Friday, January 2, 2004

Why do you choose a particular book to read? That's something that critics or essayists almost never discuss maybe because it's dull/trivial or maybe because it's potentially embarassing (which novel is it where a group of professors play a party game of admitting to the most famous book they've never read?). Could I just be weird to think this is fascinating? Or is this a result of having worked in bookstores for almost two decades and that professional interest just stuck?

In any case, why did I start reading The Count of Monte Cristo? The story sounds fairly blah, so much that I've never seen any of the film versions. But there was a cheap remainder of a recent translation by Robin Buss (published by Penguin whose recent decision to change the design of their classics line threw many titles into sale bins) that promised to be complete with material deemed inappropriate for earlier translations. So (1) there's the aura of "something I really should read" and (2) the possibility of discovering something beyond its reputation: narrative innovation, historical depth, psychological insight, what have you.

Now I've read over 400 pages without having reached the halfway point so the first thing that jumps out is that Dumas really needed an editor. It's easy to believe that he was paid by the line given that some incidents are retold just a few chapters later, that everybody is pretty verbose and that the pacing is quite leisurely. The biggest surprise so far is that the familiar part of the story--as Buss points out in his introduction most of us know the basic story even if we've never encountered the work or any of its avatars--barely takes up the first fifth or so of the book. There really aren't any discoveries. Sure there's a tale-within-a-tale, a bit of drug use, a fairly disturbing abduction, some political intrigue and similar elements but really nothing to base a claim that this is a misappreciated masterpiece. Despite the length it actually is pretty entertaining though I'm starting to wonder about whether this will be true of the remainder. The Count has appeared now in his guise of a mysterious traveller and the way he comes across as a super-connoisseur stretches belief in a way that hidden treasure and daring prison escapes don't quite. Maybe that's because while I know that treasures have been hidden and prisons escaped I don't have any experience with that but I do know how much time, effort and money it takes to develop cultural knowledge and that's not particularly plausible here. (Buss points out something similar in his introduction when he says that Dantes and the Count are basically separate characters.) And Dumas isn't a graceful writer--as far as that can be judged through a translation--which only makes me wish there was more than just the storytelling. Still, the novel has held up enough so far that I'm thinking of checking out more of his books.