I didn’t read much fiction in my younger days, so I’ve been trying to catch up on “the classics”. It’s a slow process, and there’s so much to choose from. To help guide me, I try to pay heed to the recommendations of friends, and more than one has mentioned how much they enjoyed Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. These same people gave somewhat tepid reviews of Dumas’ only other major work, The Countess of BLT, so the choice was obvious.
I somewhat absent-mindedly picked up a copy of Monte Cristo at my local Half-Priced Books, only to realize it was the abridged version. And how: the version I initially bought was 250 pages; the unabridged version I ultimately read was 1250 pages. That’s some serious abridgment, and as you can imagine a lot ends up being lost when you eliminate 80% of a book. As I compared the two volumes, I couldn’t believe what had been cut in the interest of brevity. For example, rather than write every character’s name out in full, in the abridged version people are only identified by their initials. Also, no spaces were used between words, and it goes without saying that no punctuation was used. I was appalled. Before I realized my error I came dangerously close to thinking Dumas had written the definitive run-on sentence about revenge and 1840’s Parisian society.
What’s it all about? In short, Edmond Dantes is a young up-and-coming sailor and part-time mime in Marseille, France. A few people conspire to bring down Dantes over petty jealousies, and before he knows it he finds himself in the Chateau d’If, a dank, isolated prison perched high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. In a cruel twist, all of this happens just as Dantes was to marry the love of his life; instead, he is locked away for 14 years for reasons he would only come to understand much later.
While imprisoned, Dantes is transformed from a vigorous young man into a pale, gaunt figure, bent on exacting revenge on his tormentors if he can ever escape, which of course is impossible, except when it’s not. I won’t reveal how Dantes escapes, but suffice it to say that when he gets out he’s physically, emotionally, and financially prepared to open a humongous can of whup-ass on all the people who done him wrong. The important thing to know is that nobody recognizes him when he emerges. He is in every sense a new man—The Count of Monte Cristo, a dashing and worldly stranger who knows everything about everybody, and also has excellent hash. As it happens, all the people who done him wrong end up being fabulously wealthy and important people in Paris, where the bulk of the novel takes place. It works, though, because whose lives would you rather see ruined than a bunch of fabulously wealthy and important Parisians? It’s delicious.
Speaking of delicious, the novel answered a question I have long had, namely, what the connection was between the novel and the namesake sandwich, the monte cristo. For the uninitiated, a monte cristo is basically a giant deli sandwich made on French toast (of course), then deep-fried in a wonderful batter. If you’ve never had one I suggest you stop reading this blog and locate one in short order. As Dantes…sorry, the Count…methodically exacts his revenge on his nemeses, he plans to serve each of them a meal—a certain deep-fried delicacy none of those prissy Parisians had ever experienced before. Little do they know it is their last meal; none of his victims understand who the Count really is or how the past is about to intrude most rudely into their current lives until Monte Cristo says, “Some say revenge is a dish best served cold…but I say it is best deep-fried!” But then it is too late. One by one, Dantes…well, read the book yourself.
Of course Dumas wrote in French, so I’m not truly reading Dumas’ masterpiece; it’s a translation. The version I read was a translation by Robin Buss in 1996; prior to that the last major English translation was done in the 1890’s. That translation left out many important details, such as an entire lesbian subplot, so as not to offend delicate Victorian-era sensibilities, when people were very touchy about subplots. There were other important omissions, none of which are sexy enough to mention here.
It’s important to remember whenever you are reading a work that has been translated, that the act of translation itself is a sort of abridgment. At the same time, it may be also be an embellishment of sorts, though neither are necessarily a result of the intentions of the translator. Some things simply don’t translate. The beauty of language, any language, is that there are nuances, whole vistas of meaning that can be conveyed by a seemingly insignificant choice of one word over another when on the surface those words mean the same thing. These subtleties are what give great writing flavor…the tricky part is, at what point am I reading Alexandre Dumas, and at what point am I reading Robin Buss? You pretty much have to take what you read at face value if you aren’t fluent in the source language, but look where that got all those people who read the English translations from 1890 to 1996–A novel that lacked much of Dumas’ flair, not to mention some choice carpet munching and hash. For all I know Dumas’ original version in French has the all-time definitive scene involving beastiality and fried sandwiches, only for Robin Buss to decide that 1996 wasn’t the right time to reveal such details. Who knows what treasures await readers of the next definitive translation of Dumas’ classic in 2095?
It took me quite awhile to read the book; it accompanied me on a trip Dubai and Italy, and few weeks thereafter as well. I’m not necessarily recommending it to you, although if you ever want a primer on how to exact revenge after being locked in prison for 14 years, you might enjoy it. But whatever you do, don’t read an abridged version. If you’re going to read a classic, read a damned classic.