Details: Originally published 1844; pub Livre de Poche 1995; ISBN 2-253-09805-1 / 2-253-09806-X; English e-text (no French text available online, that I can find)1,
Verdict: Le comte de Monte-Cristo is great fun, despite being on the long side.
Reasons for reading it: lethargic_man raves about it.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man gave it to me for my birthday. In fact, he gave it to me twice: he gave me an English edition for my 24th, and I was an ungrateful wench and said 'That's very nice, but you know I'm too much of a snob to read French novels in translation'. So he gave me a French edition for my 25th; what a patient and generous boyfriend I have!
While Le comte de Monte-Cristo has many appealing qualities, it does suffer from having been written as a serial. It may in fact be my just reward for complaining that modern fantasy tends to be too long; this one was originally published in eighteen volumes! I am a little behind on my reviews, but most of the reason why I didn't post any new books for ages was that it took me about six weeks to read lCdMC, and then I was somewhat daunted by the prospect of reviewing it. That said, a good proportion of it is exciting enough that reading it didn't feel like a chore. My main complaint was not the length, but the way the structure is not as tight as it might be, and the effectiveness of the writing is diluted by too many irrelevant sub-plots and minor characters.
I absolutely loved the first section, with Dantès' unjust imprisonment (which actually resonated very strongly for me with the Dreyfuss affair, which I did a project on for A Level), his friendship with Faria, his dramatic escape culminating in finding the treasure. That makes a really good adventure story, with just the right balance between really breathtakingly dire circumstances without going so far as to make the 'happy ending' completely implausible. Except that that's only a quarter of the way through the book, and there's still over a thousand pages where Monte Cristo has unlimited resources (materially but also in terms of influence and personality), making it rather hard to be surprised when all his plans work themselves out just as he intended. There are a few setbacks along the way, but they do rather feel like padding, and there aren't enough of them to maintain the drama.
As for the plans themselves, they strike me as unnecessarily convoluted (perhaps to maintain the requisite number of episodes). And the whole setup is really rather brutal. Yes, one can sympathize with Dantès' desire for vengeance on the people who destroyed his life, but the picture of several decades of relentless, cold-blooded pursuit of the goal of punishing them and everyone connected to them is not a particularly appealing one. I was quite considerably uncomfortable with the way this sustained cruelty is portrayed as a sort of divine mission. The count's total indifference to various people unconnected with his original enemies is very chilling. For example, I kept hoping that the story of how Ali came to be Monte Cristo's slave would turn out to be a fabrication, part of the count's elaborate act, but it is never denied.
In some ways Monte Cristo reminds me of Zakalwe from Use of Weapons, as an outsider using his effectively superhuman power to manipulate society for grand ends, with little empathy for the individual human beings caught up in his schemes. As with Zakalwe, I half wanted to sympathize with him, especially after the opening chapters in his Dantès incarnation.
There are definitely some great sections in the latter three quarters of the novel, though. There's a rather nicely done little miniature murder mystery, albeit of the kind where the reader knows whodunnit, and it's just a case of watching the characters finding a way to acquit the wrongfully accused and identify the real culprit. And boy, was I unimpressed with the 'forensics', but that's a minor detail. And the scene where Mercédès confronts Dantès: vous ne tuerez pas mon fils! is absolutely sublime. There's some lovely characterization in general, although with such a large cast there do end up being too many minor characters who aren't even disguised as anything other than plot vehicles.
The story relies too heavily on people appearing to be dead but turning out to have survived after all. It's fair enough with Dantès himself, and indeed there is an explicitly Resurrection theme going on, but too much of that stretches suspension of disbelief, and loses the tension, and by the time we get to Valentine and Maximilien, there's no drama whatsoever, it's entirely obvious that both of them are going to come back from their 'deaths'. That arc is also cast as a sort of Romeo and Juliet story, which is odd; I've been half-writing a story (that is to say, vaguely toying with the idea of writing it!) about what would have happened to R&J had the Friar's plan succeeded. The version in lCdMC is simply a retelling with a happy ending, which isn't really what I had in mind, and is in fact rather irritating.
I didn't like the romantic arcs in general, actually. The relationship between Monte Cristo and Haydée would be quite dodgy enough without the repeated emphasis on her regarding him as both father and lover. I would probably have been annoyed had Monte Cristo got back together with Mercédès, unless it had been orchestrated exceptionally well. But it's hard to accept her being left out of the happy ending.
Also, I was quite furious with the assumption of Monte Cristo (which to all appearances is shared by the narrative voice) that Mercédès somehow failed because she did not remain 'faithful' to him for several decades after believing he was dead! There's a big problem within Orthodox Judaism called the agunah (chained woman) problem, where a legal technicality can lead to certain women being unable to remarry because they can not obtain sufficiently convincing proof of their absent husband's death. This is a problem with Jewish law, and it's generally agreed to be a scandal, even by the most openly misogynistic parts of the Orthodox community. But in lCdMC, Mercédès is even more chained than a Jewish agunah. I can't believe that anyone could dare to think less of her because she married Fernand when she had seen no sign of her fiancé for 14 years except an eyewitness account of his death at the end of that time.
lCdMC reminded me why I need to read more in French, and more nineteenth century literature as well. Reading in French meant that I read slightly more slowly; probably only about 20% more slowly, but it's noticeable over such a long book! It also meant that I was able to enjoy the elaborate language without getting annoyed by how completely preposterous and over-the-top and nineteenth century it is. The sentences are far too long, and the constructions are so formal it's almost ludicrous, even in dialogue. Even the supposedly rustic and unsophisticated characters pack their sentences with incredibly convoluted phrases and obscure words and grammar that is almost never used except in the most formal writing. But reading in a second language, I was able to admire the sentences for their own sake, and not be too bothered by the lack of realism of the dialogue.
I'd forgotten just how much less prudish the nineteenth century was in France compared to English Victorianism! lCdMC has really rather a lot of sex (including a rather sweet lesbian couple) and some quite weird drug scenes.
Anyway, yeah, that was a bit of a marathon, but enjoyable all the same!
1] But that's because I can't see for looking. See below.