Monday, 22 December 2014

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

To note two things before I begin: 1) A third of my way through the novel I switched from the 1852 translation to the 1993 Robin Buss translation; 2) I will spoil a sizable portion of the book’s first-half. The former consideration owes to my learning that the 1852 edition, for reasons of mass appeal and (Victorian) morality, altered the text, removing classical references and certain subtexts. The latter stems from the book’s twelve-hundred page length. Hundreds of pages comprise the narrative’s opening, as such, I must spoil hundreds of pages.
Edmond Dantès, a man with too much going for him. His captain’s death sets him to command his own ship, the trading-ship Pharaon, by age nineteen. Add to this his engagement to the beautiful Mercédès, and even he fears a bad moon on the rise, musing that ‘[m]an does not appear to me to be intended to enjoy felicity so unmixed’. How right he is, for his seemingly unimpeded upward climb has fostered enemies. Danglars, jealous career-wise, Fernand, jealous love-wise, and Caderousse, just jealous, realise all it would take to topple their enemy is an anonymous allegation calling Edmond a Bonapartist, a claim that would be supported by the letter left him by the Pharoan’s late Bonapartist captain. Fernand sends the accusation, leading to the arrest of Edmond on his wedding day.
His last hope for salvation crashes against the public prosecutor, de Villefort. An ambitious royalist, de Villefort realises the incriminating letter is addressed to his father, a revelation which, if made public, would shatter any career hopes he has and doom his father. Left no choice he burns the letter and condemns Edmond to life imprisonment in the Chateau d’If.
Years pass with the only thing keeping Edmond sane his teacher-pupil relationship with the abbé Faria, who promises him a vast fortune if they ever get out. After fourteen years Edmond escapes, making his way to the island of Monte Cristo where he finds the treasure. Now armed with nigh-on unlimited funds, the patience of a prisoner and the knowledge taught him by the abbé, he vows to hide in plain sight among his malefactors, as the Count of Monte Cristo, so as to inflict on them suffering equal to his own.
Having viewed a few adaptations before reading this book, it is surprising how un-conspiratorial the conspirators are. Many of the films play Edmond’s false imprisonment as a planned act to service the goals of the villains. In the novel, while certainly planned, it comes off almost by accident. They concoct their plan in a drunken huff, on a whim writing a letter of accusation, which ultimately Danglars just throws away. The novel would end there, had Fernand not bothered to retrieve the letter to send anyway.
Here rises one of the novel’s major themes, the conflict between chance and human will. Edmond might have had a contented, if unremarkable, life had his captain not happened to be a Bonapartist who would trust him with a vital letter, had Danglars, Fernand and Caderousse not all happened to be drinking together, had Danglars happened to burn the accusation rather than throw it in a corner, had Fernand not sent it, and had the incriminating letter not been addressed to de Villefort’s father. By the end none of them can admit what they’ve done. Danglars, Fernand and Caderousse can do nothing because if the letter Edmond possesses is found to be genuinely incriminating, then saying the accusation was fake would paint them as Bonapartists as well. De Villefort can’t ever let Edmond free for fear he’ll reveal that de Villefort burned a letter of national importance to save his father.

Skew the events and the Coen’s could direct it. Especially the arrest, when all involved, bewildered, think ‘a mere joke should lead to such frightful consequences’. None of the ‘conspirators’ really intend to destroy Edmond, but none of them would risk themselves to save him, given his removal helps them up in the world.

Fortune’s fickleness, however, runs both ways. How lucky was Edmond, locked in a prison allowing no inmate fraternisation, to be housed in cell that the industrious abbé Faria would, by accident, burrow into. How fortunate also that this man happens to have one of the world’s greatest fortunes hidden away, untouched.

And yet, seizing on this event of infinitesimal probability, he can, or at least aims to, remove himself from the battering of the mad dictator Chance. Although he claims to have become an ‘emissary of God’ who has received that ‘which is finest, greatest and most sublime in the world [which is the ability] to reward and to punish’, Dumas stresses the count’s seeming omnipotence comes less from an unearthly presence, than from the ultra-material resource of gold and jewels. God’s justice apparently requires a cash-flow.

Around this point the novel enters a timeskip, resuming when the count plans to make his way back into French society to enact his vengeance. The novel doesn’t just shift in time and setting, but in type. The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the archetypal adventure novels, switches one-third of the way through from salty adventure to high society, psychological thriller. Even without sure knowledge the reader dimly realises, from the novel’s implicit delineation, that Dumas did not initially intend to include the early Edmond Dantès episodes. These early parts, though essential and solid in their own right, do not match the quality of the book’s latter two-thirds. Dumas, a dramatist primarily, does best drawing rooms set his scenes. His climaxes rarely involve swordfights or chases, rather his most gripping passages are dialogues where characters speak for paragraphs on end. Albert’s abduction by the bandit emperor Luigi Vampa comes nowhere near the energy of a debate between a father and daughter.    

Not to say the count’s machinations of revenge fall flat. Having had his old life robbed of him by fourteen years in the Chateau d’If the count visit upon his enemies suffering as protracted as his own. In film versions, for time constraints, the count’s revenge, though carefully premeditated, is delivered for each enemy in one grand burst, laying dynamite in their palaces’ foundations. But Dumas, with the serial novel’s potentially endless canvas, can draw the villain’s demise out over hundreds of pages, termites in their foundations. Like a skilled murderer the count puts his arm over his victim’s shoulder to conceal the knife he inserts. As they bleed out, desperately searching for a doctor, they cannot escape their looming ruin, nor the smiling face of their ruiner.

Oddly for a revenge novel, and this is arguably the revenge novel, it refrains from making a definitive judgement on the matter. Adaptations generally push the story to one side or the other, the 2002 one condemning revenge, the 1934 one supporting it as an act of justice. Many revenge narratives, with any goals of moral analysis, would end with the protagonist realising how empty their endeavours have left them. But for the count, though occasionally he doubts his cause, all he requires to renew his purpose is memory of those fourteen uprooted years. By the end he is, if not fulfilled, satisfied. What adds complexity to this, however, is that his enemies have set up more or less functional family lives. Although the count would kill the father, both for himself and, in his view, God, he must quash any compassion remaining in him to, by proxy, destroy the lives of sons and daughters.

But though this is the count’s revenge tale Dumas does well to switch viewpoints often. The novel centres on the count, but he is not the central point of view. For the better, because after Edmond’s transformation he borders on the realm of pulp anti-hero (a character-type the count no doubt influenced) whose talents and resolution are bit too perfect. To remain a compelling character through the novel’s latter parts, when his purpose is clear, the reader must view him at a distance. Though Dumas does return to the count’s viewpoint intermittently, most prominently and effectively at the end of the novel, for the most part we see him as his enemies and their families do.

Certain viewpoint digressions will wear on some readers, where a character will spend an entire chapter(s) recounting their history, revealing events that have only tangential bearing on the plot. The reader can understand Dumas’ intention, to create a world outside the novel with a past extending beyond the limits of the count’s narrative. That being said, readers can, and most likely will, skip these sections. And, should anything crucial be missed, any number of chapter-by-chapter summaries can catch them up.

Any blemishes I could point to in this work seem unfair targets, like criticising one atop Everest for coming short of the stars. I could say Dumas’ descriptive passages run on too long, but a million lesser writers would consider a work containing one of them their magnum opus. I could point to how a certain plotline is wrapped up can seem skeevy to a reader with twenty-first century values, but for a work written in the 1840s this happens less than it might. To appropriate Shakespeare, ‘faults in [it] seem as the spots of heaven, more fiery by night's blackness’.

Few novels two hundred pages long deserve their paper, one in a thousand short stories could earn their space on a kindle, but The Count of Monte Cristo, through twelve-hundred panoramic pages, crafts a melodrama whose ambitions could be accomplished with no lesser length. And if not every page serves the novel, then a good eleven of twelve do. Despair and hope, chance and will, themes which countless writers have tried to express in their extremities, here affect the reader in a way only the heightened reality M. Dumas has crafted could.

As Robin Buss, the Penguin Black Classics translator, said in his introduction, ‘For many of its readers, despite its length, it seems all too short’. If there is any novel I wish the potential reader could overcome their natural prejudice against doorstoppers for, it’s this one. A meditation on revenge, Providence and human will, told as an adventure-cum-psychological thriller that today can holds it popular appeal as well as it did in 1845.

A modern, unabridged and uncensored translation is available from Penguin, translated by Robin Buss:

On a separate note: I must recommend a few adaptations of the work.

The Count of Monte Cristo (1934): While Americanised in every negative connotation of the word, it still accomplishes the feat of fitting the basic plot into a 90 minute movie. Although not terribly complex in either morality or direction, the film still weaves an epic. Just a swashbuckling one rather than a psychological one.   

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (2004-5): Perhaps one of the most effective adaptations because it not only has 24 episodes (9 hours) to work in, but because it also drops the entire first third, leaving the count’s past a mystery to be solved. The result is a taught series that can include far more subplots than were hitherto seen in adaptations, most notably all of Albert’s young Parisian friends get significant characterisation. I admit I watched this before I’d any idea of the novel’s plot, so the mystery element was genuinely intriguing to me, as I assume it was for the original Japanese audience. Despite being a science fiction retelling of the story it is one of the most faithful adaptations, at least until the end. What may be off-putting for some is the visuals. While as a mash-up of mid-19th, early 20th century technology passed through a sci-fi lens it is effective, the colouring technique, where textures remain stationary while characters move, can seem obnoxious to some. You’ll quickly know whether you’ll like the style or not. One criticism I must level is at the character of the count. In the novel his amiability communicates to the reader, he adjusts his manner depending of who he speaks to, speaking as one trained in the art of conversation to most, and dropping his proto-Nietzschean philosophy on only those he feels would be intrigued by it. In the anime he won’t stop with his macabre musings. No one opposite him on a dinner table would think, ‘Oh, you singular example of humanity,’ they’d just think he was a needlessly sombre bore. A bigger problem with this adaptation is how it treats Eugenie. Proto-feminist no more, here made passive and submissive, just another female character needing a man to save her. Despite this, and quite a lot of the ending, it is still one of the best adaptations, if only for its length.

The Stars’ Tennis Balls, or Revenge in America (2000): Not an adaptation but a modern day retelling. I’ve not read it yet, but it’s a thriller by Stephen Fry, so it has something going for it.

1 comment:

  1. Just finished your review: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, as I have not read the novel, I could not have much to say. Yet, I have read The Three Musketeers, and I have not found any author who is able to contract dialogues for characterisation as brilliantly as Dumas is able to. However, I do find that his novel lacks depth and philosophical reflection, this may due to The Three Musketeers belongs to the D'Artagnan trilogy. Yet it ensures that his novel has more energy by comparison, and I shall try to read The Black Tulip before the Count of Monte Cristo.

    His son has written The Lady of Camellias, which is much shorter, but worth reading as well, and I favour the translation by David Coward of the Oxford Press.