Tuesday 27 December 2016
#CBR8 Book 125: "Greven av Monte Christo (The Count of Monte Cristo)" by Alexandre Dumas
Rating: 4.5 stars
Young sailor Edmond Dantés is well-meaning, kind and really rather naive, wanting nothing more than to make enough money to take care of his elderly father and marry his beloved Mercedes. There are other, less well-meaning people in his life who want what he has and are prepared to frame Dantés for treason to get these things. While celebrating his engagement to Mercedes, Dantés is arrested, charged with aiding in a plot to restore the exiled Napoleon to the throne. The anonymous scheming may have come to nought, except a letter in Dantés' possession frames the father of the judge who hears his case, and said man decides that the best thing to do is burn the letter, and lock Dantés away, before the precious judge is implicated in the scandal. So thanks to a drunken, malicious prank and an unscrupulous judge, Dantés is locked up away in a dark dungeon for fourteen years, where he nearly goes mad, while his father dies alone and destitute and his Mercedes marries another.
Dantés probably would have lost his mind if not for the friendship with another prisoner, the Abbot Feria, who, when trying to dig an escape tunnel, instead ends up in Dantés' cell. The two strike up a friendship and Feria, a very learned man, teaches the fairly inexperienced sailor everything he knows. He listens patiently to Dantés' story of how he ended up being imprisoned, and explains exactly how he will have ended up being framed, turning Dantés' thoughts immediately to escape and revenge. Initially, the two are planning to escape the prison together. But the Abbott is old and sick and dies before they have a chance to get out. He tells Dantés of a great treasure, hidden away on the island of Monte Cristo. Once Dantés escapes, he goes there, and discovers riches beyond his wildest dreams. After fourteen years, with everyone who ever knew him believing him long dead, Dantés can start truly plotting his revenge.
Ten years after the escape, the mysterious and brooding Count of Monte Cristo appears in Paris and soon the lives of three prosperous and successful gentlemen start falling apart completely.
I'm convinced that it is more than twenty years since I first read this book, when I was still young and patient and felt that the longer the book, the better, frankly (this was back when I also happily read my mother's three volume edition of Les Misérables in about four days while stuck at my gran's in the west of Norway, a book I only got about a third of the way through once I tried re-reading it a few years back. To be fair, this was a time long before wifi and smart phones, the only thing to do when in the west of Norway was to read. What else was I going to do, hang out with my douchy cousins, or worse yet, my little brother?) When the Cannonball Book Club poll for Classics ended up picking the LONGEST book of all of the ones nominated (I want to point out that I picked The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton - at a neat 350 pages), it wasn't like I had a choice but to read the book, and I certainly wasn't going to opt for some abridged version. That would be cheating. This is also why this book will now forever be known to me as the book that ate November.
I actually started it in mid-October, but it became really obvious that as long as I was allowing myself to read other books as well, I was just never going to get through the nearly thousand pages of 19th Century French adventure fiction. Hence the only books I finished in November except this, were the ones I listened to in audio. In the end, I completed the book on November 30th, the day before our book club discussion. The Norwegian translation I read was done in the 1950s, but was thankfully not too difficult to get into, once I got used to some of the more old-fashioned terms. The first third or so, until Dantés finally escapes prison and goes to the island to find the treasure, moves along at a fair clip and is quite exciting. The problem came when he returns after ten years, and Dumas spends a lot of time re-establishing all the characters (who obviously no longer go by the same names they did at the beginning of the book, that would be far too easy) and setting the stage for Dantés' truly masterful revenge scenario. Once the book really gets going on that, it's all pretty thrilling, right up until the end.
It's not for nothing that this is known as one of the great revenge stories of all time. It was also, obviously written in a time when books like this, sold in instalments, were the big network entertainments of their day. Over the course of eighteen months, people would only get sixty pages at a time. That's a long time to wait to see how Dantés deals out righteous vengeance on the guys who did him wrong and made themselves rich and successful thanks in part to his misfortune. I wish I could say that I read it, considering where the instalment breaks would have been and fully aware of how the entertainments of our day have changed (all points covered in our excellent book club discussion), but I totally didn't. I mainly just forced myself through it, in between correcting a LOT of essays and audio book listening, wanting to get through the early Paris sections, where I had to use Wikipedia to help me keep track of the names of all the various parties, their many family members and how exactly they were soap operaishly connected to one another through double dealing, scheming and adultery, so I could understand everything fully once the Count's plan really kicked into gear.
While I don't love it as much as I did when I was a teenager, it's still a great book and for a book written in the mid-19th Century, it has an interestingly varied portrayal of both male and female characters. I was especially excited to see that Dumas apparently thought nothing of having Eugénie Danglars, the daughter of one of the men who wronged Dantés, escape the whole sorry revenge plot by running off with her companion on what I'm assuming will be one heck of a lesbian bohemian adventure. Valentine Villefort, one of the other prominent ladies, is so good and kind and true she makes your teeth hurt, but a lot of the other ladies, not least Mercedes, Dantés' lost love, are very impressive in their own right, this is not just a book about dudes.
While I was initially despairing, as it felt like that my November was pretty much this and correction work, I'm very glad that the Book Club pick did end up being this book, so that I got a chance to finally re-read it. I'd kept telling myself I was going to, and then never getting round to it, because it's sooo long. I also have plans to watch the TV adaptation starring Richard Chamberlain (clearly the go-to actor for Dumas adaptations in the 1970s - as well as playing Dantés, he was Aramis in the Musketeers movies directed by Richard Lester and he also starred in the dual role in The Man with the Iron Mask), but as New Year's is rapidly approaching, I needed to get these reviews completed - no time to watch movies before I blog. I honestly don't know what the abridged versions of the novel leave out, it seemed to me that once you with hindsight can see what is being set up, even the parts of the novel that dragged while reading them were really quite important. I would therefore recommend that you allow yourself the time to read the full version if you try the book. It's worth the effort, I promise.
Judging a book by its cover: For years and years and years, I've been a member of what is called the Norwegian Book Club, which is more of a subscription service for books than an actual club where people get together to read the same book every month and discuss it. It should also be noted that because a) Norwegian hardback books are terribly expensive and b) I barely ever read Norwegian books, I automatically cancel the books of the month every single time. I get the e-mail, I go to the website, I cancel the books. Very occasionally, i use the accompanying website to buy presents for people. All of this is to explain that my two volume edition of Greven av Monte Christo (which is the Norwegian name for the book) is one that I got when I became a member many many years ago, and the cover is nothing very exciting. A silhouette of a man. The background on volume one is dark blue, the background on volume two is golden yellow. Apart from that, they are identical.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.