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Classic review: The Count of Monte Cristo

A swashbuckling new edition of a story that never grows old.

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Eventually Dantes morphs into the count of the Italian islet of Monte Cristo. He then commands a hidden grotto filled with otherworldly comforts and a staff of loyal servants ready to serve up Cordon Bleu cuisine, not to mention untold riches that afford him the luxury of re-creating this Neverland wherever he travels. It’s enough to make Jerry Bruckheimer wonder why his plots lag so.

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And, of course, Monte Cristo is an expert shot and swordsman; navigates oceans in a custom yacht; dabbles in potions and poisons; and still manages to know the latest in fashion, opera, and financial speculations. This last carries more than a whiff of contemporary urgency: Fortunes dissolve in hours or days as schemes thinner than the paper they’re written on devolve into financial ruin, with panic and yo-yo markets driven by greed and corruption.

As much as anything, Dumas sheds a withering light on political machinations and intrigue during the time of Napoleon’s Hundred Days. Paranoia and accusations fly, with people powerful and otherwise jailed, ruined – even killed – by insinuation and negligible betrayals.

“Monte Cristo” hews to stock characters, but these stereotypes brim with life because of the extraordinary circumstances and delightful coincidences Dumas draws around them. Of course the three conspirators against Dantes in his youth become respected if tenuous aristocrats 15 years later, just as the newly christened Count of Monte Cristo begins plotting to balance the ledger.

Eco, in an unspoken nod to Mark Twain, doubts the aesthetic art of “Monte Cristo,” but salutes the novel’s narrative drive. It’s another way of saying it’s not Twain’s definition of a classic (“something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.”) Instead, because it is so readable, “Monte Cristo” is still difficult to put down more than 150 years after being first published.

For all his digressions and overwriting (once Eco tips a reader off to speakers in the novel turning “pale,” it seems impossible to make it two paragraphs without seeing this and other verbal tics), Dumas delights with his insatiable appetites for digression and observation.

One of but many examples comes in a conversation between Dantes’s Italian priest and a lesser conspirator:

‘Ah!’ said the abbe, with a peculiar tone, ‘he is happy.’
‘Happy! Who can answer for that? Happiness or unhappiness is the secret known but to oneself, and walls have ears, but no tongue....’

Does anyone talk like this? Doubtful, but no matter. Dumas, much like Edmond Dantes, can get away with just about anything.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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