nolead begins By Alexandre Dumas [and Auguste Maquet] nolead ends
nolead begins Everyman. 1,177 pp. $25.95. nolead ends
Reviewed by John Timpane
The crashing, careening last 400 pages of
The Count of Monte Cristo
- a denouement longer than many entire books - include a ball, a suicide, serial murders, currency market manipulations, a duel, a funeral, a chase, a trial, a lesbian elopement, a robbery, a bankruptcy, revelations
that change everything
, and, on Page 1,177 (I can report because I just got there), a period.
One of the unlikeliest, most elaborate revenge novels ever, with unforgettable Edmond Dantès as its suffering central figure, Count is exquisitely commercial, pitched at the nerves and aspirations of the haute bourgeoisie of mid-19th-century France. Its gestures are those of melodrama and opera. Folks reach for heaven in their joys and agonies, lean against walls or trees in their melancholy.
In June 2009, Everyman came out with a repackaging of The Count. It is mildly abridged. (No big deal: It's not as if this were the abridged Ulysses or the abridged Anna Karenina. Those are artworks; each move must be preserved. In the massive, sprawling, repetitive Count, abridgment is a blessing.) It's essentially the 1909 version that Everyman brought out in two volumes. That version (I think) was based on the first (and sadly anonymous) English translation, done for London publishers Chapman & Hall in 1846. The 1909 edition has now been revised by Peter Washington, multitalented Everyman editor. This is a handsome red volume, nice spine, fabulous paper and print, an intense 19th-century bravo on the cover.
The Count is not high art. But it is a classic. Why? Because - as Umberto Eco declares in a condescending yet adulatory introduction - The Count is "without doubt one of the most exciting, gripping stories ever written, and yet it is one of the worst written books I've ever read." It grabs readers and bum's-rushes them through its pages. (And there are many.) The Count joins books like Swiss Family Robinson, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Captains Courageous, and The Three Musketeers (another Dumas-Maquet spectacular) on many a shelf, beloved despite artistic demerits. It isn't Moby-Dick, but it doesn't have to be.
Know, whole world, that Count was a team effort. The Everyman edition follows the practice, begun by Alexandre Dumas' first publishers, of suppressing the name of his collaborator, Auguste Maquet (who got paid royally, make no mistake, to remain obscure), but there's no reason to keep doing that.
Dumas, a writer of astonishing energy, was already an alpha male of the European literary world before Count started appearing in the Journal des Débats, the most-read newspaper in France, in 18 installments in 1844-45; those installments were published in book form by the publisher Pétion.
Dumas was the writer, but Maquet, a professor, historian, and lesser litterateur, was the source. As for the central story, Dumas based it on a true incident he saw in a book by a police writer. Maquet took that kernel, drafted the vigorous, paranoid, thrashing plot of The Count (much of which rests on detailed knowledge of European history, culture, and finance of the era), and also fleshed out the characters (Dantès, and four whole families, named Villefort, Danglars, Morrel, and Morcerf), complete with background. It is vast, covering 23 years, verging within six years of the "present" moment of 1844. He relayed this masterpiece of wild fatalities to Dumas, who wrote the thing up.
Utterly stultifying is to realize that, as Dumas was producing copy for Count, he and Maquet were in the midst of the even more gargantuan Musketeers sagas, which would extend through 1847!
I don't know how Dumas and Maquet did it, but, in this trundling, barreling, roaring production, which should be a right stinker, a potboiler of potboilers, they somehow stumble upon mighty questions of identity, God, and humanity, contradictions within the human spirit, and the mountainous challenge of forgiveness. This, a much darker creation than the merry Musketeers novels, manages to probe the ravaged territory of guilt, doubt, and desire.
The telling stroke - and I sense, although I don't know, that it was Dumas' - is Dantès' belief that, in his many machinations, he is acting as the scourge of God. He's right in unexpected ways and wrong without suspecting why.
Dantès stands among his century's best characters: Manfred or Don Juan, Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, Frankenstein's monster, Esther Summerson or Pickwick or Pip, Ahab, Dorothea Brooke, Anna, the Karamazovs, Huck and Tom, D'Artagnan and the elder Musketeers, Étienne Lantier, Pons and Bette and Goriot, Renzo and Lucia, Carmen, Tatiana and Eugene, Raskolnikov, Dorian Gray and Ernest Worthing, and so on - and almost every single other title is a better artwork than The Count of Monte Cristo.
But lug this book onto your nightstand, read a few pages a night (it took me the same 18 months it took the original book to come out), and, as of Page 700 or so, you may find yourself reading faster and faster, as if the overture from William Tell were spurring you on. I must say, it's worth it.