The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
I have to admit, I felt a real sense of accomplishment last night as I read page 1243 in my Penguin edition and finished this novel. I loved it, but it's been quite a while since I read a book this long, and I did start to wonder if it wasn't some version of The Never-Ending Story, with pages being added in the night.
Though I have read and re-read The Three Musketeers, I have never tried any of Alexandre Dumas's other novels. Reading his son's autobiographical La Dame aux Camélias last year made me more curious about Dumas père et fils, and then Helen's post about The Count of Monte Cristo inspired me to add it to my reading stack immediately.
According Robin Buss, who translated and edited the 1996 Penguin edition I read, The Count is one of those stories (like The Prisoner of Zenda) that have entered our collective cultural consciousness. Even those who have never read the book, or seen one of the many adaptations, know the story. In this case, I was an exception. All I knew, from references as diverse as A Little Princess and The Shawshank Redemption, was that this is the story of a man unjustly imprisoned for many years. A great part of my enjoyment came from discovering this story, not knowing where it would take me, and especially how it would end. There are surprises in the twists and turns of almost every one of its 117 chapters. (I kept changing my mind about the Abbé Busoni, for example, right up to the end of his story.) To my mind, that's how it should be read for the first time, and those who haven't yet met the Count should avoid spoilers, including back cover summaries. On the other hand, I'm already looking forward to re-reading it, less for the excitement of "what happens next," and concern for the Count's eventual fate, more to admire how Dumas winds the many, many threads of his plot together.
The part of the story that I already knew involves Edmond Dantès, a young sailor from Marseille, who is imprisoned on a false charge of treason in 1815. He is the victim of a plot by three men, one of whom envies him his career, another his fiancée, and the third who fears being implicated in true treason. While in prison, Dantès meets a fellow prisoner, the saintly Abbé Faria, heir to a fantastic fortune hidden centuries ago on a speck of an island near the Italian coast, to protect it from the rapacious Borgias. If I had only known that this story turns on buried treasure! When Edmond finally escapes the notorious Chateau d'Ilf, he in turn becomes heir to the treasure, the discovery of which will allow him to take his vengeance on the three men who sent him to prison, as well as rewarding those who helped him, or tried to. It is immensely satisfying to watch the serpentine, even byzantine means by which he accomplishes this, particularly as we learn that each of the men has committed further crimes that make this a greater matter than a personal vendetta, Justice rather than mere revenge. And if the hero initially intends that the sins of the fathers should be visited on their children, in the end Justice is tempered with mercy, as it should be.
My enjoyment of this story was doubled when I realized how much the Count of Monte Cristo reminded me of another count, M. le comte de Sevigny. Like Dorothy Dunnett's great hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Dantès is imprisoned for political reasons on trumped-up charges. Lymond escapes the galleys as Dantès the Chateau, and both have to re-make their lives. Both are consummate sailors, completely at home in ships, drawn to the sea. Both have a distinctive appearance, though Dantès lacks Lymond's physical beauty, and both have a charisma that inspires deep love and loyalty in their friends and even employees. Both are at home among thieves and smugglers. Both have a Greek mistress and a devoted African servant (though Ali is a Nubian where Lymond's Salablanca is an Arab). Both are masters of languages, of sword-play, of disguise, and above all of planning. Their devious minds weave complicated schemes that play out like clockwork, endlessly adaptable as circumstances change, funded by apparently limitless fortunes (here Dunnett's Nicholas de Fleury also comes to mind, an even greater plotter than Lymond). Both use the ostentatious display of wealth to great effect. I did start to worry that even the fantastic fortune of Monte Cristo would run out, until I learned that he had invested so wisely and safely that he could spend only interest, not principal - a homely practical touch in such a fantastic story. But then Lymond while accused of every crime imaginable is at least never compared to a vampire, as Monte Cristo is time and again. I had not realized how pervasive vampires were in popular culture even before Bram Stoker wrote!
I don't know if Dorothy Dunnett even read The Count of Monte Cristo or if it influenced her creation of Lymond, but the similarities to one of my favorite characters in all of fiction definitely made me appreciate Dumas's Count even more. I will admit though that there where a few times when I almost lost patience with his wandering tale, written originally as a newspaper serial and then published as an astonishing eighteen-volume book edition. There are stories within stories here, and an extended sequence set in Rome during Carnival that seemed to drag on too long. Then I realized that as with Dunnett, crucial clues are hidden in seemingly-irrelevant details, so that a waistcoat that disappears in Chapter 82 makes a sudden dramatic reappearance in Chapter 97. Like Dunnett, like Anthony Trollope, Dumas knows what he is doing, and in the end I just surrendered to the story. I will also be looking for more of his stories now. Helen mentioned a novel, The Black Tulip, about yes, tulips, which sounds like it should be next on my list (after the TBR Double Dare finishes, of course). But in the meantime, I am in the mood for something very different.