Wednesday, 11 April 2007

MY THREE BOOKS - I

anticant will be posting about his own world-changing books over the next few days. Here is the first:

THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, by Alexandre Dumas

I was an avid reader as a child. I was given my first copy – which I still possess – of Monte Cristo when I was about eight, and ever since it has been an integral piece of my mental furniture – a palace of manifold delights, constantly revisited, most recently in the Penguin Classics’ first complete modern translation.

Dumas – aided by his backroom helpers; he had a small industry of assistant scribes – was a master storyteller. It is due to him, more than anyone else, that my fascination with French history was kindled: first, of course, by the Three Musketeers and other d’Artagnan romances; and above all by Monte Cristo, so evocative of the post-Napoleonic political feuds that survived into the Bourbon Restoration.

As a child, I did not immediately realise the significance of this historical background. The plot, in all its intricacies of sub-plots and a myriad of memorable characters whose respective fates are remorselessly intertwined, was totally absorbing in itself. To those who are not familiar with the story, I can only say read the Penguin Classics Count of Monte Cristo, and immerse yourself in all 117 chapters and 1078 pages of it: You will, I hope, find yourself enthralled by the most gripping account imaginable of Revenge, relentlessly pursued down the years until the last shred of wrongdoing has been exposed and called to account.

The varied changes of scene, and the development of character in the main protagonists, are the creation of a profound psychologist of human nature. Dumas himself had a colourful background and an adventurous life, which he drew on to give authenticity to his novels. Monte Cristo opens in sunshine and hope. The young sailor Edmond Dantès returns to his home port of Marseilles on the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Catalan, Mercédès, and is appointed to his first captaincy. All is serene and joyful.

But jealousy and politics intervene. The shaky first Bourbon Restoration is about to be overthrown by Napoléon’s return from Elba at the start of what turned out to be his last Hundred Days of power; and the naïvely trusting Dantès unwittingly makes bitter political and personal enemies. On his betrothal night he is arrested and cast into the dungeons of the sinister offshore island prison, the Château d’If. After years of terrible suffering there, he emerges transformed into the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, one of the richest men in Europe. To tell you how would be to spoil the tale, if you don’t already know.

Painstakingly, clue by clue, Monte Cristo unravels the plot against him, pieces together the reasons for his imprisonment, and identifies the culprits, some of whom are now themselves rich and powerful. He dedicates himself to their downfall, and pursues his objective singlemindedly and remorselessly. His deep and devious schemes are made possible by his limitless wealth, and are also favoured by fortune. At the end of the novel all his enemies are ignominiously dead, or grovelling at his feet.

If this account makes The Count of Monte Cristo sound a grim and bleak affair, that is far from being the case. The novel abounds in contrasts of scene and character, and there are some highly amusing episodes – such as how the Count saves from being ravaged by dormice the peaches of a telegraph operator who is also an enthusiastic gardener; and the comic misadventures of the rascally Cavalcanti father and son. Almost at the very end, there is a poignant scene where the Count visits the widowed Mercédès, whose husband – his most vindictive enemy – he has publicly humiliated and driven to suicide, at the little house in a Marseilles backstreet where his old father was allowed by his enemies to starve to death, and which he has now given to Mercédès – no longer a wealthy Countess - as a humble last refuge.

Sentimentalists – of whom I am one – might wish that Edmond and Mercédès could rekindle their youthful romance, and live “happily ever after”. But all the sorrow, bitterness, and suffering of the intervening years has made this unthinkable to them. Perhaps that is the saddest psychological lesson of Monte Cristo : Even if forgiveness is impossible, the thirst for revenge warps the soul. “Vengeance is MINE”, saith the Lord. I will repay.” When the Count at last realises that it is self-destructive for a human being to play God, it is almost – but not quite – too late for him.

9 comments:

zola said...

Anticant : Should this post not be placed under the "serious" bits?

I am getting very confused but I like it.

anticant said...

Well, Zola, the burrow is a civilised place [I hope] with room for some 'culture' - pace Hermann Goering - as well as fun and frivolity.

I suppose I am posting my own three books here because they are more personal than the "issues" aired in the arena.

BTW, I do wish you would join in the discussion there sometimes - we miss you!

Emmett said...

I Am reliably informed that Mr D Rumsfeld's 1930s boyhood favourite was /The Rooster's Mistake/, by Rhoda Duck.

Wook, Library Detective

anticant said...

That sounds highly probable. If you browse back through some of the earlier burrow posts, you will find a choice selection of some of Rummy's wilder flights of fancy.

zola said...

Dumas : Game Theory.
Seen, nicked and spent.
Mr bean rules ok.

zola said...

Damn it give us a decent book.
Even Disney real9-11-ised this.

Anticant you are are a romantic hero.

I send you back to the Guardian which was best in Manchester.

Lost worlds? Romance seeking reason in the spade is a spade capital.

zola said...

BTW : A more important message.
Tousers has a birthday today.
Question is : can he get any older?

But happy birthday to Tousers I say.
Pissed again in that snug?

Anonymous said...

Trousers is very sensitive about the name.
Kegs is the real name.

Anonymous said...

You are welcomed Anticant
into the Arena.
There was never anything to forgive
... although you need a good kick up the arse sometimes.
Have a good weekend.