As though I took the reading of The Shallows too much to heart (q.v.), I decided to give this book a go, after guiltily seeing it languish on my shelves for nearly a decade. It has been a long time since I read anything of this length, and if nothing else, reading The Count of Monte Cristo has reminded me that the length of a book is in itself no accurate measure of its greatness.
This vast tale of revenge and the calamitous morality of the wronged man spans twenty-five years in France and Italy, from the depths of the Château d’If to the faded glory of Rome to the heart of the most glittering capitol of 19th century Europe, Paris. There is a rich and varied cast of characters with which the reader must come to grips, but rest assured: all of them are relevant to the story. Take notes if you must in order to remember them, but rest assured: you’re going to want to remember them.
The story of Monte Cristo is one that, in one form or another, most people know: it has been re-written and remade often enough. But to really get the fullest sense of Dumas’ invention, this book, and particularly this translation, is the one that you have to read (assuming, of course, that you read English better than the original French). There are abridged versions out there, yes, but I’d urge you to avoid them. The book is intimidating to look at, but surrendering to Dumas’ story means that a hundred pages can drop away much more quickly than you would ever suspect (although you may find that you’ve forgotten to eat your supper). And while it is not always a perfect novel (if there is such a creature), Monte Cristo rewards those who read it through with enduring characters and meditations on the nature of revenge and fate. The heightened drama of the final few chapters isn’t entirely carried through to the sort of return on investment that this reader, for one, expected (more on that shortly). But the skill with which Dumas weaves his tapestry, ties his characters together, and then allows natural justice and fate to take their course… it’s really something to behold.
While the tale is a straightforward enough one, it does require the reader to remember a bit of history which, for Dumas’ contemporary readers, would have been entirely familiar. Napoleon Bonaparte, having been exiled to the island of Elba following a series of defeats at the hands of his European and British enemies, staged a return to France in February, 1815. Supporters of the Emperor rallied against the restored French monarchy, and for a brief period of the Hundred Days, Napoleon attempted to regain his lost glory, before the people turned against him and he was forced to flee, demanding asylum on the British ship HMS Bellerophon. The British would exile him again, this time to St. Helena, where he would die in 1821.
Against this backdrop, Dumas places his faithful, honest sailor, Edmond Dantès. Working as the first mate on the merchant ship Pharaon, owned by the firm of Morrel, Dantès has assumed command when the ship’s Captain has died en route to Marseille. The Captain, a secret Bonapartist, has charged Dantès with delivering a letter to a Paris address: the young sailor is innocent of its contents. However, another member of the crew, Danglars, is jealous of Dantès’ rapid rise to command, and discovers that the letter is intended for the Bonapartist cabal in Paris. Fernand, a Catalan living in Marseilles, is jealous of Dantès’ fiancée, Mercédès, and wants her for himself. And a purported friend of the family, the neighbor Caderousse, wants Dantès’ profits from his voyage, which the young sailor has diligently saved for his ailing father. Together, they conspire – half-jokingly – to write a letter denouncing Dantès as a pawn of Bonaparte to the authorities, without knowing what the secret missive contains. They write a letter to the local authorities, and discard it, but Fernand retrieves the discarded missive and sends it off in a fit of jealousy. Predictably, Dantès is arrested and hauled before the initially sympathetic prosecutor, Villefort. Villefort, however, finds to his horror that the letter entrusted by the Captain of the Pharaon to Dantès for delivery to Paris is addressed to Villefort’s own father, a member of the Bonapartist cabal. So that the secret will never emerge, the ambitious Villefort destroys the incriminating letter and arranges for Dantès to be imprisoned without trial in the Château d’If, a forbidding stone fortress and prison, where the young sailor will remain in a dungeon for the next fourteen years.
This first act is then followed by a series of further adventures as Dantès struggles to escape and, having done so with the aide of the Abbé Feria, a priest and fellow-prisoner, how he seeks to revenge himself upon the four men who betrayed him. To achieve this end, Dantès takes the guise of the Count of Monte Cristo, the place named being the island on which the Abbé’s treasure was concealed before Dantès located it. The quest for vengeance will take him all across the Mediterranean, and finally from Rome to the heart of Paris’ glittering society of the ultra-wealthy of the 1840s. It is here that he begins to draw his net around his four victims, having spent ten years amassing his intelligence and making his plans for their deaths and disgrace.
The book moves quite quickly for such a vast tome (over 1,200 pages in length); in this translation by Robin Buss, Dumas is a fresh and lively writer who rarely bogs down in excessive detail. It’s quite a feat, considering the number of characters and plot twists thrown into the story. The tension to be had from awaiting what appears to be the ultimate fate of the Count’s intended targets: will he also destroy the families of the men who betrayed him? Just how far will Dantès’ quest for revenge take him? Along the way, many other secrets are revealed, some of which have disastrous or scandalous consequences, and it does seem that Dumas is trying to tell us that those who exercise their freewill to the detriment of others tend to be drawn toward others with similar characters, even if they do not realize it. The ending, unfortunately, does seem as though Dumas simply had a bad case of writer’s-quill cramp and wanted to wrap everything up, for which I can hardly blame him, but it would have been nice to be present, as a reader, when the girl came back out of the coffin, as it were. I’ll say no more than that.
For such a sombre-seeming story, there are occasional delightfully light touches. My favourite of these came in Chapter Sixty-One “How to Rescue a Gardener from Dormice Who Are Eating His Peaches,” which provides what is almost a tale within a tale as the Count of Monte Cristo attempts to sway a telegraph operator to do his will. It is an incident of cunningly playing on the dreams and desires of a humble man, and dangling irresistible temptation before him, which has important consequences for the larger story. Yet there is something refreshing and whimsical about that moment in the novel, which imbues it with a particular charm.
If I had to tell the new reader one thing, it would be to provide this morsel of trivia regarding the prison, the Château d’If. Although I do read some French, I don’t have a fully comprehensive vocabulary, and I only found, quite by chance and a month after I finished the book, what the name of the prison actually means: if is the French word for a yew tree. Although the yew has several folkloric and historical significances, to my mind, understanding the name immediately conjured the image of a yew growing in a churchyard, implying impending death. ‘Yew Castle,’ therefore, was not a place to which one is sent when sentenced to an open prison for a light spot of tax evasion. It’s a place to go when you’re meant to die. That implication, I think, increases the emotional weight of the hopelessness engendered by Dantès unfair sentence.
According to translator Robin Buss, this is the first unexpurgated version of Monte Cristo in English, and a lot of tame (to modern readers, anyway) references to poisoning, violence, and even a spot of mild lesbianism are left in the book as a result. But this is part of the liveliness and honesty of this tale, which ends up, in spite of itself, with a rather moral tone to it. The Count of Monte Cristo is no more a swashbuckling tale than it is a passion play, and it is certainly not “a children’s book,” but it is a tremendous, expansive tale. Put this one on your “To Read” pile, especially if you have planning for your own vendettas in mind. Well worth the time and effort, I give a rating four and a half stars (removing a half-star for chronology errors, and a slightly too-truncated ending).
Originally reviewed 23 August 2015.
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