I’ve been lax in book blogging lately, between year-end lists and a run of longer reads (a few of which were duds) and the mystery/detective novels I don’t review unless it’s by an author I haven’t discussed before. The one loooong read that’s worth a mention here is Alexandre Dumas’ (père, which I won’t mention again because it’s not like anyone remembers anything his son wrote) The Count of Monte Cristo, which surpassed Gone with the Wind as the longest novel I’ve ever read. It’s on the Bloomsbury and Guardian top 100 lists, and while it didn’t have the same chewy center as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, it was still a fun and surprisingly rapid read.
Edmond Dantes is the Count of the title, although as the story opens he’s just an amiable young sailor, about to marry the girl of his dreams and earn a big promotion on the boat where he works, all of which pisses off his two main rivals in love and at sea. Those two conspire with a third man to ruin Dantes by a letter falsely accusing him of treason, which, thanks to a corrupt prosecutor looking to save his own hide, lands Dantes in a notorious prison, jailed without trial or even knowing the charge, with no hope of release or leniency.
After fourteen years in captivity, Dantes manages an escape (one of the book’s highlights), finds great wealth via his only friend in prison, and resurrects himself as The Count of Monte Cristo. This mysterious saint-like figure has infinite wealth and uses it to spare people in need, many of whom fail to recognize their former friend or rival after his long absence and changed appearance. Now 33, the Count plays the longest con of all, plotting to ruin the lives of the men who tried to ruin his and mostly succeeded. Over the course of maybe 300,000 words, about the length of three typical novels, Dantes lays elaborate traps for the three men most responsible for his plight, but, as you’d expect, runs into a few unforeseen complications that provoke introspection and self-doubt to let Dumas pad the ol’ word count a little further.
A superficial read of The Count of Monte Cristo as the mother of all revenge stories (which, by the way, is based on the true story of a Frenchman who did a lot of what Dantes did, just without all the cash) would still be time well spent. Dumas had the knack for building tension without seeming false, then providing huge, satisfying resolutions that are plausible within the confines of the story. If you accept the premise of Dantes obtaining an endless supply of money, then much of what comes afterwards is surprisingly realistic for a novel of the romantic/traditional period. Dumas paints the three targets as awful people, and you’ll find yourself rooting for him to give them what for. Even when there’s collateral damage, Dantes endeavors to make things right – money allows a vengeful man to be more precise – to keep the reader happy that no women or children will be unduly harmed in the reading of this novel.
Of course, you could also wring enough symbolism out of this book to send the Seine spilling over its banks, staring with Dantes himself coming back from the dead – or a stone crypt of sorts – at age 33, just like Jesus Christ. Dantes even believes himself to be sent by God, or an instrument of God to spread good fortune to those who deserve it and to crush those who would do or have done evil in the past (to him, that is). He’s not Jesus, but he’s Jesus-like, in the literary sense, which I imagine has been fodder for countless term papers and college theses.
Dantes is not perturbed by the thought of being used by a benevolent Deity to bring ill fortune or even death on those who have done others harm until after he’s nearly completed his scorched-earth campaign from Provence to Paris. He even acquires a coterie of servants and acolytes and helps them obtain revenge they were unaware they could achieve, again with little thought to whether these acts were, in themselves, evil, or at least un-Christian. The twisted theology of the Count, coupled with his monomaniacal pursuit of vengeance, might have rendered him more insane than saintly; there is no potential for forgiveness or a commutation of the sentences Dantes plans to deliver. Even though the men who wronged him don’t deserve clemency and continue to act without regard for the well-being of others, Dantes goes way too long – years, at least – before experiencing anything like remorse for his own ruthlessness in smiting his enemies.
I wouldn’t say I’m likely to reread the book, but it might be a more fruitful read to consider it as Dantes’ search for meaning, the development of his own philosophy of life. He enters the prison believing he knows all that matters, and leaves it full of practical knowledge but emotionally void other than his wish for vengeance. Through years of wealth, of making others’ dreams come true, of ruining lives that were probably worth ruining but also ruining a few others in the process, the Count arrives at a very different mental state than the one he held at the start of the book. He never monologues but does offer hints at his newfound philosophical leaning, such as:
“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.”
There’s some ambiguity in the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with hints that Dantes intends to retire from public life, in a somewhat monastic sense, which would provide a clever parallel to his time in prison, where he was deprived of almost everything except for the companionship of the abbe in the next cell. Dumas recognizes that you can’t bring a life full circle because Dantes can’t undo all the damage done. Instead, he gives Dantes satisfaction enough to sail off into the novel’s sunset, unfulfilled emotionally but at least bearing the pride of a twenty-year-old task completed.
* Two wonderful quotes about food from this book, the first describing what we know recognize as umami, the “fifth taste” found in foods high in glutamates:
“Tell me, the first time you tasted oysters, tea, porter, truffles, and sundry other dainties which you now adore, did you like them?”
And the second, a serious line that reads as a joke now, one that could only have been penned by a Frenchman:
“condemned to partake of Italian cookery—that is, the worst in the world.”
* Euphemisms for death abound in every language, and, along with euphemisms for sex, show tremendous creativity. Dumas offers one I hadn’t seen before, with one character asking if anther has “paid the last debt of nature?”
* I mentioned reading a few duds that didn’t merit writeups. Two were from the Bloomsbury list – Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a fable about two men who choose widely divergent paths in search of enlightenment, and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, a romantic (in the traditional sense) novel about two sisters with widely divergent personalities who live separate, different lives but end up in the same place. I also read Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, which is just a bad Richard Russo book. Next up: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, a 1991 book by Jostein Gaarder.