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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas,  Robin Buss

The Count of Monte Cristo, at 1,276 pages, can read like it has either a quarter or quadruple that many. If context doesn't matter, a glance at how long it took me to swallow this Book¹, a statistic this site so helpfully provides, might lead one to the conclusion that I breathed an explosive sigh of relief when the end came—because, to clear the confusion, recording paint dry and watching the video at one-thousandth of the regular speed would've been more exciting and memorable than reading Count. The numbers don't lie: the journey began on January 1—you can almost feel the naive optimism in that choice of date—and ended on August 2, nearly exactly eight months later. How can anyone, after all, have nice things to say about that which took them that long to complete? The length of time taken to read a book, granted, doesn't necessarily indicate one way or another how well one got on with it. Those whose habit it is to make snap judgments, however, seem determined to pounce on that kind of quick and easy information wherever it appears.

Magnified, those numbers show a more accurate picture. There I went, speeding through most of the first half of Count with all the enthusiasm and expectation of a reader possessed, when page 514—in the middle of one of those detours into secondary characters' lives that I see have also slowed a few others' progress down considerably—became less a page to be breezed through than a brick wall to which I had to, with extreme reluctance, admit defeat. It's not my proudest moment. From late January to late June, short stories, comic books, anime, and movies occupied the free time I gave none of to Count. Excuses were feebly made, promises constantly broken. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment warred with each other, myself their battleground, for dominance. Days turned into months, months into eternities. Before the cheese reaches its zenith, here's the punchline to that quasi-cosmic joke then being played at my expense: the above dilly-dallying all could've been side-stepped had I read 10 pages further to the next chapter, the point when the pebble starts rolling and doesn't stop until the super-sized snowball—for it is a long way down, the better to punish them—flattens those crazy enough to cross the man they used to call Edmund Dantès.

On June 25, after not having picked it up since January 23, my computer beamed on my command a digital copy over to my phone and reset my reading progress bar back to zero pages read. The first 514 pages, needing no introduction, shot by like bullets. The rest, once that initial hump was past, went into hyper-drive. Previously, there had been little else in the book but set-up and build-up; now, the main pieces, their pawns having made themselves scarce, were finally face-to-face. The pay-offs, to which there were yet more pay-offs, were at this point still some ways away. The skeleton was assembled; the rest of the blanks needed filling in. My imagination was none the less drunk now with the heady anticipation of all that was to unfold. And unfold spectacularly the story did.

But I am getting ahead of myself! Being as out of practice as I am is no excuse for forgetting certain niceties, notwithstanding that everyone and their dog probably already know inside-out what that story, having been adapted more times than anyone knows offhand, is about. Long story short: a dude with a bright future ahead of him gets tossed into jail because three other dudes, plus another, don't much like him because, hey, how dare he be so gosh-darned likable, dashing, and well-off? In a forgotten corner of hell, he happens upon another dude, this one decidedly on the weird side, but for once not someone who secretly fantasizes making a paper people chain out of his skin and entrails. The pair, at first wary of each other, soon hit it off smashingly. They hatch this or that escape plan, go be detectives, and all but adopt each other. Short story shorter: he escapes from prison, gets rich, vanishes for nine years, and returns to society reinvented, the faces of those who wronged him not having faded the slightest in his mind. The dish, to add to the echo, arrives at the table frozen. Revelations precede a lot of heart-clutching, a last-minute affirmation of their belief in the divine, and that final eye-bulging before death or madness takes them. All this is, I hope, general knowledge pop culture has already long imprinted on to everyone's subconscious.

Because of the details everyone glosses over—and, given how sprawling and stacked the plots therein are, who can blame them?—Count has survived time, itself none the worse for wear, while its contemporaries have faded unceremoniously into irrelevance. Many times were there that Dantès stunned me into speechlessness as Alexander Dumas unveiled, after I'd assumed there were none more to be revealed, yet more layers to the character's grand design. For the majority of us, our idea of revenge is pathetic and juvenile compared to Dantès', which inspires no small amount of awe. The only thing more terrifying than an avatar of vengeance is if they were patient. Where instant gratification drives us to seek retribution at the soonest opportunity, Dantès fully embraces even the impossible plan of spending a hundred years to send his accusers into such a world of pain as will be felt for a thousand. It also wouldn't be proper to end them himself; it's more amusing for him (and us) if they pulled the trigger themselves. Dumas, in creating Dantès' character, was struck with inspiration by the real-life story of François Picaud, who was equally unfortunate in finding himself wrongfully imprisoned, but less sympathetic in the lack of subtlety he showed in disposing of his enemies--the man was stabbing people and setting fire to places left and right. Dantès, in watering those accusers' seeds of destruction instead of planting them, makes for a more literary protagonist.

The lead, however, is only as strong as the supporting cast, but Dumas builds that up with as much care and creativity as he wrote Dantès. To mention a few characters that leap immediately to mind, Abbé Faria lightens up the tone before we, along with Dantès, are plunged too irretrievably into depression and despair; Albert de Morcerf is at once likable and exasperating with the darndest things he says; and Noirtier de Villefort, a revolutionary and father to one of Dantès' enemies, boasts a presence that is constantly impressive wherever he pops up. Then there're the antagonists, no less colorful: Danglars, Dantès' jealous rival at work, is instantly repulsive the moment he is introduced; Caderousse, Dantès' greedy neighbor, is a flip-flopper of the worse sort who has fooled even me (my notes regarding him would compliment him in one chapter, but spit hatred at him several chapters later, the cycle of which would repeat); and Fernand, whose character is defined by his love for Dantès' fiancée, is the least interesting of the trio. Gerard de Villefort, the deputy crown prosecutor responsible for Dantès' final nail in his coffin, easily blows those three out of the water for being the most fascinating and fleshed-out of them. Still more characters abound, but getting to know them is what reading the book's for, and a lot of them are worth that effort.

If not, Dumas' writing, guided by Robin Buss' fluid and unobtrusive translation, should dispel any lingering indecision. In a single, simple sentence, his words are jaw-dropping in the sense of wonder they can cause in even atheists: "They were sailing under a clear sky in which God too was progressively putting on His lights, each another world." Another, if he's in the mood for proverbs: "The heart breaks when it has swelled too much in the warm breath of hope, then finds itself enclosed in cold reality." Social commentary that strikes at the heart of the matter is also child's play: "But what do you have to fear from all this, you men whom everyone excuses and who are elevated by scandal?" At this rate, copying and pasting the entire book here would be simpler. There's not a page that doesn't have a sentence worth printing out and framing.

Even better, to make Count more digestible, Dumas perfects the pacing by balancing his more descriptive sections with dialogue, of which this book has more than anyone might be as surprised and grateful as I was to find out. Even in many of the conversations, especially those with Dantès who never lets a chance at monologuing go by, Dumas rarely falters. That Dantès' interactions with the likes of Danglars, Caderousse, Fernand, and Villefort will be my most reread bits is absolutely no surprise. But what is one is, when all has been doom and gloom, how naturally and regularly the book takes the turn for the light-hearted—see whatever Albert does and says as well as his banter with his friends and Dantès—and even the darkly comic. "No, fifteen thousand is not enough, I don't want to become an honest man for less than thirty thousand," says one of the more unsavory characters at one point, a declaration which becomes funnier the more I return to it. A chapter where Dantès tries, and struggles, to bribe an honest, do-gooding telegrapher—who eventually caves because of, of all things, nectarines—is also comedic gold. Many more such instances exist in Count to smoothen out the ride.

Two centuries later, Count is still kicking strong and looks to keep on doing that for another couple of centuries more. The book's varied and familiar characters, universal and relevant themes of revenge and love, all but flawless interplay of history and fiction, powerful writing and absorbing dialogue, satisfying climaxes and cathartic aftermaths, and vast and epic scope combine to safeguard, if The Three Musketeers hasn't already, Dumas' immortality in the hearts and minds of his readers. It's true that Count can at times be incredibly, if hilariously, over the top. Characters raise their eyes, arms, or both "heavenward" a lot. Lightnings strike, candles get snuffed out, and doors are double-locked at ominous moments and without irony. Lines like the following are uttered with a straight face: "But imagine a still grimmer future, a future that is sure to be frightful… and perhaps stained with blood!" But that's part of the charm. The references and footnotes do get out of hand², but after a time, you get used to them. The 1,276 pages are at first daunting, but lose their intimidation two pages later and, again, 525 pages later. Despite coming down with a severe case of reader's block because of Count me, I move that a palace be erected in his honor, the inscription there bearing the words: "To a merchant of happiness, from a grateful world."³

¹ The capitalization feels fitting.
² The day mine do, go outside to the nearest park, befriend a pigeon and squirrel, and coax the pair into shaking each other's hand—claw, paw, or what-have-you's. The attempt would be a better use of your time than getting me to abandon my precious footnotes. The point, in any case, is moot because more than three footnotes can't be inserted in any one review here, which is likely for the best.
³ Security would have to be heightened in case the redheads attempt to sabotage the project.