Friday, January 30, 2009

The point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one - everyone likes a good prison story

Strange how so many of the French novels contemporary with The Count of Monte Cristo prominently feature prisons. Stendhal ends The Red and the Black in a prison, and much of The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a strange prison tower. Merimée's Carmen is narrated from prison. The last quarter (half?) of A Harlot High and Low takes place in La Conciergerie. Dumas himself returned to the subject with The Man in the Iron Mask. Then there's Victor Hugo, who was obsessed with the subject of prisons and criminals - see not just The Last Day of a Condemned Man, but parts of Notre Dame of Paris, and substantial chunks of Les Miserables.*

I haven't read Les Miserables, but what I know of it makes me wonder if Hugo may have been deliberately responding to The Count of Monte Cristo is some way, maybe showing how to take the subjects of justice and vengeance seriously. The Count seems to share some qualities with Jean Valjean - they both have superhuman abilities. Both, in fact, owe a debt to Balzac's super-criminal, Vautrin (aka Jacques Collin, etc.), who appears in several Balzac novels. The Count, like Vautrin, wanders around disguised as a priest. Both command mysterious resources and have loyal retainers who owe their lives to their master.

The funny thing here is that although the Count is clearly modeled after Vautrin, the last part of A Harlot High and Low, the prison chapters which star Vautrin, were published two years after The Count of Monte Cristo. It's likely that Balzac influenced Dumas who then influenced Balzac.

Italo Calvino's "The Count of Monte Cristo", which ends t zero (1967), spins off from Dumas's prison scenes. Edmond Dantès ponders how to escape from the island prison; meanwhile the Abbé Faria tries to dig his way out, never quite getting it right:

"At times I hear a scratching at the ceiling; a rain of plaster falls on me; a breach opens; Faria's head appears, upside down. Upside down for me, not him; he crawls out of his tunnel, he walks head down, while nothing about his person is ruffled, not his white hair, nor his beard green with mold, nor the tatters of sackcloth that cover his emaciated loins. He walks across the ceiling and the walls like a fly, he sinks his pick into a certain spot, a hole opens; he disappears."

This is typical Calvino stuff. Time and space don't quite behave correctly, paradoxes fold into more paradoxes. Edmond concludes that the way to escape is to dig inward, not outward. Somehow the Abbé digs his way to the study of Alexandre Dumas, where he rifles the manuscript of The Count of Monte Cristo, looking for an escape route. Here's the final paradox:

"If I succeed in mentally constructing a fortress from which it is impossible to escape, this conceived fortress either will be the same as the real one - and in this case it is certain we shall never escape from here, but at least we will achieve the serenity of one who knows he is here because he could be nowhere else - or it will be a fortress from which escape is even more impossible than from here - and this, then, is a sign that here an opportunity of escape exists: we have only to identify the point where the imagined fortress does not coincide with the real one and then find it."

Is there an "escapist literature" pun here? The Italian term seems to be "letteratura d'evasione", so I wonder. The Count of Monte Cristo coincides with our world, the real one, in few points. It's just a marvelous, preposterous work of imagination.

* If I set aside the Gothic dungeons and debtor's prisons - big exceptions, both of them - I don't see such an interest in prisons in English literature. Scott's The Heart of Midlothian - the prison is in the title; Barnaby Rudge; Emily Brontë's poems. What am I forgetting? I'll bet A Tale of Two Cities has some prison scenes. I'll bet the prisons are French. I assume the French preoccupation with the subject is in response to the Revolution and Napoleon.


  1. Such an intriguing observation, though before i finished your footnote I was thinking that Dickens has to be considered in any such discussion if only for the austere opening to Little Dorrit. I have read Les Miserables and I had never sought the overlap with Charterhouse of Parma and Scarlet and the Black: perhaps it is some Gaulic tradition from Villon to Genet. Well played, sir

  2. It is an interesting point- I do think the widespread political imprisonment in France made its way into the literature, where in English literature eg Dickens its more likely to be for debt. It's also probably a class thing.

    You're right that A Tale of Two Cities has many prison scenes- you'll have to read it! It's the first Dickens novel I read, and still a favourite.

  3. I can think of lots of prisons/convicts in Dickens. There are prison scenes in Tale of Two Cities all of them French. There's the debtor's prison in Little Dorrit. The returned convict in Great Expectations. Prison and then tranportation in Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. I think tranportation to Australia is a bigger theme in 19th British lit.

    The end of Crime and Punishment is also in prison. In that case exile in Siberia. I think you're on to something here. You don't by any chance need a topic for a dissertation, do you.

  4. super interesting connections you're making here. but I think rather than seeing hugo et al as somehow responding to dumas (which is not out of the question), it makes more sense to remark that the Romantic novel in France was very interested in justice, as was the Victorian novel in England.

    you should read les mis! you know, in your spare time.

  5. What helpful comments.

    Jon Faith reminds me that French literature has a long tradition not just of literature about criminals, but literature by criminals. Villon's 15th century Testament is one of the World's Greatest Poems. I'd completely forgotten about this.

    C.B. makes me wonder more about the English side - did anyone write novels about transportation, to Australia or wherever? Did anyone write good ones before Thomas Keneally? It's such a rich subject. I mean, not just a mention of it, but a novel that's really about the subject.

    Sarah mentions a point I forgot - that several of these fictional imprisoned Frenchmen are not criminals but political prisoners, which could hardly have an English euqivalent.

    But la maitresse reminds me that the intellectual roots of the reformers and writers are actually related. That writers in different countries directed their energies at different problems is no surprise.

    This is all very educational. Pencil in: prison literature project.

  6. There's For the Term of His Natural Life by Marcus Clarke, which I know almost nothing about. Not enough to say whether it's good. Published from 1870-1872 though, so well within your timeframe.

    I will sit quietly and wait for the possible prison lit project.

  7. All right, I've done internet-style research, and that Marcus Clarke book looks fascinating. Thanks for the tip, thanks a lot.

  8. Hi there,

    Far from me the idea to discuss the pertinence of the general thesis, but Hugo wasn't literally obsessed with prisons, he was politically obsessed with them. His political career almost started with an exile and has then revolved around the question of punishment (capital and carceral) linked to social injustice. One of his most famous sentence pronounced à l'assemblée nationale was "ouvrez une école, vous fermerez une prison".

    (ah and as for Le Rouge et le Noir, come on, Sorel is only imprisoned at the end, and it's just to stage the trial (and let him rant for some time before the execution...). You can't put this one in the "with a real prison inside" shelves, or you'll have to put Les Karamazov with it.)

  9. The objection to the inclusion of The Red and the Black is a fair point. That scene is so central to my understanding of the novel that I may be overstating its importance.

    But if I were considering prisons in Russian literature, I probably would want to look at Karamazov.

    You remind me (as did ma femme about a Hugo story I forgot to mention, his trip to Mont St. Michel when it was still a prison, and his disgust that this monument was used for such a purpose.

  10. Dickens really is rife with prisons, though they're all--aside from those in A Tale of Two Cities--debtors' prisons. Magwitch in Great Expectations wasn't in for debt, but he doesn't really count because we only see him outside the prison.

    I'm racking my brains trying to think of another Victorian author who wrote about prisons, and no one is coming to mind thus far. I think the thesis that has developed in this comment section is probably accurate, more or less: the political prisons of France made a stronger impression than the debtor's prisons of England; only Dickens, with his avowed social conscience, bothered to notice England's prison system, whereas any politically engaged French author couldn't help but take note of their system.

  11. This is one of those little connections that makes a person wonder, and is a reward for reading widely in a literature.

    As Levi mentioned on his site, a run at Les Miserables is overdue.