The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexander Dumas

Steve recommended this - I'd hesitated because of the length: I assumed it would be a bit of a slog, expecting something like The Woman in White, which dates from pretty much the same time. But in fact, I was gripped by the book from just about the first chapter.

I started reading a copy of the book which used (as I later discovered) the anonymous translation of 1846. But I then did some research and found that there's a more recent translation, by Robin Buss, which everyone seemed to think was better. Since I knew I was going to enjoy it, I switched, and everyone was right: it is a better translation.

It took me just over a week to read the book, which at around 1200 pages is not bad going, but I couldn't stop myself: I was reading at the weekend, in the evenings and at breakfast, whenever I had spare time. I really enjoyed myself.

The book is packed full of plot: obviously I was familiar with the gist of the story, but any retelling of it I've come across before would have had to have omitted huge sections (although I remember having an LP record of this story when I was a child, which can't have lasted more than an hour, and some of the names in the book I can remember hearing on the recording: Caderousse, De Villefort and Edmond Dantes).

And it wasn't just plot: the writing was pretty good too. Perhaps not all of the characters were especially distinctive (there were a lot of them), and the virtuous ones, like Mercedes, were a little bit two-dimensional, but rather to my surprise, the "baddies" were not without redeeming characteristics. Most complex was Dantes, who had his own faults, and was not always able to live up to his own standards in the way you might expect.

The structure of the story was interesting: quite often there would be a series of events that seemed not to make sense, and you felt "have I missed something?", but then you'd get a bit of exposition which filled in the background and made things fall into place. Maybe I'm making that sound a bit clunky, but in the book it worked; the reader realised things just before, or at the same time, as the characters. Part of this was due to the fact that the years between Edmond's escape from The Chateau d'If (another thing I remember from the LP) and his reappearance are never fully described, so we share the sense of mystery felt by the Parisians when he turns up there.

The writing has a fair number of classical allusions sprinkled through it, including several Shakespearean references. I saw The Tempest the same week I was reading this book, so mention of Caliban and Ariel was one of the things that leapt out at me. As Buss says, this touch of erudition may help "reassure us that we are in reliable hands".

I'll definitely read some more. Steve says this is the best Dumas book, but the others would have to be quite a lot worse than this for them to be not worth bothering with.

Re-read in 2014. And to be honest it was a bit of a disappointment. I'd remembered the book being one I couldn't put down, with action all the way through. And it was good, but not as gripping as I'd remembered. Maybe it doesn't stand up to multiple readings. I'd still recommend it though.

Completed : 02-Apr-2009

Completed : 12-Oct-2014

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