Well, my New Year’s resolution to post at least once a week lasted longer than I predicted it would, but – alas – it didn’t last. There are reasons, however.
The first is that I am in the process of buying my first house – an exciting and often all-consuming endeavour.
The second is that I have spent a large portion of 2017 in a bit of a reading slump.
The third is that I have been reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which weighs in at over 1300 pages.
There is a strong connection between reasons two and three. I have never been much of a fan of pre-20th century fiction and have read very little of it. However, after a bit of contemplation, I attributed this year’s reading malaise to the fact that my tastes were changing. I had resolved to pick up as many of 2017’s enticing new releases as I could but kept on finding that – in the majority of cases – “The Must Read Novel of the Year” was, for me at least, a “Really Could Have Managed Without Reading this Novel Any Year”. With the odd exception, modern fiction was leaving me uninspired and underwhelmed. Whilst some of these novels may well have been uninspiring and underwhelming, I still felt that there was a whiff of “it’s not you, it’s me” going on; that what I thought I had wanted to read wasn’t what I wanted to read any more.
My instincts were telling me to reverse my now stale reading habits and see what happened. So post-20th century became pre-20th century. Books strictly under 500 pages became lengthier tomes. This latter move I made because I felt I had become more enamoured with finishing books – and racking up a nice Goodreads total – than with actually enjoying them.
And so I turned to The Count of Monte Cristo as a tale with which I was already familiar and intrigued by. To cut a long story short, I am glad that Alexandre Dumas didn’t because I enjoyed (almost) every word.
The key to my enjoyment, I think, was spending some time (at least 70 seconds) researching (on Google) the best translation to go for. I cannot compare his translation to others – or to the original text – but I thought that Robin Buss’s work was impeccable. The prose was sharp and uncluttered but steered clear of clunky ‘over-modernisation’ whilst remaining lively and readable. There is some searingly insightful writing here, along with some vivid imagery that ensures this narrative becomes more than a tale of adventure and intrigue:
The heart breaks when it has swelled too much in the warm breath of hope, then finds itself enclosed in cold reality.
There is the odd slow patch, but for the most part the novel moves at quite a pace. What really thrilled me about the story was how it seems to anticipate the superhero genre. There is more than a whiff of Bruce Wayne about Edmond Dantes who, swearing revenge on the three men whose actions led to him being thrown into prison without trial as an innocent 19-year old, reinvents himself as the mysterious Count – a man whose great wealth endows him with a power that at times seems superhuman:
‘And now’, said the stranger, ‘farewell, goodness, humanity, gratitude … Farewell all those feelings that nourish and illuminate the heart! I have taken the place of Providence to reward the good; now let the avenging God make way for me to punish the wrongdoer.’
The Count is a captivating character and he is ably supported by a cast of younger characters who get caught up in his revenge plot, but whose various troubles and romantic entanglements generate excitement of their own. There are also plenty of moments of such incredible dramatic intensity that make even the most dramatically intense of soap opera cliff hangers seem shrug-inducingly dull. Dumas uses his narrative, based on a true story of wrongful conviction, to entertain but also to criticise a corrupt social system and to reflect on the nature of revenge: is there a point at which the punishment the Count deals his enemies renders him more cruel than they ever were? As 16th century tragedies often considered, can the avenger exact revenge without compromising themselves?
This gripping novel turned out to be just the tonic to perk up what had been a rather unsatisfactory reading year for me up to that point. And my taste for big old books hasn’t waned: I am currently reading War and Peace whilst trying to develop a firm opinion on the kind of carpet I like. I may be some time …