The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas / Bill Homewood

This = long. But it’s a long book.

The spoiler-free short version: The Count of Monte Cristo is an extraordinary, long, complex (as in, takes a large chart to keep relationships straight) work with a very simple story idea: a young man is horribly wronged, emerges from prison with a new life and a vast fortune, and uses that plus his very good mind to wreak vengeance on the people who ruined his life. It’s fantastic, in every meaning of the word; it’s different from what I expected and from nearly everything I’ve read before; it’s a great adventure yarn with a lovely little romance thrown in (almost entirely counterbalanced by wrecked relationships, but still lovely) … In fact …

“Has it got any sports in it?”
“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

The giants and monsters are figurative in The Count, but they’re in there – they are in there. There’s actually very little fencing or fighting, and the torture is almost all mental, but … yeah. It’s all there.

The story is, at its heart, very simple. A strong and handsome and capable young man is well on his way to having a golden life, complete with the girl he loves, until jealousy in those around him has him sent to prison on false charges. There he sits for seventeen years as the world spins on without him, his only relief from the dark solitude a fellow prisoner who takes him on a mad journey to escape, teaching him everything he could ever need to know about everything while they work at it. When he finally does escape, he embarks on a mad quest of his own, to have a subtle, vicious revenge on everyone who harmed him.

Is that … a chicken head?

My review of said story isn’t as simple. I began listening to the book almost a year ago (!), but this thing never coalesced. So, finally, here’s what I’ve got, somewhat disjointed – more a collection of random scattered thoughts I jotted down during the read than what I’d actually call a review. Beware of spoilers.

I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Bill Homewood, and had a wonderful time – he made 52 hours and 45 minutes seem like only four days.

No, I kid – he gave a magnificent performance. The audio book I chose for a Goodreads Buddy Read of The Count of Monte Cristo– narrated by Bill Homewood – is in 6 parts, totaling 52 hours & 45 minutes. In other words, two days, four hours, and forty-five minutes. Funnily enough, other versions were of wildly varying lengths – unabridged editions run between 45 hours and the one I picked, 52 hours and 45 minutes. There were also several abridged editions – from a dramatic presentation lasting an hour (how??) to a 17 hour abridgement – but despite its being the longest out there I liked the sample of this, and I think it was a good choice: Mr. Homewood is an excellent companion. I can only assume some translations were more succinct than others, or that where Mr. Homewood uses a different (extremely well done) voice for each character (resulting in different cadences), and gives each line its full dramatic weight, someone reading in one level tone might get through the material more quickly. For me a big part of the enjoyment was listening to the performance – he went all out on it, conveying real emotion and suspense and humor and dread in a magnificent one-man show. He deserves an award. Most actors’ performances are one character in some fraction of a film or play or tv episode between one and three hours; this was 100% of nearly 53 hours, and fantastic. (I spent no little time marveling at how he kept the voices straight. I would be doing constant re-takes after reading Danglars’s lines in Villefort’s voice or some such.) (Not to mention the occasional cut to edit out my frustrated exclamations of “Wait, who the *&$! is THIS, now??”)

From the beginning I was surprised at the sense of humor that pervades the book. If I had taken a good look at the portrait Wikipedia uses for M. Dumas, I might not have been – the humor in that face is wonderful. But I suppose despite so much evidence to the contrary I still retain the expectation, formed in high school, for literature more than a hundred years old to be dull and stodgy, especially the Victorians. It isn’t fair – it’s not the books, but the teachers, who (present company excepted, as applicable) do the damage to Dickens and Shakespeare and company. But, still, even knowing that M. Dumas buckled the ultimate swash in The Three Musketeers, I thought the language would be dense and impenetrable.

Which is so very much not the case.

It all depends on the translation, of course, and in the case of an audiobook on the reader. The translation I listened to was colloquial – often feeling very modern and oddly British (the character of Albert in particular was hilarious, and in many ways – especially given Bill Homewood’s reading of him – verged on Bertie Wooster) – and casual (everyone, in every situation, says “Thanks”, never “Thank you”) – and much, much more fun than I expected. Yes, there are moments that made me smile inappropriately, such as after several minutes of strenuous detail followed by the rather unnecessary summing up of “Dantès was free” or “The Abbé was dead”; it’s a style quirk that always vexes me, just a little.

Apart from that, this couldn’t have been more accessible.

(Another little vexation: I am tempted to find an online source for The Count and do a search for the word “Well”. I would want to discount any with the meaning of “place to fetch water” or “good” or such, and just count the ones that begin sentences. At first I thought it was just Caderousse who started every single sentence with “Well!” – but then I came to entire conversations where sentence after sentence began the same way. (What word translated to that, I wonder?))

Humans are strange creatures. Early on – before Dantès’s arrest but after the plot against him has been conceived, if not born – M. Morrel turns to Danglars and repeats to him what Edmond had said about him: nothing bad, by any means; in fact, remarkably generous. Ah, I thought – he’s going to feel a pang here, even though it might be short-lived: Dantès has nothing against him, or at the very least he said nothing against him to the owner. But no: his only response is to internally exclaim “Hypocrite!” I already knew he was a thorough Bad Guy – that was when I knew he was very far gone indeed.

And Dantès … Hope keeps welling up in Dantès, at every opportunity. He plunges to the depths of despair – but any time there is the least hint of light he throws his entire self at it and clings till long past the point when it’s actually dead. And then at the very bottom of the depths of despair he finds – if not hope, then peace; the knowledge that he has the power to take his own life at any time he wishes gives him strength to carry on.

I wonder how different things would have been if one person besides the Abbé had held out a hand – at least, done so with Dantès’ knowledge. His despair and the hardness that grew out of it hinged on the fact that he had been forgotten, that no one on earth knew or cared where he was. The second jailer did try to do something for him, but was thwarted; it seems he never told Dantès (wise, as it would have gotten hopes up fruitlessly). M. Morrel was constantly (until the final overthrow of Napoleon) trying to do something for him. But the gestures were ineffective and unknown to Dantès, and so his eventual escape is almost entirely his own doing. If a solitary person had aided him in any way, perhaps his determination on vengeance would not have been so hard and unyielding.

I thought it was a bit remarkable that Dantès should sit at the deathbed of the Abbé and think about killing himself – possibly committing “suicide by cop” – so as to follow after his friend and find him in the afterlife. Dantès, apparently, received little Christian education; it’s a basic tenet that, without very good justification in terms of mental illness (and even then, in your stricter periods), suicides go to hell. There would be no reunion with the Abbé. I wonder if that was a blind spot in Dumas or in Dantès.

Except for one, the people of M. Dumas’s world seem to fall into perhaps three categories: the good, the bad, and the weak. The good are unimpeachable – the Abbé, M. Morrel and his family, Edmond’s father, Valentine; they are honest and long-suffering, would never take any unfair advantage to better their own lot. The bad are irredeemable – Danglars, Fernand, Villefort; they are fixed on their singular goal, and no young prodigy is going to get in their way. The weak, such as Caderousse and Mercédès, can be considered friends – but only trusted so far. They are slender reeds. Not much can be expected of them, so when they do their weak best it is to be rewarded. But in the end Caderousse reverts to form (I’ll come back to him) and Mercédès is broken by her experiences and caught up in her misery (I’ll come back to her too); any rewards they’ve received are squandered or outweighed.

And then there’s that one exception: Dantès. He is not purely good or bad, and certainly not weak; his thirst for revenge is understandable given what was done to him without provocation. But Abbé Faria did advise him to put vengeance aside … and Dantès was unable to do so, even eager as he was to please his friend. Before long he seems to have forgotten that the Abbé ever said anything of the sort to him, or even, it seems at times, that he ever existed. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, and Dantès takes upon himself not only that aspect of the power of God but the omniscient omnipotent rewarding of good as well. Toward the end he shocked me by saying outright, and in all apparent seriousness, “God needed me”. Forsooth. He sees himself as the infallible arbiter of right and wrong – until his nose is forcibly rubbed in the unintended consequences of his actions.

At one point he required Morrel (Jr.) to remember that he is talking to someone who “never uttered a falsehood and cannot be deceived.” Forsooth. That’s the sort of remark that makes me want to comb through the text to locate every lie and deception perpetrated by and on him.

Money may not bring happiness, but lack of it breeds fear and uncertainty. To an extent, I loved the mindset with which Dantès approaches wealth: he is changing lives. For the worse, where deserved: Danglars and Fernand and Villefort were marked men from the moment Dantès left the Isle D’If – but also, markedly, for the better. Those who were able to help him, all unknowing, in his quest for information were more than generously rewarded; even small actions were richly rewarded. And I will say for him that the money stolen by Danglars (did we really need that much confirmation that he was an evil SOB?) from the widows and orphans (five million!) was restored to them.

It’s a little annoying that some 40% of the way into the story references are made that are – for me, at least, playing without an organizational chart or even an easily searchable hard copy of the book – obscure at best. (A chart of who is who and married to whom and killed by/the killer of whom does exist, but is, obviously, filled with spoilers.) I didn’t realize, for example, that Franz, met at the Festival alongside Albert, is the son of the man killed by the father of Villefort. Albert’s identity came clear a lot sooner on its own, but even there there was certainly no immediate lightbulb. And I kept getting Morcerf and Morrel mixed up, because Morcerf kept not ringing the Fernand bell.

Silly me.

The manipulations of the cast of characters are kind of wonderful. At any point, any of his enemies could have redeemed himself. Caderousse was given yard after yard of rope, and not only hanged himself with it, he hog-tied himself too; Madame de Villefort was merely provided with a phial and a piece of information, and people around her started dropping like flies. I do wonder what Monte Cristo would have done had anyone failed to live down to his expectations. Would he have been pleased that someone was a better person than he expected, or would he have been vexed? He can read a person’s character almost instantly, and can judge just the temptation to put into their path like an unattended, booby-trapped bundle of catnip for an unsuspecting tabby.

Morrel (Maximilien, that is) runs full tilt from what appears to be Valentine’s deathbed to plead with Monte Cristo for help – and then takes two minutes by the iPod counter nattering away before he even asks to send Baptistan to check on her, and then insists on relating the whole story to Monte Cristo with more regard, it seems, for whether he should go to the police than to, as I expected, ask Monte Cristo to try and save the girl. I just don’t know.

The evolution, if I can call it that, of Caderousse is strange. He is introduced as an acquaintance, a neighbor, whom Dantès knows to be not quite trustworthy (he takes steps to protect the money). It’s a terrible first impression – he is an obvious enemy from the beginning, with no real reason – jealousy because Dantès is young and handsome and beloved? Later, though, he is stricken with remorse, and doesn’t like what is proposed for Dantès. He doesn’t do anything to stop it or come forward once it’s done, but he doesn’t like it. When he is revisited later he is a hard-luck case, bitter and almost sympathetic – until abruptly he not only reverts to the initial bad impression but turns out to actually be one of the nastiest pieces of work I’ve read about in a while, and I felt like a sucker for believing he wasn’t so bad.

The “death” of Valentine … first, even knowing how cold and purged of feeling Monte Cristo was, I was shocked at his casualness over whoever was dying. Ah well, I’ve been watching gleefully as they fall one by one – who now, Noirtier? So what? Valentine? Oh well!

Then the cruelty with which he tricks both Noirtier and Maximilien – was that absolutely necessary? Especially the pain he caused Max, one of the family on whom he was committed to the opposite of revenge. He breaks into Morrel’s room – what, about seven minutes before he was about to eat his gun? It was obvious from Max’s frantic visit to Casa Cristo how much in love he was with Val – How could MC not say to him, and say “here’s the thing. I gave Valentine an elixir to feign death, so that I could flush out her killer and get all sorts of revenge on her father. She’s ok. She’s not really dead. If you can’t hide that, please stay put in your rooms until she comes back to life, ‘kay? I don’t want to screw this up.” But no. He just ‘killed’ her off, let Noirtier suffer abominably – a complete paralytic whose only joy in life, his only pleasure, really, was this girl, with no guarantee that the boy who loved her would ever even think of him again once she was gone? That’s abominable. And letting Morrel suffer, stopping off at Danglars’s office to rob him blind, dropping in at the burial and only then hunting up his little friend. Gosh, he’s upset. Oops. I’ll let him go off, though – oh no, he’s headed for a bridge -! Oh, ok. And then he busts in at the house and literally busts into Max’s room – and what if he had been further delayed? What if there had been traffic, or a line at the bank?

I … don’t know. I was glad he began to see some light toward the end, began to become a little more human for a bit – and then he went back to the Chateau d’If, and where I would have hoped he would remember the Abbé’s dismay at his thirst for revenge (ah, you remember the Abbé, Edmond? That good man who saved your life, saved your soul, and provided everything you now have? That man who hadn’t been mentioned in a few hundred pages?), he hardened back up again and went after Danglars with blood in his eye. Which he had to do – Danglars deserved a comeuppance, and it was fun, I have to say – and he did let him live, sane and hopefully a better man for the experience (doubtful). But … I just don’t know. I don’t think he actually forgave Mercédès – he continued to call her faithless to the very end; that whole aspect of the story bothered me a little.

And I don’t think he ever recovered from the grandiose view of himself as God’s instrument of retribution. I think in the end he was every bit as self-absorbed as he was in the middle there; maybe a little less confident in his infallibility, but he did manage to shrug off a lot of responsibility that belonged to him. I can’t remember his exact words, but it was along the lines that the Villefort poisoner was entirely on her own – when in fact she might not have ever had the courage and foundation to do what she did without his advice and his gift of a really awesome, irresistible poison. She might – but she might not. He seemed to acknowledge that his interference helped bring about Edouard’s death (no loss, but still, he was just a little boy), but not that that same interference almost killed Valentine. And I’m just not happy with leaving Maximilien in misery for months. Was that some sort of test? If you’re really still miserable on this date then I’ll give you back your beloved? If not, if Max had shown up and said “Nope, I’m good!” – then what?

That’s exactly why it fell a little flat at the end for me. Monte Cristo leaves a string of broken and ended lives, with the exceptions of the Morrels and Valentine (and Noirtier, though it’s almost accidental that he made it), and sails off with his young slave/former slave… It’s a great story, but … I guess, especially given the period when it was written, I was expecting a moral to the story. The only one I can come up with is “If someone wrongs you, take them down hard; collateral damage may occur, but there are very few people worth saving anyway”. In the end it left a sort of empty feeling. It’s an adventure, a huge sprawling rarely-dull tale … but I guess that just wasn’t the ending I felt it needed.

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One Response to The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas / Bill Homewood

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Dante Club (Author: Matthew Pearl). » Dave Enjoys

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