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Penguins on Parade: The Count of Monte Cristo!

By (November 21, 2013) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics look at first glance like a dream come true. Take the immense 1996 translation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo by Robin Buss: if you set it down next to, for example, the most popular paperback reprint of the book from twenty years ago, they hardly even look related: the old Bantam and Signet versions of the book are scarcely a quarter of the length of this most recent Penguin Classic (or the most recent Oxford World’s Classics version, which is equally huge). And even if you instantly guess the reason – the Penguin is completely unabridged – the sight of the difference will have started your incurably bookish imagination in page countsmotion: what if, in some perfect bookworm’s bookstore, there were options like this available for all your favorite books, all the ones you so badly wish were longer? Imagine looking at the same paperback copies of Pride and Prejudice and The Jungle Books and the complete Sherlock Holmes that you’ve been looking at your whole life and then suddenly seeing unabridged versions that are four times as long. A very paradise!

penguin count monte cristoSurely Dumas would have considered it a paradise well, since he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo, like he wrote so many other of the gazillion books, reviews, plays, and pamphlets he produced in his frenzied life, strictly for money, paid by the line. According to Buss in his excellent, feisty Introduction, people were already making fun of Dumas’ factory-style approach to writing even when he was publishing The Count of Monte Cristo in book form, in 1845, and although Dumas could get testy (and litigious) over assertions that his stuff was plain-and-simple ghostwritten, he freely admitted that he relied heavily on collaborators. And he kept those collaborators busy (and made them some money – and himself vast piles of money he couldn’t hold onto to save his life) – in pretty much exactly the same way James Patterson keeps his many collaborators busy today, although excessive purists might find the comparison unnerving.

The one he used for The Count of Monte Cristo, Auguste Maquet, provided a great deal of skeletal factual and historic background, but there’s a good reason we don’t read thrilling adventure stories by Auguste Maquet. Dumas took the chapter outlines and the thumbnail histories and imbued them with magic. And magic runs all through this book, the story of heroic Edmond Dantes, imprisoned unjustly and hell-bent on escaping and exacting his vengeance on the evil men who orchestrated his ruin.

The unabridged version is full to overflowing with digressions of all kinds – exposition on botany, seafaring, classical literature, colonial history, and dozens of other topics, all put into the mouths of characters who love talking more than life itself, so the background of one mute servant becomes a fascinating story that could easily have gone on for pages:

lucy reads the count‘It’s very simple … It appears that the fellow had wandered closer to the harem of the Bey of Tunis than is acceptable for a lad of his colour. In consequence he was condemned by the bey to have his tongue, his hand and his head cut off: the tongue on the first day, the hand on the second and the head on the third. I had always wanted to have a dumb servant. I waited for him to have his tongue cut out, then I went to offer the bey, in exchange for him, a splendid two-stroke repeating rifle which, on the previous day, had appeared to take His Highness’s fancy. He hesitated a moment, so keen was he to make an end of this poor devil. But I added to the rifle an English hunting knife with which I had blunted His Highness’s yataghan [a Turkish sword]; as a result the bey decided to spare him his hand and his head, on condition that he never again set foot in Tunis. The stipulation was unnecessary. As soon as the miscreant catches sight of the African coast, he flees to the bottom of the hold and cannot be persuaded to come out until we have lost sight of the third quarter of the world.’

It would be much too simple to say all these dilations and digressions were solely the result of Dumas getting paid by the pound of verbiage; this was a writer who was lucy reads dumasbursting with stories, and if it was his weakness to think all those stories were equally worth telling, it was his strength – equalled by virtually nobody else in the Western canon (Robert Louis Stevenson being the only name that springs readily to mind) – to tell them all equally worthily. Those slim abridgements might look inviting to tome-wary college students, but as appealing as the lean narrative of Dantes story alone might be, the unabridged version is an Arabian Nights of inexhaustible fascination (much like Moby-Dick and Les Miserables, two other behemoths often in the past subjected to the abridger’s flensing knife).

Translating the whole of it had to be an immense undertaking, and Buss is sharply territorial about it:

In philosophical terms I am quite willing to admit the impossibility of translation, while still having in practical terms to engage in it and to believe that everything must, to some extent, be translatable. I feel no obligation to avoid smoothing the reader’s path and none, on the other hand, to ‘getting in the way’ from time to time.

His main goal, he says, is to convey to the reader something of the sheer pleasure of reading Dumas in the original, and he’s very brightly succeeded. And there’s so much MORE of that pleasure at 1200 pages than there would be at a measly 250! Oh, for 1200 pages of Treasure Island!