by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss
After doing a few calculations and realizing how many years it would take me to read all the books I had on my current "to-read" list, I started to think maybe I wanted to be a little choosier about what I spend my time on; I'm not a fast reader, after all, and I had recently read some real duds. So I started paying more attention to people talking about their all-time favorite books. For my friend Andy Sherman, it was The Count of Monte Cristo. What the heck. I checked it out of the library. To my chagrin it was 1243 pages; I could read 3 or 4 books in that amount of time! I resolved to give it the 50-page test, and wasn't disappointed; it's an exciting story.
For those unfamiliar, this 1840 novel concerns a young sailor from Marseilles, Edmond Dantes, who has a beautiful fiancee, a great job, and a father who's proud of him. Unfortunately, there are those in town who are rather jealous of Dantes' good fortune, and their envy is whipped up, by the smartest of the lot, into a conspiracy. And the fragile political environment (Napoleon has been exiled, but is rumored to be planning a coup) only makes things worse. Dantes ends up, without a trial, being thrown into a dungeon to live out the rest of his days alone, with only the memory of the life he should have had. After nearly going insane, he establishes contact with another prisoner, who helps him figure out the identities of his antagonists. He vows that if he ever gets out, he will have his revenge on these men.
Dumas has a breathless, melodramatic writing style that takes a bit of getting used to, but can be very entertaining. He was paid by the line, and he made the most of this by writing a lot of dialogue, which, coincidentally, makes his writing all the more digestible to the modern reader. There are chapters, especially during the middle of the book, that I felt could have easily been trimmed from the book, but my main frustration was with character; at times the Count of Monte Cristo seems to be a god (a fact not lost on those around him) and one almost wishes he were a bit less all-powerful. His overuse of his powers do eventually seem to catch up with him, but Dumas seemed to like his character too much to give him any real regrets. Strangely, the Count reminded me of Batman, who almost seems like an evolution of the same character: the poor unfortunate who grows into a worldly manipulator, dealing out vengance to those who would abuse their power.
Robin Buss's translation was a joy to read, and taught me that a well-translated 19th century French novel could actually be more of a page-turner than an untranslated 19th century English novel. Must keep this in mind.