Recently I was looking for something to read and I began perusing my bookshelves for something that might be entertaining. Like anybody’s shelves, mine are filled with entertainment books I’ve already read, or non-fiction, good-fer-yer-brain books which I need to read, but are avoiding like the veggies on a party platter. It is rare to find something I haven’t read already, which isn’t usually a problem because I love to reread books. However, nothing was appealing and I really need to make a run to Goodwill because a whole lotta these I’m done rereading. Then I stumbled across Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo, which I’ve never read despite it being one of those favorite classics of middle school English teachers – “Gee class, Classics can be fun!”
I don’t know where it came from (not likely I bought it on purpose in an airport or a B&N). There’s a good, but unprovable, chance it was purchased for a college humanities course. Maybe by a friend who passed it down to us or left it in a beach house. But we own it, and I grabbed it and read it.
So I have a few cavils/observations.
First, though, let me say it is good, and I recommend it. I won’t be an iconoclast and defy 100 years of English teachers. It’s a classic. Nevertheless it ain’t no Tale of Two Cities, Middlemarch, or Moby Dick. It’s not a swashbuckler. It’s not the Three Musketeers, and that may be due to my own erroneous presumption. The part about a romantic prisoner digging his way out of a prison is only a quarter of the story. Most of the book is a lot of more like Jane Eyre than it is The Three Musketeers. (I should note that Dumas also wrote Musketeers.)
It is a tale of revenge (quiet, non-swashbuckling revenge), but it sure is convenient when you just so happen to befriend a Merlin-like fellow prisoner who trains you to Einstein-like levels of knowledge while helping you chisel your way out of prison. Revenge is also much easier when said friend dies and leaves you a map to enough treasure to make you the Bill Gates of Europe. Now that you are a wealthy, prison-trained genius, you can use hedge fund speculation to ruin the folks who put you away.
And if that isn’t easy enough, invoke the “mysteries of the orient” to invent potions that will make people seem dead – for days(!) – without actually killing them. (Or causing irreversible brain damage.) Suspension of disbelief on the part of readers is required, but hey, it makes for a great a tale.
But enough cavilling. It was enjoyable and I’m not sorry I read it. Best quote from the book? – “He was one of those calculating men who are born with a pen behind their ear and an ink pot in place of a heart.” (This to describe one of the villains who sent the count away to prison).
One good thing about the book is it got me interested in the Napoleonic era (I had mistakenly thought it was more 1600-1700s rather than 1800s). In fact, the protagonist is sent to prison after being falsely accused as a Bonapartist. My interest piqued, I went to the library for a biography on Napoleon. I mean, we all know about Hitler, and Churchill, and maybe Stalin (a little); we know about Washington, and Jefferson, Martin Luther King (both), and Shakespeare. But why aren’t we taught more about the major European emperor of the 1800s? So I picked up Napoleon: A Political Life by Stephen Englund, only because it was the only biography my local branch had. I’d much prefer Napoleon: an Ass Kickin Warmonger Frog and the Comeback King. But that seemingly wasn’t available.
I’ve only read 71 of its 474 pages and I won’t be finishing it because it is so gawd awful pretentious. I honestly love when a book makes me read with a dictionary by my side, but there is an ill-defined gray line between scholarly elucidation and useless pretentiousness.
Here is the passage that did me in:
[…] This regret was a velleity at best, and more probably an instance of disingenuousness, but the fact is, there was something of the Robespierre in Napoleon, and vice versa. One of the cleverest observers of the French scene, Germaine du Staël, saw beneath ideological appearances to observe the State’s Man (if not the statesman) in Robespierre and in Napoleon. Just after the 18 Brumaire coup d’Etat , she looked at the new First Consul and called him, “Robespierre à Cheval.”
No translations for our intrepid reader and “velleity”? Even this blog’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize that word. In case you care, velleity means a slight wish, while Brumaire is a month invented by the French Republic. And that last phrase is just saying Napoleon was Robespierre on a horse.
Okay, so I did, in fact, learn a lot from that one passage. But I’m still takin’ the book back. I want to learn, not get bogged down.