For my most recent Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2009 for GoodReads, I chose a book I read many years ago and wanted to read again: The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. Being initially unable to find the old “family paperback version” I’d grown up with, I jaunted off to Barnes & Noble, where I picked up an inexpensive B&N edition that, even as an abridgement, was easily at least three times the length of the version that I had grown up with.
As a great lover of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequel, Twenty Years After, both of which I have read multiple times between high school and most recently, 2007, I was anticipating another charmer of a swashbuckling story as only the great Dumas pére could tell it. Though so many years had passed since my first and last reading of The Count of Monte Cristo, I recalled that the theme of the book was very different from The Three Musketeers, dealing with questions of betrayal, vengeance and justice, rather than friendship, loyalty and adventure.
At first, I was charmed by the opening pages of The Count of Monte Cristo, being quickly swept into the tragedy that befell the hero, Edmond Dantés, on the eve of his greatest happiness. As I read, I recalled how my sister had recently remarked that she read The Count of Monte Cristo so many times in her youth, that she still practically had the book memorized. In spite of such a promising beginning, to my bafflement, the more I read the events that followed Dantés escape from the Chateau D’If, the more I found myself wondering what my sister could possibly have found to so captivate her in this book. Once free of his prison, Dantés became a remote character, capable of both the greatest kindness and the most diabolical cruelty. I found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the two in my mind, and frequently found myself on the verge of hating Dantés for his cold, relentless quest for vengeance, regardless of the sufferings he had unjustly endured earlier in the book. Only twice near the end did I have a glimmer of hope that he had at last received a flash of insight into what his quest had wrought:
“Alas! By what means can I restore to these two innocent beings the happiness I have snatched from them?”
“Have you nothing more to do here?” asked Morrel.
“No,” replied Monte Cristo, “and God grant that I have not already done too much.”
I had determined, by now, that Monte Cristo had indeed done “too much” harm to innocent people in his quest for justice (or was it vengeance?). Sadly, as these seeming flashes of insight were never further pursued, by the time the book drew to a close, I had no sympathy left in my heart for him, although Dumas apparently did. Which left me wondering how Dumas, who had drawn such beloved, heartfelt, sympathetic characters in The Three Musketeers, had fallen down so badly in his character development in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Then, by a curious quirk of fate, while wandering through my house, still reflecting on the novel I had just finished reading, I came across that old “family paperback version” tucked away on a forgotten shelf. Out of curiosity, I decided to browse through it and compare a few passages from the two different editions, each translated from the French by a different translator, and then abridged from its almost overwhelmingly long original form. (I had been unable to find an unabridged version in the bookstores I visited.)
To my surprise, dismay, and delight as I browsed the old “family paperback” (originally published in 1956), I discovered that the translator/abridger, Lowell Bair, had in many significant instances selected entirely different passages from the original to include, which Luc Sante, the translator/abridger of the B&N edition, had chosen to leave out. Sante had apparently chosen to include those passages from the original which added to Monte Cristo’s aura of “mystery” for the reader as well as for the other characters in the book. For the most part, Monte Cristo stood as a cold, avenging angel, bent on dealing out an implacable “justice” I, personally, found myself questioning and recoiling from. Bair, on the other hand, had included passages from the original that emphasized the “human” side of Edmond Dantés, passages that, towards the end of the novel, reminded the reader in the most eloquent way of all that Dantés had suffered, that he had not enacted his vengeance without self-doubts of the mission he had set for himself, and that considerably softened the reader towards his character. In short, drawing on the same work of Alexandre Dumas but differing in their choices of passages to include in their abridgments, Sante drew us an avenging angel. Bair drew us a man capable of breaking a reader’s heart.
The lesson I learned from this reading exercise? All abridgments are not created equal! If you are have not read The Count of Monte Cristo, or if you have tried to read it and been put off by its length or tone, perhaps it is not the fault of the author (Dumas), but of the particular abridged version you happened to pick up in the bookstore or library. Bair’s slimmed down but more “human” version is listed as available on Amazon, though currently out of stock. (See NOTE below) But if you prefer to go in search of a more modern translation that will tell you the story of the “human” Dantés clear through the end of the book, I will give you one hint of what to look for: Browse through chapters near the end of the book. If they include a re-visit by the Count of Monte Cristo to the dungeon in which he had suffered as the unfortunate Edmond Dantés (which Sante’s version completely dispensed with), you will likely have discovered an abridgment that reveals the “man” behind the “avenging angel”.
NOTE: There is an unabridged version on Amazon.com which I might buy and read one day. But if 1000 pages sounds overwhelming to you, and you’d really like to sample the “essence” of the story before you commit yourself to a more extensive version, you could do worse than to buy a copy of Lowell Bair’s translation. BarnesandNoble.com lists the Lowell Bair edition as available for $6.95, with used copies available for as low as $1.99.