Monday, 2 July 2007

Monte Cristo

Every so often, the blog takes a long look in the mirror (all right, Nancy Mitford, looking glass) and examines itself. Having learnt the html for a link, it has perhaps got carried away with this function and used it as an excuse not to write anything itself. And there were, in the early days, rash promises to write about various things. They will be honoured.

So, Monte Cristo.

Why is it the best thriller ever written? Because you can't put it down. A letter from Thackeray in 1853 says that he began reading at 6 one morning and was still at it at 11 at night (speed reading had not been invented, but even so, it seems a bit slow). But it would certainly take six or seven hours of anyone's time. It's about 1,000 pages of paperback.

Also, it has no real message. We know it is supposed to teach us that revenge gets you nowhere, but it's a bit like the final bit of The Sting, when Hooker (having conned Donegan, who murdered his mentor Luther) says to Gondorf: "You're right. It isn't enough." Gondorf, being older and wiser, had warned him that any revenge would be insufficient, you see. Hooker then says: "But it's close." All that is just a moral fig leaf for what we really wanted, which was a great con movie.

Monte Cristo is a great con story, and a superhero story. It is naked wish fulfillment from start to finish. Dumas pushes the buttons as mechanically as JK Rowling, but, like JK Rowling, they work. There is a reason for populist tropes being populist. They appeal.

Dumas's genius is that he transcends the penny dreadful cliches by embracing them. He is not frightened of cliche, because he knows that Sinbad - he even uses the name - and every other tale he is stealing will be regarded as no more than a footnote to him by the time he is finished. Monte Cristo is mythic but, like most superheroes, his alter ego is pedestrian. We could all be Dantes. All it needs is the Abbe's treasure, and we all think we could be Monte Cristo. Give us that lottery win and - hey presto - we can be highly cultured, mysterious, learned, romantic, and Nemesis to our enemies.

But the book is required to maintain the fiction that we would be wise enough to know that no good will come of our triumph. It will not make us happy. We nod sagely at that, because it is a necessity of the moral aspect of reading. In fact, we all know that we don't give a stuff about the emptiness of revenge. We just want Dantes to shaft his enemies good and proper. Dumas understood that. He wasn't himself a well-behaved man.


sf: Old Man's War, John Scalzi
crime: Hare Sitting Up, Michael Innes
dinner: Sicilian sausage casserole
listening to: Well, you needn't, Thelonious Monk