The Classics - The Count of Monte Cristo

So a while ago, due to a lack of anything new to read, I decided to go back and read the things I'd always wanted to, but lacked the inclination too at the time.  So in this first, undoubtedly incredibly irregular series, we look at a book I truly wished I'd taken on 25 years ago, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.

Arguably Dumas' greatest book, The Count of Monte Cristo set the standard for adventure stories. When you read it, you see just how many times it has been referenced or pillaged.  Written in 1844 and serialised in Petion in thirty-four parts between 1844 and 1855, it was an instant classic.  One of the unique characteristics of the book is outlined by those thirty-four parts, Dumas was paid by the line.  Therefore the experience of the tale is summed up by remarkably long winded passages and exposition that does go on a tad longer than you'd expect, even for the French.  Also, in the nature of a writing a serial, Dumas had to contend with the story being broken up in places where he didn't intend.  This means we have regular aide-memorie, a paragraph telling you what's just happened a page or two, or line or two, ago.  But, surprisingly, this does help to keep your mind in the game. Coupled to this, the sub-plot upon sub-plot in the first half of the book, makes it a tough, very long and heavy book.  My Everyman's Library edition of the 1846 translation runs to nearly 1200 pages and weights over a kilo.  But, if you give it the time and effort, you get lost in it, swept away and hundreds of pages later, never want it to end.

Alexandre Dumas' family life is as interesting as anything he ever wrote.  His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, while not having a flare for original child naming, was one of the great cavalry commanders of the Revolution's Army, second in fame only to a short Corsican general of artillery.  Also, Dumas Sr was black.  Dumas Sr was captured on his return from the disastrous Egypt campaign and held in a notorious Taranto prison.  Tom Reiss' book, The Black Count, brilliantly describes how the father became his son's inspiration for Edmund Dantes, and so much else.  Throw in some scandals and murders in France in the 1840's and Dumas Jr finally could right the wrongs wrote against his father, even if in a literary form.

Edmund Dantes is a young first mate on a merchant ship in 1815.  Returning to Marseille, the dying captain of his ship gets him to drop a package off on the island of Elba, the island where Napoleon is imprisoned.  After doing this, a brief moment with l'Empereur later, Dantes returns to Marseille to marry his love, Mercedes and be given the command of the merchant vessel owned by M. Morrel.  Unfortunately, this has all upset the men he counts as friends, shipmate Danglars, who wants the ship for himself, his "friend" Fernand who also loves Mercedes and Dantes drunken sot of a neighbour, Caderousse.  They turn Dantes into the local prosecutor Villefort and, long pre-amble short, Dantes ends up in the Chateau d'If, a notorious prison from where no one ever returns, just in time for the start of The 100 Days.  With friends and family told he is dead, Dantes is forgotten and the men who betrayed him cash in.  Years pass and Dantes, on the verge of suicide, is interrupted by a man appearing through the wall.  This is the best section of the book.  The Abbe Faria is the most rounded character in the tale and Dumas clearly has a ball writing the dialogue between the Abbe and Dantes.  The Abbe trains Dantes in the arts of the gentleman, everything from how to read and which fork to use at dinner to which end of a sword to hold.  And for years they dig, trying to find a way out.  Many years later, an accident to the Abbe leads the Abbe to tell Dantes of the secret of his treasure.  And through the death of the Abbe, Dantes escapes and becomes the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo.

The revenge Monte Cristo outlines is total, everything dealt upon him is to be returned tenfold upon his tormentors.  Monte Cristo spends years learning, planning, preparing his revenge and it unfolds each slow, cold, drip at a time.  Along the way, the men and women in the service of Monte Cristo tell their own tragic tales and these are slowly woven into the revenge being served by the Count.  You sometimes wonder what the point of the rambling Corsican blood feud or the duplicitous collapse of an Ottoman kingdom have to do with Edmund, Danglars, Caderousse, Villefort and Fernand.  Slowly, surely, each story is woven back into the main plot and used to expand why these men deserve what is due them.  But, the clever bit is, despite the money, the planning, the remarkable drive Edmund has channelled into the Count, it doesn't work exactly as he expects or, very interestingly, as many of the film and TV adaptations depict.  It is a true master work and Dumas weaves his wand perfectly.  The outline above is about 20% of the plot, if that.  The characters that inhabit this world are wonderful, Albert, Haydee, Bertuccio and Mercedes herself are wonderfully drawn and lead to set pieces that you initially think you've read or seen before, until you realise Dumas came up with it a hundred years or so before.

I love this book.  I love the the fact it is so drawn out and I love the fact every line comes with the sound of a coin dropping into Dumas purse.  His more famous Musketeers are easier to portray because they are moral heroes, Edmund Dantes is not and his many shades of grey are what makes him far more interesting than d'Artagnan.  The story is timeless and the moral is not what the films and TV shows portray, life and Dumas are far more complicated, far more interesting than that.  It is also interesting meeting people who have undertaken reading the book.  When buying my criminally under used climbing shoes at Urban Rock, the Swedish store manager laughed when the book hit the counter.  She hefted it up while I was rummaging for my wallet and declared her undying love for the book.  There ensued a twenty minute chat about the book and Edmund.  It only ended when the guy I was climbing with came looking for his belayer.  It is a magical tale, aptly, if long windedly told.  Please take up the journey, it is worth every gram of lugging it around.

Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day when God deigns to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words - “Wait and Hope.”
— Edmund Dantes, Count of Monte Cristo

Matthew BoneComment