Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A streak of blood traced with a pencil - the best sentence in The Count of Monte Cristo

Sometimes Alexandre Dumas writes well. It's nothing like a priority, obviously, but there's some good writing here and there. Here's the setup for my favorite sentence in The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Count plans revenge on four people. How strange, then, when his servant describes how he, the Corsican servant, stabbed M. de Villefort, revenge target #1, in the chest and left him for dead many years ago. Those Corsicans and their vendettas, always getting in the way of more important vengeance.

The thriller-trained reader will assume that either the servant has his story wrong, or Villefort did not die of his wounds, so it is no surprise when Villefort turns out to be alive. I believe there are another 500 pages before the matter is actually explained. Before then the small issue of the stabbing is mentioned exactly twice, once when the servant glimpses Villefort and realizes that his stiletto had failed him, and once when the Count first meets Villefort in Paris.

Here's the description of Villefort from that scene:

“All his costume was black, with the exception of his white cravat, and this funereal appearance was only broken in upon by the slight line of red riband which passed almost imperceptibly through his buttonhole, and which appeared like a streak of blood traced with a pencil.” Ch. 49, “Ideology”

That's it, the only hint of the stabbing, for hundreds of pages. Pretty good, huh?

Let's try one more. "The Carnival at Rome", Ch. 36, is a favorite chapter, with some unusually good descriptive material about the festival. For example:

"Lovely women, yielding to the influence of the scene, bend over their balconies, or lean from their windows, and shower down confetti, which are returned by bouquets; the air seems darkened with the falling confetti and flying flowers. In the streets the lively crowd is dressed in the most fantastic costumes--gigantic cabbages walk gravely about, buffaloes' heads bellow from men's shoulders, dogs walk on their hind legs; in the midst of all this a mask is lifted, and, as in Callot's Temptation of St. Anthony, a lovely face is exhibited, which we would fain follow, but from which we are separated by troops of fiends."

I don't think the grammar of the last part is quite right, botched by either the translator or Dumas, since I can't find the lovely face in the Callot print, but you can compare Dumas to Callot for yourself. In plot terms, this is all filler, but it also reinforces the transformation / change of identity theme. Most of Dumas's sentences do one thing; these do more than one. That's almost what I think of as the art of fiction.

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