They don't write novels like this anymore. That's because they make television drama series and soap operas instead. To my mind, this novel is the 19th Century equivalent of a long-running and compelling television series. I can readily imagine being a reader of the Journal des Débats between August 1844 and January 1846, impatiently waiting for the next installment of Le Comte de Monte Cristo to be published, eagerly discussing each installment with my friends around the 19th Century equivalent of the water-cooler, exclaiming at each plot development, gasping at every cliff-hanger.
What fun it has been over the past few weeks to consume The Count of Monte Cristo in much the same way as I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing one after another a few years ago: wanting to spend as much time as I could with the story, yet simultaneously wanting to slow down in order to prolong the enjoyment, loving (almost) every moment of it. The Count of Monte Cristo is probably more Dallas than it is The West Wing, but you get the general idea.
The plot’s the thing here. Dumas (and his collaborator August Maquet) created a dense and complex story, the many threads of which are woven together into a most satisfying whole, with no threads left loose at the end of more than 1200 pages. This is the story Edmond Dantès’ revenge against the three men who caused him to be unjustly accused of treason and imprisoned for fourteen years. Dantès, who becomes the Count of Monte Cristo, carries out his revenge after developing a careful plan over many years. For him, revenge is most definitely a dish to be eaten cold. It’s also a dish which causes a degree of moral indigestion, as he comes to realise that what he sees as a divine obligation can have unintended (and horrific) consequences.
It’s far from a plausible story and it’s fair to say that the theme of revenge is more successfully realised than is the theme of redemption. The plot is indeed totally over the top, with elements of fable and fairy tale, replete with Orientalist imagery which for me brought to mind The Arabian Nights. Luckily for such an intricately plotted novel, the story moves along at a cracking pace, much of it in dialogue, which makes for an easy read notwithstanding the novel’s length.
Characterisation is somewhat sacrificed in the process of weaving the many strands of the plot together. While the Count himself is a compelling character, other characters are less so and female characters in particular are rather flat. One exception is Eugénie Danglars, who has the potential to be very interesting in her own right, although not enough time is spent with her for her potential to be fully realised. However, deficiencies in characterisation are more than made up for by the sheer thrill of the tale.
My enjoyment of The Count of Monte Cristo has been increased by it being a buddy read with several members of the Comfort Reads group. It has also been increased by listening to it as a French language audiobook downloaded from www.audiocite.net. Apart from hearing Dumas’ words as they were written, there was the immense joy of hearing beautiful, literary French, including the wonderful simple past tense, never heard in regular speech.
I can’t say that this is a flawless novel and deserves five stars for that reason. But I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to it for some 47 hours. As I neared the end, I started wondering just how soon I could justify a re-read. It doesn’t get much better than that.