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Dumas, the Papa Of Popular Fiction

Saturday, April 17, 2004; Page C01

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past

The recent revival of interest in "popular" fiction -- fiction written primarily to entertain, with few if any literary pretensions -- is welcome and long overdue. The vast majority of the books that get onto the fiction bestseller lists are junk, pure and simple, but many readers and even a few critics have come to understand that there's occasionally genuine merit in so-called genre fiction -- mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, multigenerational sagas -- and that this work rarely gets the serious, respectful consideration it deserves. Nobody's suggesting that James Lee Burke is William Faulkner (except, perhaps, James Lee Burke), but the received wisdom that popular success equals literary mediocrity is being reevaluated, as well it should be.

'The Count of Monte Cristo' by Alexandre Dumas.

So this is an appropriate moment for taking a second look at what many regard as the great-grandfather of all popular fiction, Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo." First published in Paris in serial form in 1844-45, this sprawling story of betrayal and revenge has been translated into just about every language in which books are printed, has gone through too many printings to count, has been adapted over and over for the theater and the movies, and after more than a century and a half still is read with avidity all around the world. Incredibly, at one point in mid-April the Penguin Classics paperback enjoyed an Amazon.com sales ranking of 1,496, placing it well ahead of all but a few of the most current and buzzed-about books.

Like millions of others, I first read "The Count of Monte Cristo" as a teenager, in my case sometime in the early 1950s. (Oddly enough, I neglected then to read "The Three Musketeers," Dumas's other celebrated novel, indeed never got around to it until a recent flight from Paris.) That I managed to forget just about everything about "Monte Cristo" over the ensuing half-century is wholly within character, but it did have the advantage of leaving me a tabula rasa upon which Dumas was free to work his magic.

The only problem is that the second time around "Monte Cristo" struck me as somewhat less than magical. It begins brilliantly in 1814, as the 19-year-old seaman Edmond Dantes is framed on trumped-up charges of conspiring to restore Napoleon to power from his exile on Elba. He is shipped off to the Chateau d'If, "a state prison, meant only for major political criminals." In the nearly 1,200 (!) pages that follow there are many delicious scenes, passages, characters and bons mots, but the book is stupendously long, slowed down by numerous subplots of questionable value, and plowing one's way to the end is quite exhausting.

That opinion scarcely was shared by French readers as the serial episodes poured into the Journal des Debats from the Dumas writing factory in the mid-1840s. Dumas was in his early forties. The bastard son of a French marquis and a black Caribbean slave, he had enjoyed success as a playwright but did not hit it big until 1844, when "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo" were published. He lived as he wrote -- prodigiously and lustily -- and was forever grinding out books and articles to pay his massive debts. He hired assistants by the score, produced about 250 books and is said to have fathered as many as three dozen illegitimate children, but he spent his entire adult life just one step ahead of his creditors. He died of a stroke in 1870.

It is commonly conceded that Dumas rescued historical fiction from the plodding, turgid style in which Sir Walter Scott and his many imitators had entombed it. He took considerable liberties with historical truth -- as, indeed, have most writers of historical fiction -- but he knew how to keep a plot under full steam. He wrote completely believable dialogue, and he made the past vivid and alive. Lord Sudley, whose 1952 translation of "The Three Musketeers" remains the standard version, regarded "The Count of Monte Cristo" as the better of Dumas's two most famous books for reasons he described succinctly:

"First to sheer narrative power -- Dumas was a master of narrative -- and secondly to the theme. It is a story for all time, a 19th-century version of 'The Arabian Nights,' a gorgeous piece of escapism from the drudgery of daily life. The glamorous figure of Dantes, who triumphs over injustice and with his limitless wealth and power can control Destiny, punish his enemies and reward his friends, is an ideal which stirs all men's repressed longings for and fantasies of personal greatness."

When Sudley wrote that, English translations of "The Count of Monte Cristo" were stilted and bowdlerized, apparently because publishers regarded it as a story for children and were determined to eliminate or disguise its juicier parts. Robin Buss, in the introduction to his 1996 translation for Penguin, lists these as "a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; a display of the author's classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of the Italians, the effects of hashish, and so on . . ."

In that sense, "The Count of Monte Cristo" is surprisingly modern, and Buss's translation brings its language up to date as well. Its story remains every bit as timeless as Sudley found it to be, and it's impossible not to become wrapped up in the character of Dantes, whose metamorphosis from a happy, innocent young man on the verge of matrimony into the mysterious count in whose eyes can be detected "dark flashes of misanthropy and hatred" is surely one of the most miraculous and convincing transformations in all of literature. Possessed as he is by "the desire for revenge," he is in thrall to emotions with which anyone who has been ill-used can identify. But thanks to the unimaginable treasure to which he is directed by his fellow prisoner and mentor Abbe Faria, he has the means to exact that revenge in ways so measured, ingenious and cruelly appropriate that it takes one's breath away.

For 14 years Dantes languishes in the Chateau d'If, on a rocky Mediterranean island from which escape is almost -- but not quite -- impossible. When he does get away, he has only one thing in mind: ". . . in return for a slow, deep, infinite, eternal pain, I should return as nearly as possible a pain equivalent to the one inflicted on me. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as they say in the East, those men who are the elect of creation, and who have learnt to make a life of dreams and a paradise of reality."

Those words are spoken in Rome to a man named Franz, with whom the count becomes acquainted, as well as with Franz's friend, Albert. The connection to these two eventually proves crucial to the strategy for retribution that the count has so cold-bloodedly set in motion, but playing out this skein takes a long time and for much of that time the reader isn't at all sure about its pertinence to the larger ends toward which the novel advances. My imperfect recollection is that as a teenager I was untroubled by these leisurely digressions from the central story, but as an adult I found myself wanting Dumas to get on with it, to whack a few pages -- a few hundred pages, if truth be told -- out of this elephantine book and get down to business.

Other readers approaching the novel with other expectations doubtless would argue that there's so much business going on here, all the sideshows are necessary. Dumas has packed into this fat package not merely all the juicy stuff mentioned by Buss but a wealth of other material as well: arranged marriages, bandits, dueling, French politics, the Napoleonic restoration, the economy of Marseilles, Parisian architecture . . . et cetera. Dumas was astonishingly observant and erudite, and he put all his knowledge on display without a scintilla of the exhibitionism to which overeducated authors are susceptible.

He was always aware of what he was doing. Midway through the novel -- which is to say, after you've read the equivalent of two standard-issue modern novels -- the count converses with a fraudulent viscount named Andrea Cavalcanti, to whom he says: "Your life story is a novel; and people, though they love novels bound between two yellow paper covers, are oddly suspicious of those which come to them in living vellum, even when they are as gilded as you are capable of being." Here and in other places Dumas briefly and wittily reminds us that we are reading fiction, and that its relationship to "truth" is uncertain.

Yet for all its improbable coincidences and leaps into the unknown, "The Count of Monte Cristo" does have the ring of truth. In large measure this is attributable to the count, who is not merely one of fiction's great characters but who also defies the conventional wisdom that popular fiction has no room for character development. We know all along who he is -- Edmond Dantes -- but "this mysterious and unknown life" that so puzzles those whom he meets puzzles us as well, and the gradual unfolding of the many layers of his character is fascinating, convincing and more than a little chilling. As the count himself puts it, exaggerating only slightly:

". . . my kingdom is as great as the world, because I am neither Italian, nor French, nor Hindu, nor American, nor a Spaniard; I am a cosmopolitan. No country can claim to be my birthplace. God alone knows in what region I shall die. I adopt every custom, I speak every tongue . . . I am not restrained or hampered by a single one of the scruples that tie the hands of the powerful or the obstacles that block the path of the weak. I have only two enemies: I shall not say two conquerors, because with persistence I can make them bow to my will: They are distance and time. The third and most awful is my condition as a mortal man. Only that can halt me on the path I have chosen before I reach my appointed goal. Everything else is planned for."

The mid-19th-century was the age of romance, and the count of Monte Cristo is one of its superlative romantic heroes, along with Lord Byron ("I am inclined to consider him as some kind of Byronic figure," young Albert says of the count, "branded by Fate's dread seal") and that other 19th-century French immortal, Cyrano de Bergerac. Dumas's novel is a classic of romanticism -- "Jane Eyre" for guys -- though in the future it is "The Three Musketeers" rather than "The Count of Monte Cristo" to which I will return, since it seems to me tighter, cleverer and wittier, if less ambitious. If the count checked in at the same 700 pages as the musketeers, that judgment might be different.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" is available in many editions, some abridged. The Robin Buss translation (Penguin Classics paperback, $13) is recommended.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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