeare; so is the history – particularly as concerns bandits and generals – of the preceding two or three hundred years; so is much of Classical literature, and of course the Old Testament; but so too is, for example, the work of Camões. Few popular novels today would assume all their readers were familiar with 16th century Portuguese poetry! And it’s not just that the allusions (which, to be fair, tend to be vague, as though perhaps second-hand) are wide-ranging, it’s that there is barely a sliver of nationalism to them. While in one respect Dumas’ characters are by modern standards quite racist (every nation has its own character), they nonetheless live in a cosmopolitan world, in which a jaunt down to Rome, or even to Greece, Albania or the Ottoman Empire, is no major thing, and both characters and the author are as likely to quote an English, German, Italian or Portuguese writer as they are a Frenchman. There is truly a sense here of a pre-nationalist Europe, or more accurately a “Christendom” (albeit not a very religious one!), with a largely shared, common cultural inheritance, and in a way that yields a sadness to the story – for as much as we have gained since that era, that sense of international cosmopolitanism is something we have largely lost, at least in England.
But culture isn’t just a matter of ornament; it underlies the whole notion of storytelling. And that makes it hard to really appreciate Dumas. Because despite all his cleverness, his story is so intensely dependent upon wild coincidence that it is hard not to roll our eyes – at times, the way that everyone has coincidentally met everyone else makes it seem as though there are only a dozen people in the whole of France, across the whole of thirty years. By modern standards of storytelling, the wholesale reliance on coincidence, both in setup and in conclusion, is just bad writing – lazy, unbelievable, and cliché.
And that’s what I thought, until suddenly I realised: it’s not a coincidence. God did it.
Modern readers simply aren’t primed to read stories in that way. If it says explicitly that ‘God did it’, we treat it as bad writing, and if it doesn’t say it explicitly it doesn’t occur to us to read between the lines. But in The Count of Monte Cristo, God did everything. And it makes thematic sense: the Count sets himself up as either an agent of, or a replacement for, God, but everything he does is only made possible by the invisible hand of God that arranges everything to make him succeed and fail when God wills it, so that every hubristic triumph of the Count is only further proof of the glory of God. Dumas’ authorial voice, and largely the France he portrays, is not pious or zealous – though there is a general background concept of, and fear of, God, it is a largely undogmatic, even agnostic religious sentiment. The hand of God is as likely to be described as Fate, or fortune, or just left unmentioned. But there is beneath everything, an assumption of an ordered universe of some sort – a universe of fitting ironies, and of justice, a justice that the Count can both question and demonstrate. That the modern reader, even many modern believers, are likely to lack the cast-iron assumptions of orderliness that underpin the novel undermines not only Dumas’ hand-of-God plotting, but the entire conceptual and thematic and psychological arc of the novel; and while I can understand this intellectually, I’m not sure I can accept it sufficiently unquestioningly, even as a temporary suspension of disbelief, to fully enjoy the novel as it was intended. [nothing is less powerful than blasphemy against a deity in which one has no stake…]
As a result, then, not only is this a novel of many virtues, and of many terrible sins (both of the characters and of the novelist), it is also a novel where perhaps the modern reader is no longer equipped to judge which were once which with any confidence.
Nonetheless, The Count of Monte Cristo remains a classic, for its thrilling writing (once it finally gets going), and its demonical device of withholding the protagonist’s schemes, and for large spans of the novel his genuine thoughts and emotions, from public view – and for its great fecundity of compelling suggestions. Great novels often inspire us to want to write a novel in homage; this one inspires me to want to write four or five different novels, in homage to different elements…
Adrenaline: 3/5. A weird mixture of every number from 1/5 through to 5/5, in different parts. I suppose it averages out at 3? [It should be noted that it’s a novel that probably read much better when it was serialised than as a binge-read – like many episodic TV shows, until they reach the climax, the early chapters have plenty of plot-of-the-week, but too little season-arc-development to really be satisfying in a binge-watch]
Emotion: 3/5. Appropriately enough for the era, this tends toward long stretches of concealment and cool politeness, interspersed with moments of high, hysterical passion.
Thought: 5/5. While the philosophical asides are shallow, there’s something desparately intriguing about a novel in which everything is intentionally hidden from the reader – a murder mystery in which not merely the perpetrator, but the victim, the method, the location, and the very fact of a crime are mysterious. Add in a little wit, and a great deal of historical interest for the curious modern reader, and the result is, if not a brainteaser, certainly good mental excercise.
Beauty: 2/5. Much of the novel is sadly messy, in its prose and in its construction, and its not all, I think, the fault of the translator.
Craft: 3/5. A solid core of basic competence – certainly a notch above the worst pulp novels today – is undermined by some seemingly stupid decisions, but also decorated with some moments of genius.
Endearingness: 3/5. I enjoyed reading this, mostly – I really enjoyed reading parts of it. I’m sure I’ll be tempted to read it again at some point… but will I really read it from cover to cover, or will I just skim through to the good bits?
Originality: 5/5. It’s rare for a novel to be seminal, archetypal, and yet profoundly and uniquely weird. Its imitators invariably respond only to a part of the whole, and even after 170 years it feels fresh and unexpected at times (while almost literally older than fiction itself at others).
OVERALL: 5/7. GOOD. I can understand how enthusiasts – responding the to best elements and gently overlooking the worst – might see this as Very Good, and there are even sparks of brilliance here. But it’s like a diamond in the rough – there are a lot of flaws and unwise inclusions that would have to be cut away to really show off the gem to its best advantage. If Dumas were alive, I’d suggest getting a good editor and cutting out half the word-count (not just by massively pruning back the early sections, but by tightening everything up throughout), and rearranging the order certain scenes to give greater impact, and fleshing out the characters a bit. Unfortunately, Dumas is not alive, and so the task of showing off what’s great here will be left to adaptations and to imitations – it’s a novel great enough to inspire many imitators, while poor enough to give them hope to improve on the original. If you’re interested in writing a novel yourself and want some fresh and tantalising ideas, or if you’re just interested in discovering one of the great inspirations for novel writers of the last century and a half, then The Count of Monte Cristo is an absolute must-read that continues to reward the patient student not only as an object lesson but also as a genuinely enjoyable novel in its own right.
But you might want to wait until you have a fair darn amount of spare time at hand before you take that plunge…