Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
So, the other year I read through the Three Musketeers series of books.
Those of you who read my reviews will remember that I absolutely loved the first one, and really liked the second one.
By the third book, the pacing changed.  What had been a fast-paced adventure story turned into a very slow moving court romance story.  So I admit to not enjoying the third, fourth, fifth and sixth books as much as the first 2.  But they were still readable, and, despite their slower pace, had some interesting plot points.

I was ready for more Dumas.

After The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo is Dumas's second most famous work, so this seemed like the logical book to tackle next.

My Background With This Book/Expectations Going In
I had somehow managed to avoid all the cartoons, TV specials, and movies based off of this book.  (I had been in Japan when the 2002 movie (W) came out, so I didn't even know I had missed it until a friend told me about it just a few months ago.)  So I came into this book with a relatively blank slate of expectations--that is, to the extent that is even possible with a book like this.
This is one of those classic books that has been so prevalent in the culture that everyone knows the basic premise, whether they've read it or not.
And so, before I even cracked this open, I knew it was about a man unjustly imprisoned by his enemies, who makes a miraculous escape from prison, and then plots to take revenge on the enemies who had imprisoned him.

I had also managed to pick up that in the English speaking world this book was more popular in the abridged version, but that there remained an ongoing debate between the partisans of the abridged version and partisans of the unabridged version.  Some people absolutely positively insist you have to read the full unabridged version, and some people can't stand all of Dumas's various digressions, and are quite happy with the abridged version.

As for myself, my previous experience had led me to believe that there were two Alexandre Dumases.  There was the fast paced one who wrote The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, and then there was the terribly slow paced one who wrote the last 4 books in The Three Musketeers series.

Which one would show up for The Count of Monte Cristo?

The Review
This book starts out very well.  And it finishes very well.

But boy oh boy, is there sure a lot of nothing going on in the middle.

After having read the complete and unabridged version, put me in the category of those who think an abridged version of this book would have been just fine. *

Dumas does not write short stories, and my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo (Wordsworth Classics Edition--the edition pictured at the top of this post) is a real door stopper at 894 pages.**

The first 150 pages contain the set-up: the introduction of the main characters, the false arrest of Edmond Dantes, his 14 year imprisonment, and his eventual escape.

Since I already knew The Count of Monte Cristo contained a false imprisonment and escape, I was worried this section would be just marching through the mandatory plot points.  But it's actually fairly interesting.  Even though the modern reader already knows what is going to happen,*** Dumas still tells it with skill.  You feel the emotions of just how painful it is for Edmond Dantes to be torn away from his betrothed, the claustrophobia of the prison, Dantes's near descent into madness, and his redemption with Faria.

And then, Dantes finally escapes.  "Alright," I thought to myself.  "Now things are finally going to go down!  Now he's going to confront the people who put him in prison, and get his revenge, and the plot will really take off."

But instead, much to my bewilderment and frustration, the story just stops, and we get about 300 pages of nothing much really happening before the story finally picks up again.

At this point, the reader is introduced to several new characters, and it's not at all clear what any of them have to do with the plot.  We also get backstories to a lot of these new characters, and, again, it's completely unclear what any of this has to do with the central plot the reader has been following.
Having previously experienced Alexandre Dumas's fondness for going off on digressions in the last 4 books of the Three Musketeers series, I was beginning to suspect that many of these new characters I was now following around were going to be superfluous, and have little to do with the main plot.  And as it turned out, I was right.****

Eventually, the plot does come back to Paris (where all the Count's enemies are now living) but for about another 100 pages or so it's all set-up, as the Count is simply establishing himself in Paris and meeting people.******

It was during this long middle section that my motivation to continue reading this book dropped significantly.  I was still determined to finish it, but it was now not so much out of love than out of a sense of obligation.  Other distractions (like my Internet and TV addictions) took over, and for several weeks at a time, I did very little reading.

The good news, however, is that if you stick with the book, the plot does eventually pick up again.  By the time I got to about page 500, then things were beginning to happen.  And here the book once again becomes quite addictive, and I was hooked once again, and those last 400 pages or so I finished pretty quickly.

I don't want to give too much away (I'm trying to keep this portion of the review relatively spoiler free) but if you do stick with this book until page 500 or so, then you'll be rewarded.

One of the interesting things about this book is that it's not simply the story of the Count of Monte Cristo taking revenge on his enemies.  By the time the Count arrives in Paris, 24 years after his false imprisonment, a whole new generation has grown up in the meantime--there's the Count's old friends and enemies, but there are also their children, who are now becoming adults.  And the new generation have wills and ambitions that are quite independent of their parents.  And in some cases, they begin to form romances and alliances that cut across friend/enemy dynamic that the Count wants to maintain.

A lot of tension is created in the narrative, because on the one hand you, the reader, want the Count to get his revenge on the people who deserve it.  But you also don't want to see the younger generation suffer because of the sins of their parents.

To increase this tension, Alexandre Dumas very wisely removes the point of view narrative from the Count, so for much of the last section of the book you don't know what he's thinking.

At the beginning of the book, the reader knew all the thoughts of Edmond Dantes.
By the time Edmond Dantes becomes the Count of Monte Cristo and returns to Paris, however, you really don't know what he's thinking.  He's just more of a mysterious force.  And so, you don't know exactly how far he'll take his revenge.  Will he spare the younger generations, or is he intent on wiping out the whole household?

If you stick to the end, there are also a number of shocking reveals, and I fully admit to being taken off guard by some of them.

To sum up, there is a lot to really like about this book, and there's a lot of interesting things going on.  But I think the abridged version of this book would be fine for most people.  Don't check out the unabridged version of this book unless you're fully prepared for a lot of digressions.

Stray Observations, Notes, and Other Addenda:
*****Warning, Spoilers from this point forward*****

1).  In my review of The Three Musketeers, I wrote:
Like another serialized writer Charles Dickens, Dumas often makes overuse of coincidences to move his story along. No one ever seems to encounter just a random stranger on the road—instead every chance encounter turns out to be a long lost relative, or a secret enemy, or the long lost relative of a secret enemy.
It’s all terribly contrived of course, but it can also become part of the fun, especially since Dumas will usually tease the mystery out for a few chapters. Whenever our heroes encounter someone on the road, you immediately start guessing whose long lost secret relative the stranger will turn out to be, and then wait patiently for the big reveal several chapters later.
And this is true of The Count of Monte Cristo as well.  There's lots of coincidences that propel the plot forward, and enable the Count to get his revenge.
A co-worker of mine had also read this book, and she complained about this to me.  "I don't know," she said.  "I just couldn't believe the Count could actually control events as perfectly as he did.  It just wasn't realistic."
Indeed, it wasn't.  But that's part of the genre.  You can choose to roll your eyes at how contrived it all is, or you can just accept these coincidences as part of the fun, and go with it.

2). That being said, there is actually a difference.  In The Three Musketeers, the coincidences just happened without any attempts to justify or explain them.  The Count of Monte Cristo, however, has an interesting little theory about divine retribution.  The Count believes that he is the instrument of God's retribution against those who have wronged him.  Thus, the various coincidences that help to aid the Count in his plan are all ascribed to God.
Dumas in his authorial voice never comes in to verify this.  So it's unclear if this is really what Dumas himself thinks is happening, or if this is merely the delusions of the Count, who may be perhaps seeking to salve his conscience by believing that his revenge is sanctioned by God.

Because I'm not sure if this is a serious theme of the book or not, I'm not sure how to respond to it.

If it's not a serious theme, then how to explain all the coincidences that propel the story forward?

On the other hand, The Three Musketeers and other Victorian literature had plenty of coincidences without evoking the divine, so maybe it's just part of the genre.

But if it is meant to be taken seriously, then that provokes a couple of questions: is this an accurate depiction of the human condition--are the wicked really punished in real life?
And, secondly, how does this work as a literary device in a fictional story?

I'll deal with the second question first:
I'm always reluctant to put too much of God in fiction.
I have a particular aversion to this type of storytelling which dates back to my Sunday School days, when  we used to get handed a lot of religious fiction. In those stories every crisis in the story would be resolved by praying to God, and then God would intervene and solve the problem.  This may work as theology, but it does not work as fiction.  If there's an omniscient omnipotent Being in control of all the events, where is the dramatic tension in the narrative?  (God intervening in fiction is a particular pet-peeve of mine.  I've complained about it before in both secular and religious books.)

As to whether this kind of divine retribution occurs in real life, it's impossible to know of course.  There's no way a scientific study could ever be conducted on the question (imagine all the variables!) So, we're just left with anecdotal evidence.  And anecdotal evidence differs from person to person.

Even within the Bible, opinions seem to differ.  The D source (W) clearly believes the wicked will be punished.  But the author of Ecclesiastes believes there's ample evidence that the wicked are not being punished.

My own bias is that the wicked do not seem to be punished in this life.  (Henry Kissinger is still enjoying the life of a respected retired statesman).  But I'm aware that you could cite any number of counter-examples.

3). Another thing that makes me skeptical of the world view expressed in The Count of Monte Cristo is how much the whole thing reads like the wish-fulfillment of a middle-aged man.
As I was reading this book, I began to strongly suspect that Dumas must have been in his 40s when he wrote the book, and when I finally did my research, I found that I was right.
The story isn't how life actually works, but it is how a 40-something year old man desperately wishes life would work.  One day, you come back into your hometown rich and powerful.  You are able to completely amaze, and then destroy all those people who had disrespected you when you were younger.  The beautiful girl you loved, who married that jerk instead of you, realizes how wrong she was.  But it's too late.  You destroy her jerk husband, and then sail off into the sunset with your much younger beautiful 18 year old lover.

I mean, how often does this happen in real life?  I would argue that in reality, the people who screw you over in life never really get this kind of satisfying comeuppance.  But it's the kind of thing we can all fantasize about.

It's particularly interesting that even after Mercedes's husband died, and she was free to marry again, the Count never got back together with his former lover.  Instead, he went off with the beautiful 18 year-old Greek girl Haidee, who was hopelessly in love with the 44 year-old Count.  Is this not another sign that this whole book is wish-fulfillment for middle-aged men?  (Also, the fact that Haidee had been the Count's adopted daughter adds a disturbing Woody Allen-esque dimension to the story.)

4). I've often heard The Count of Monte Cristo described as an adventure story, but actually, there's really very little fighting or swashbuckling going on in this story.
What it does have, however, with all of its subplots, and surprising reveals, and secret long lost relatives, is all the hallmarks of a good soap-opera.

5). So, here's a question: Are cheesy 19th century soap-operas like this great literature, or are they simply great pot-boilers which managed to survive the test of time, and got into the literary canon solely by virtue of their longevity?
And if so, does this mean reading them is a waste of time?  Or is it still worthwhile to read the classics just because they are, in fact, "the classics" ?
All of these questions have been floating around in my head ever since I  read Whisky Prajer's post: Wither the Morally Serious Potboiler [LINK HERE], in which Whisky links to an article where The Guardian's Jonathon Jones argues that "life really is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers". [LINK HERE].  What would Jones think of Dumas, one wonders?

6). It's amazing how prolific Dumas was in his heyday.  (The publisher's introduction calls him, "The John Grisham or Stephen King of his day" p.vi).  Incredible to think that he wrote this whole story concurrently with The Three Musketeers series--while The Three Musketeers was being serialized in one newspaper, Dumas was writing The Count of Monte Cristo for another paper.

7). Connections with Other Books I've Read
Although Dumas is famous for his historical fiction, this book is more of contemporary fiction--the action takes place between 1815 and 1838, and Dumas only wrote it in 1844.  It references events which were too recent to be considered proper history by his contemporaries.
Enough time has passed now, however, that it can be considered historical fiction.
Napoleon's return and the infamous 100 days make up the historical background to the first part of the novel.
Much of the rest of the historical background to the second part of the novel revolves around the revolutions in Spain and Greece during the 1820s.
If you don't know the history to any of this, don't worry.  The historical background should all be explained in the publisher's introduction and footnotes.
In my case, however, I had an advantage from having read The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm . Hobsbawm explains that although most history books concentrate on the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, there was also a wave of revolutions that swept through the Mediterranean in the 1820s, affecting most notably Spain, Greece, and Egypt.
I was intrigued enough by Hobsbawm's description of the revolution in Greece that I went on to read The Greek War of Independence by David Brewer, in which I became familiar with the figure of Ali Pasha (W).  The story of Ali Pasha becomes very important to the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, although Dumas appears to be liberally mixing fact and fiction.

And one more interesting little connection--after I finished this book, I learned from Wikipedia that the character of "Countess G-" actually is meant to represent the real-life figure Contess Guiccioli (W), Byron's biographer and lover.  I had not known this while I was reading, but once I found this out, I realized retroactively why this character constantly referenced the Byronic vampire character Lord Ruthven (W).  I originally learned about Lord Ruthven and his connection to Byron from Kim Newman's Anno Dracula.

8) Throughout the text, Dumas is constantly, constantly making references to history, literature, and mythology.  My edition contains 261 endnotes explaining all of these references.
Onerous as all these footnotes sound, once I got reading I found that I didn't actually mind them.  In fact, I kind of enjoyed all that little extra information about mythology, literature and history that kept popping up in the book.

9). A few years back, Phil got me reading Steve Donoghue's book reviews over at Steve Reads.  Steve reviews The Count of Monte Cristo in this post here [link here].  Steve compares the abridged version and the unabridged version, and finds that he actually loves all the digressions in the unabridged version:

The unabridged version is full to overflowing with digressions of all kinds – exposition on botany, seafaring, classical literature, colonial history, and dozens of other topics, all put into the mouths of characters who love talking more than life itself, so the background of one mute servant becomes a fascinating story that could easily have gone on for pages....It would be much too simple to say all these dilations and digressions were solely the result of Dumas getting paid by the pound of verbiage; this was a writer who was bursting with stories, and if it was his weakness to think all those stories were equally worth telling, it was his strength 

As I've written above, I found all these digressions tiring myself, but to each his own I suppose.

10). Since this book contains a long and boring middle section (IMHO), I suppose I can't really put it in my list of classic books which are fun to read.  Still...it definitely had it's moments.  The parts that were good were really, really good.  And the shocking plot twists, when they finally did come, were kind of worth all the wait.  I suspect an abridged version of this book would have easily made my "classic books which are fun to read" list.

Footnotes
* Actually, I say I would have preferred the abridged version, but that's a lie.  I've got a completist personality.  It would have gnawed at me to know I hadn't read the full version of this book, especially since I wouldn't even have known exactly what I had missed out.  (Had I missed out on essentially character developments or interesting side-stories?  The not-knowing would have driven me crazy.)  For those people out there who have similar personalities to me, I guess there's nothing for it but to just get the complete unabridged version.  Just be prepared for the plot to move really slowly in the middle, and for a whole lot of pointless digressions.

**Actually it's even longer than that raw number of 894 pages would suggest, because the publishers cheat by using small print, and also by not taking proper paragraph breaks.  Common publishing style is that every utterance by a different character needs a new paragraph, but to save space, my edition puts several utterances together into one paragraph.

***When this story was originally serialized in French newspapers, Dumas's original audience presumably had no idea where any of this story was going, and presumably all of the plot developments must have taken them by surprise.  Alas, this is completely impossible with a modern reader.  Even if you had somehow managed to avoid all the pop culture references to The Count of Monte Cristo, then the book jacket goes ahead and tells you the plot.  It's just impossible to go into this book with a blank slate, which is why I feel no guilt about writing minor spoilers in this review.

****For example, much is made of Franz during the sections on Italy, but he has very little bearing on the main plot once we get back in Paris.  Also, we completely did not need all that detailed backstory for Luigi Vampa.

***** Having just recently praised War and Peace as a book where nothing much happens and you just get to hang out with the characters, I should make the disclaimer that very few authors can pull this off.  Tolstoy gets a pass because the period detail is so rich, and because the characters are very three-dimensional.  Alexander Dumas's characters, however, are much more one dimensional.  Each one has a defining motivation and a character arc, but they don't represent the full complexity of the human condition the way Tolstoy's characters do.  So I had much less patience with Alexandre Dumas when the plot didn't appear to be going anywhere.

No comments: