Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

After being disappointed by Alexandre Dumas’ The Last Cavalier, I needed to find out if my fond memories of The Count of Monte Cristo were justified. Did The Last Cavalier suffer from bad translation, lack of polish due to Dumas’ death, or overly high expectations based on my faulty memory.

I remembered absolutely nothing from my reading 40 years ago. In his introduction, the interpreter, Robin Buss, gives the simple synopsis: “innocent man imprisoned, meets fellow-prisoner who directs him to a buried fortune, escapes and plots revenge.” I still remembered nothing.

This translation was completed in 1996, so obviously it is not the same one I read before. It would be easy to leave a lot of description and rambling out of the story and abridge the book to a fairly simple plot. But at 1,243 pages Buss left out nothing – which I appreciate. Dumas wrote the book in 1844, and he was French. So a lot of attitudes about honor, behavior of gentlemen, bankruptcy, marital relations, drug use, sexual orientation, etc. all are a little strange to the modern reader. But love is still love, and betrayal is still betrayal.

At the opening of the book, Edmond Dantes is a young man who has it all. He is in love with a beautiful woman, Mercedes, who agrees to marry him; he is about to receive command of a merchant ship; and he has a strong supportive relationship with his father.

Unbeknownst to Dantes, he has enemies. The supercargo on his ship, Danglars, is jealous of his impending command. And Fernand is jealous of his impending wedding to Mercedes. And the times are trecherous. The story starts in a brief period of restored monarchy while Napoleon is in exile on Elba. Napoleon is about to come back to France to restore his empire. Danglars comes up a plan to denounce Dantes as a Bonapartist, and maneuvers Fernand into making the denunciation.

The denunciation comes to the local prosecutor, Villefort, who can quickly see that Dantes is innocent. But there is a letter involved that ties Villefort’s father to a Bonapartist plot. In order to protect his own political ambitions, Villefort destroys the evidence and has Dantes locked in a dungeon in an island prison.

Years later, Dantes escapes from prison, with the knowledge of a fantastic treasure. He becomes fabulously wealthy, buys a title, and becomes the Count of Monte Cristo. He re-enters society to fulfill his revenge. But revenge must be better than merely killing his enemies. He needs to accomplish their complete downfall.

While Dantes has been away, Fernand marries Mercedes, goes to war, switches sides as needed, and has been rewarded with the title Count de Morcerf. Danglars funded the right people at the right times and became a wealthy banker. Villefort dodged artfully though the troubles of Napoleon’s return, downfall, and subsequent restoration of the monarchy to become the chief crown prosecutor. They have all become prominent in Parisian society.

Dantes’ enemies also all have children with complicating romances and friendships. They provide subplots that impact on Dantes’ decisions.

It took less than 250 pages to destroy Dantes world, and then to restore him to fabulous wealth. But revenge is to be savored. Revenge takes 1,000 pages. At times, revenge became hard to put down.

There is a lot of description of social mores of the times. But it all fits. The social maneuvering is critical to the destruction of Dantes’ enemies. There was not much swashbuckling adventure here, just a little every now and then. But setting up Fernand, Danglars, and Villefort for their fall – exquisite.

So my conclusion is that my fond memory of The Count of Monte Cristo was well founded. And the translation was very complete, leaving out nothing. So I have to conclude that The Last Cavalier suffered either because Dumas did not write as well at the end of his life, or he did not edit the story as needed because of his untimely death.

1 comment:

Kit said...

I'm glad the Count didn't disappoint you. I don't recall ever reading the book, but I remember the movie from a few years ago (2002?). I enjoyed the movie with all the plotting and drama the first time I saw it. But when I had a chance to see it again I must have been in a different mood. I was very put off and appalled that a man could spend so much of his life seeking revenge. Too negative, and not contributing anything positive to his society.