East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Back to Monte Cristo


I mentioned a few days back my nice big book haul – or my book shopping spree, if you prefer.
Yesterday morning the courier dropped a box containing the brick-sized Wordsworth Classics edition of Dumas père’s The Count of Monte Cristo, and I decided to tackle it from the start.


The cover is suitably pulpy

Now, I first crashed and burned reading Dumas’ masterpiece when I was in high school (I did a lot of reading in those years). Dumas is a straightforward adventure writer that is also a classic and a pillar of literature, a double role he shares with other writers such as Dickens and Stevenson.
Like Dickens, Dumas was a serial writer with a staggering output and if The Three Musketeers is his best known book – and it has been inflicted in many abridged versions to kids all over the world these last two hundred years, it’s The Count of Monte Cristo that is considered THE Dumas novel you need to read.
So I was young and reckless, and I got me a copy of the novel in its cheap Italian translation and I basically rolled over and died after ten pages.
Boy was the thing boring!


Fast forward some thirty-five years, and I decided I needed to give it another try, and that old edition being long lost (sold, if I remember correctly, or bartered for three second-hand science fiction paperbacks), I ordered myself 2 euro and 40 cents of English edition.
The Wordsworth Edition of Dumas’ novel is the 1846 translation – translator unknown – something I discovered only when I pulled the book out of its box.
I skipped the introduction, and sat down to read.
And I was amazed at the fast clip of the narrative.
This was clearly a different book from the one I had dropped in desperation as a kid. And granted, I have certainly changed in the intervening years, but that’s only part of the story – the real difference is the translation.
Because that Italian version from the 1960s was clearly translated as a classic. It was supposed to be heavy, and deep and oh, so serious.
The English version from the 1840s was translated as an adventure yarn, and the tone is light, the pacing furious. This is the Clive Cussler or Wilbur Smith of its time, a guy writing a story of betrayal and revenge and hidden treasure and conspiracy and intrigue set a mere twenty years before his time.


No wonder the novel was adapted into movie or serial form so many times, and adapted and rewritten in so many different styles and genres – most famously, Alfie Bester’s The Stars My Destination (a.k.a. Tiger, Tiger) is a rewrite of Dumas’ story, but a lot of typical Jack Vance stories of exotic worlds and vengeful outsiders owe an awful lot to Dumas.

So, I am well pleased with my purchase, and I am now 100 pages in this 1000 pages book – not bad, for two hours devoted to the book, one yesterday and one today.

As a side note, this novel confirms the old adage that the best writing handbook on the market is an old classic, and it is also the sort of thick paperback that is really excellent to carry around in a daily bag.
It’s massive and reassuring, it’s thick enough to provide long hours of fun while travelling on trains or buses, and makes for an excellent curtain behind which to retreat if we want to evade the attentions and chit-chat of our fellow passengers. In case of need can double as a pillow, and it’s printed on the sort of cheap recycled paper that makes it practically impervious to any physical attack: drop it in the sea, and it will survive and still be readable.
And it costs about half the price of a pizza.

And if you are cheaper than me, the Project Gutenberg carries a fine English edition, dating from 1888, and illustrated.
It’s a book worth reading, sooner or later.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “Back to Monte Cristo

  1. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in high school and loved it. I forget who the translator was…and I think that I had seen the movie with Richard Chamberlain to remind me that even though it was slow at times, it would get better. I read it again a couple years ago…still loved it. Dumas knew how to tell a tale. I do prefer the 3 Musketeers, but only in the original French – the English translations that I’ve read, just haven’t quite carried the same spirit.


    • I have been looking for a good translation of the Musketteers, but all I can find in my language are either dubious jobs or abridged versions for kids. And my French’s not good enough to deal with Dumas.
      That was certainly a master storyteller.
      And I remember the Chamberlain TV movie!


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