Sunday, January 24, 2010
In this quote from a recent French edition of 19th century French author Alexandre Dumas' 1844 novel, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Umberto Eco (in French translation, since he originally wrote it in Italian for another publication) lays bare a problem that several readers in the early 21st century might have with parsing 19th century novels. Eco notes that this novel is "a great novel badly written." It is full of repetitive motifs, the adjectives are piled on thicker than gravy on a country steak, there are digressions after digressions, and if twenty words could suffice instead of merely one, Dumas would utilize those twenty words...and likely a few others. In short, the list of faults that can be found with one of Dumas' two most famous novels are numerous and if committed today, the author would likely receive the same sort of scorn reserved for the likes of Dan Brown or Terry Goodkind for their stylistically maladroit prose and their cardboard-thick, rough characterizations. Yet The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the more well-known and beloved novels that date from the mid-19th century? How is it that a novel so full of technical errors and plot devices that would irritate so many "modern" readers today be so popular?
I have read this story in three distinct phases. I first read it the summer before my senior year of high school, as part of my required summer reading list for honors English. That time, I read it in the abridged Bantam Classics edition. About six years later, during the summer of 1997, when I had little to do except work on my MA independent studies, I found an unabridged edition and read it then. Finally, I acquired a two-volume paperback edition in French and read it over the past three weeks. During each of those reads, my relationship with the novel changed.
I recall being engrossed with the novel back in the summer of 1991. I found the melodramatic parts (the escape from the dreaded Chateau d'If, Haydèe's denouncement of Morcerf) to be thrilling. Edmond/the Count's revenge just seemed so cold, so calculated, so designed to catch my teenage self's attention. The ending was particularly well-done, I recall thinking back then. But by the time that I read it in its full form in the summer of 1997, my opinion had shifted. Dumas seemed to take forever to get to a point (should note here that I had read virtually all of Dickens' work around the same time and was beginning to grow weary of mid-19th century serial narratives) and instead of Edmond's revenge being an engrossing matter, the entire matter had become so tedious, as dozens of chapters on the Count's various personae being developed and employed served to weaken the impact of the narrative. While I can imagine contemporary audiences, reading perhaps 25-50 pages per installment over the 1844-1846 period that the novel was serialized, might have found this elaborate setup to balance well between expository advancement and anticipatory foreshadowing, it would appear that for several readers who do not care for several of the tropes of these 19th century serials, The Count of Monte Cristo would serve as an exemplary model of how not to construct a novel.
When I read it in French a few weeks ago, my earlier sense of tedium returned even more. Seeing that the redundant dialogues and laborious character interactions were not the fault of the translator but instead that of Dumas, I began to question why this work ever managed to maintain its appeal through time, cultures, and languages. Then a thought occurred to me. Eco, in his essay on this novel, goes on to note that despite or perhaps even because of its numerous faults, The Count of Monte Cristo is so popular today because its plot, the exquisite revenge of the betrayed upon his betrayers, has an appeal that transcends the very text of the novel. For readers wanting to read a tale of revenge, The Count of Monte Cristo is akin to pornography for them. Taking Eco's definition of pornography, as found in his collection of essays, How to Travel with a Salmon, as being the detailing of all activity, no matter how tedious or mind-numbing that it might be, in order to create a simulacrum of time transpiring before the payoff, The Count of Monte Cristo would certainly qualify as such. The reader is witness to the entire unfolding of Edmond's revenge, from his escape and discovery of who had betrayed him, down to the final encounter in the catacombs outside Rome.
Here, the repetitive scenes, the piling upon of adjective after adjective, bon mot after bon mot, have served to create such a ponderous approximation of real-life (in a fashion similar to modern-day soap operas and their years-spanning plot lines) that the reader is ready to see the literary money shot. They may by now be able to guess at the main thrust of the dialogue in a fashion similar to how a midnight audience will "participate" in a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, they may groan at the melodramatic speech, but in most cases, after a thousand-plus pages of buildup, the reader will have something invested in this story, something that transcends how the written story is constructed and which seems to touch upon oft-suppressed primal emotions. It is this emotional connection, which occurs largely outside the confines of the story/text, that appears to be the main reason why The Count of Monte Cristo has been a perennial favorite for over 160 years. It certainly is not because of the scintillating prose, sparkling dialogue, or adroit characterizations. If it weren't for the universal appeal of a revenge plot outlined in near-pornographic detail, it is hard to imagine this novel having a higher reputation than Bulwer-Lytton's have enjoyed in the past two generations.