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Approximately one in seven books on A Superfluous Man‘s reading list for this year is written in a foreign language, although all should be readily available in translation. Today’s book, a classic of French literature, requires no introduction.

Title: Le Comte de Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Completed: January 27, 2012 (#7)

Recommendation: A great adventure en français or in translation

Surely everyone is familiar with the basic outline of Dumas’ tale: a promising young sailor, Edmond Dantès, is falsely fingered as a Bonapartist spy on the eve of his wedding to the ravishing Mercédès and is sentenced to imprisonment in the terrifying (and very real) Château d’If:

During the fourteen years of his imprisonment, Dantès is befriended by an elderly priest, the Abbé Faria, also a prisoner of the French authorities. While they languish in prison, Faria takes the desolate Dantès under his tutelage and trains the young man in languages, literature, science, and the way of the world. (Not to mention one very accurate treasure map.) Their relationship is the emotional highlight of the novel:

–Vous êtes mon fils, Dantès! s’écria le vieillard, vous êtes l’enfant de ma captivité; mon état me condamnait au célibat: Dieu vous a envoyé à moi pour consoler à la fois l’homme qui ne pouvait être père et le prisonnier qui ne pouvait être libre.»

«Sois heureux, noble coeur; sois béni pour tout le bien que tu as fait et que tu feras encore; et que ma reconnaissance reste dans l’ombre comme ton bienfait.»

When Dantès finally emerges from the Château d’If as le Comte de Monte Carlo–I elide dozens of pages of plot here so as to preserve the Reader’s faculties of suspense–he sets about exacting his revenge on those who stole his youth and innocence: Fernand (his erstwhile rival in love), Danglars (his erstwhile rival in business), and Villefort (this story’s Inspector Javert–libertéégalité or fraternité evidently had little to do with the administration of justice in post-revolutionary France):

–Oh! si fait! dit le comte. Entendons-nous: je me battrais en duel pour une misère, pour une insulte, pour un démenti, pour un soufflet, et cela avec d’autant plus d’insouciance que, grâce à l’adresse que j’ai acquise à tous les exercices du corps et à la lente habitude que j’ai prise du danger, je serais à peu près sûr de tuer mon homme. Oh! si fait! je me battrais en duel pour tout cela; mais pour une douleur lente, profonde, infinie, éternelle, je rendrais, s’il était possible, une douleur pareille à celle que l’on m’aurait faite: oeil pour oeil, dent pour dent, comme disent les Orientaux, nos maîtres en toutes choses, ces élus de la création qui ont su se faire une vie de rêves et un paradis de réalités.

As with certain Dickens novels, Le Comte de Monte Cristo was originally serialized, and Dumas père plainly received a fine per word wage.

Interestingly, Dumas apparently relied heavily on the services of a ghostwriter, Auguste Maquet, to fill in the interstices of Dumas’ plot outline. While this fact detracts nothing concrete from a roman that has been the delight of generations, nevertheless, once known it is difficult to dislodge from one’s consciousness. As with “Studio of Rembrandt” paintings in art museums that may be indistinguishable from those produced by the Old Master alone, the knowledge that a chef d’œuvre has been adulterated by another’s hand does leave one with a slightly bitter taste.

Nevertheless, and unsurprisingly, a strong recommendation for those in the mood for the original psychological thriller. The enjoyment will be enhanced by a thorough knowledge of early 19th century French political history, especially Bonapartism and its immediate aftermath, as the story is only comprehensible in its historical context. Consider purchasing an edition with a good scholarly preface or timeline of key events.

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