Monday, January 26, 2009

The Count of Monte Cristo - clichés, 1,462 pages, and jelly on the side

I'm not such a bad reader of literature. I pay attention to what the text says. I read each sentence. I store away the details. If the writer is good, they’ll show up later. When I hear someone say that he didn’t appreciate this or that book because he “reads too fast”, my sympathy is limited. Slow down, dude. Or get the plot out of the way, and then read it again for the good parts.

With a book like Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-5), though, I’m the one reading it wrong. This is not a well-written novel. It’s a compilation of clichés - clichés of characterization, clichés of expression. Individual sentences, or dialogues, or, in mercifully few cases, entire chapters (see Ch. 52, “Pyramus and Thisbe”), are teeth-grindingly bad. It’s the skimmers who are reading The Count of Monte Cristo correctly. Speed up, pal, speed up. No, don’t stick around to the end of that sentence. It’s not getting any better.

In the Modern Library edition, which reprints an anonymous 1846 English version, presumably done in haste and packed with grotesque translation errors, that momentum-killing Chapter 52 (two young lovers deliver expostion to each other through a hole in a wall, like Pyramus and Thisbe, ain't that cute) begins on page 686. Good Lord, that's not even the halfway point -there are 1,462 pages total.

If the novel is so bad (which it isn't, quite), and so long, why is it one of the most popular stories ever written? I had to wrestle with this for a while, I admit. My tolerance for clichés - other people's clichés, at least, ha ha - is low. My interest in plot - incident, really - is minimal. What did readers like Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino see in this ridiculous book?

Oscar Wilde argued, or asserted, or anyway wrote, that we should divide books into three classes: Books to read, Books to re-read, and Books not to read at all (for example, “all books that try to prove anything”).*

The Count of Monte Cristo is definitely worth reading. I’m not so sure it’s worth re-reading, at least not for the reasons one re-reads, to pick some contemporaries of Dumas, Balzac or Hugo . I’ll spend this week grumbling about Monte Cristo’s defects, enjoying its virtues, and eating deep-fried sandwiches.

* The Artist as Critic: The Criticism of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellman, p. 27


  1. I feel I should defend the fast readers of the world, as I just yesterday wrote about being one (and I daresay you turn pages more quickly, so this is not truly about speed), but I'm not sure it's possible. For me, very little would be gained by reading more slowly (and I do read all of every sentence except if they are songs in elvish or quotes in languages I can't begin to tease apart). I don't like starting or stopping and I fall into a certain pace and thus reading more slowly would frustrate me. Much is gained by my looking again at works, either re-reading the whole thing or discussing or even finding bits to blog about, more by way of raising my awareness of the details I did pick up.

    I picked the Three Musketeers for a seventh grade project (I wanted to prove I could read long books) and haven't felt compelled to read Dumas ever again.

  2. "Popular story" doesn't necessarily mean "popular book," does it? I'm guessing that even in the 19th c., lots of people learned the plot from sources other than the novel. Frankenstein's popularity in the nineteenth century owed virtually everything to the stage adaptations, not the book. (In fact, I suspect that most people now know the plot from films, not the book.) Similarly, all of my students know Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, etc., but they do so from film, TV, and graphic novels.

  3. I haven't read The Count of Monte Cristo so particularly appreciated the part about the sandwiches. Thank you for a good laugh! Judging from your comments, The Count sounds like a good book to read when sick with a cold.

  4. In defense of the fast eaters of the world, I find it very hard to slow down when devouring Monte Cristo sandwiches. They are so much better when hot and crispy. Attempts to savor them are rewarded with soggy bread and congealing cheese.

    Perhaps this is the origin of the sandwich's name, after all? Faster, faster -- it's a Monte Cristo!

  5. I read more slowly than I used to. I reread as I am reading, a lot, sentences or pages or passages. As a result, I don't think I'm a particularly fast reader anymore.

    I've also become a more patient reader. Why should I hurry to find out what happens? The book'll wait for me.

    Anyway, it's all relative to the baseline. The dazzlingly fast "full page" reader spends more time with a page of Emerson than a page of Dumas, or should.

    The last thing I want to do, or one of the last things, is to tell people how to read (except for Monte Cristo - don't dawdle).

    Miriam, you have anticipated a point I wanted to make later, although, now that I review how I wrote that sentence - well, I could use an editor. Anyway, yes, definitely - for example, Dumas wrote his own stage adaptations for Monte Cristo, in three parts.

    This novel would be excellent by a sickbed, or on a transcontinental flight. It's much more interesting than The Three Musketeers. I should remember to mention that later, too. By the way, Prof. Burstein, have you ever had call to make use of that hilarious part of The Three Musketeers where the evil Catholic lady corrupts the incorruptible Puritan?

    It has been so long, oh so long, since I last ate a Monte Cristo. I believe the jelly was raspberry.

  6. I just looked, and the only one of Dumas's books that I actually own is The Three Musketeers.

    You know, I am not sure if I ever actually read it or I just know the story...from the movies most likely. Not sure I will be reading, or re-reading, it soon now. :-)

    But I do love a Monte Cristo sandwich. Wish I had one right now...
    And, for that matter, I love a Three Musketeers candy bar too!!

  7. Haven't read this since that wonderful age of cliché - highschool - so I dare say I didn't notice any. But you've made me curious to see what I would think of this book now...will see if there is a copy lying around Switzerland somewhere and dig in.

  8. Frau- I think that fast eating accentuates the experience with nearly all fried food. Hot, crispy, crackly = good. Soggy, greasy, lukewarm = not so good. True of certain writers also? "Count of Monte Cristo, skim it while it's hot and crispy or else it will be soggy and leaden."

  9. So I picked up this idea somewhere that a Three Musketeers bar is a waste of money, because it's mostly air. Y'know, it's whipped and so on. A close relative told me that when I was young and impressionable; can't remember who.

    There's no reason a musketeer movie can't be as good or better than the novel. I'm partial to "The Revenge of the Musketeers" / "La Fille d'Artagnan" (1994). I'm less sure about The Count. Anyone seen the recent long one starring Gerard Depardieu?

    verbivore - There are some real advantages to ignoring clichés.

  10. So I realize I'm commenting on this post about two years after it went up, but nevertheless, as a lover of Dumas, I feel compelled to defend my favorite author. Of course, I will admit that I read the book when I was thirteen, and at the age of thirteen, one is much more impressionable (and less well-read). I will admit that it probably struck me so much because I didn't get the happy ending I was expecting.
    I must say, however, that while the revenge story is possibly a bit cliche by now, I think it needs to be read in context. At the time Dumas was writing, as far as I know, grand revenge stories were not quite as cliched. It seems to me to be a Romantic theme, and reading it two hundred years after the fact will, of course, make it seem a bit more stale. I will also admit that the book does drag a bit at times, but there are other sections where I turned the pages voraciously. Also, the part I found most interesting and satisfying was not the revenge story, it was Dumas' understanding of human nature. The fact that, at the end, the Count sailed away with Haydee, that he could not stay with Mercedes because he was no longer Edmond Dantes, struck me. He was seeking revenge for the things he lost, but for that revenge to happen, he needed to become a different man, a man to whom those things are not as meaningful.

  11. No expiration date!

    As a newcomer, you will be dismayed to learn that, as is so often the case, this is only the first post of a five-part series on Monte Cristo. Later parts directly address - agree with, generally - some of your points.

    You misunderstand my complaint about the clichés of Dumas, though. I do not claim that they are in the revenge plot (which I admire here). They are in the characterization and in the prose, everywhere in the prose. For counter-examples, see here.

    I believe your well-phrased final point is also hinted at but not developed in the Tuesday post.

  12. Tom,
    I wonder if your struggle with the text is due to the translator rather than Dumas writing skills. I read the Robin Buss translation for Penguin and enjoyed it very much. I think the 1846 translation is quite dated and some of the phrasing seems awkward. Plus there are small sections which are cut from the 1846.

    I find Dumas romances a lot less cliched than Dickens.


  13. The translation, maybe so. The translator was presumably working in as much or more haste than Dumas. Thanks for the recommendation of the more recent translation. I wonder if it could possibly salvage that "Pyramus and Thisbe" chapter.