The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Un jour, une colonie mystérieuse partit de l’Espagne et vint aborder à la langue de terre où elle est encore aujourd’hui. Elle arrivait on ne savait d’où et parlait une langue inconnue. Un des chefs, qui entendait le provençal, demanda à la commune de Marseille de leur donner ce promontoire nu et aride, sur lequel ils venaient, comme les matelots antiques, de tirer leurs bâtiments. La demande lui fut accordée, et trois mois après, autour des douze ou quinze bâtiments qui avaient amené ces bohémiens de la mer, un petit village s’élevait.
One day, a mysterious group of colonists set out from Spain and landed on this spit of land, where it still resides today. No one knew where they had come from or what language they spoke. One of the leaders, who understood Provençal, asked the commune of Marseille to give them this bare and arid promontory on to which, like the sailors of Antiquity, they had drawn up their boats. The request was granted and, three months later, a little village grew up around the twelve or fifteen boats that brought these gypsies of the sea.

(In the French original, “bâtiments” in the last sentence is surely a mistake for “bâteaux”?)

I see that it took me roughly a month to read to the end of this – it has 1244 pages of narrative, densely action-packed. I’d read it before of course, once as a teenager and once as an undergraduate, so that must have been at least twenty-five years ago. But it’s great stuff. The start is a bit wobbly as we get the set-up of the happy Edmond Dantès, on the verge of a loving marriage and successful career, brought down by envious rivals; but I think from the moment that Dantès is arrested, the story picks up a momentum that it never again loses despite the tortuous tales of complex vengeance, inflicted on the next generation. Dantès / Monte Cristo’s personal tragedy and retribution are beautifully linked in with French politics, culture and science – Chapter 61, in which Monte Cristo suborns a semaphore operator, is a great circumstantial description of the latest communications technology.

The underlying theme is filial loyalty, and you don’t have to look too far into Dumas’ own life to see where that came from, and justice, though in the end Monte Cristo does temper his vengeance with some mercy, and there’s an early hint that justice may not be all it’s cracked up to be in the gruesome account of an execution in Rome. There is also some illicit sex; the affair between Baroness Danglars and Gérard de Villefort is shameful and engenders one of the less plausible plot twists (and that’s saying something), though the obviously lesbian relationship between Eugénie Danglars and Louise d’Armilly gets more sympathetic treatment. (Incidentally, it’s never said explicitly, but Eugénie narrowly escapes marriage to her long lost brother, her mother’s son by de Villefort.) There’s even some Balkan politics, with the entirely historical fall of Ali Pasha of Ioannina turning out to have a key role in the back story. There are so many brilliant set-pieces – Albert de Morcerf’s encounter with the bandits, old de Villefort revealing the truth behind the death of General d’Épinay, the disgrace of Count de Morcerf in the House of Peers – that you keep turning the many many pages. Very glad that this has not lost its attraction over the decades.

(Incidentally I’m tallying Dumas as a writer of colour.)

This came to the top of my reading list as the book in my catalogue with most LibraryThing owners that I had not yet reviewed online (not counting Watership Down, which I am currently reading at a chapter a week). Holes, by Louis Sachar, has now overtaken A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be next in the list.