March 01, 2006

Late to the Party

by peterb

Like everyone who suffered through high school English classes, I have always maintained a healthy disrespect for "the classics." What I learned from English class is that, for the most part, literature is a form of punishment, where drab and joyless works are held up as exemplars to be studied, dissected, and ultimately emulated. In college, our freshman English classes were run by disaffected Marxist TA's. They showed me that when examining a text — among grad students, even a cheeseburger is a "text" — worrying about the quality of the writing, as opposed to its political significance, was the sign of a stunted bourgeois mentality.

So it came to a shock to me when I read Treasure Island as an adult, and found that it was a thrilling, vibrant read: not simply a great story, but a well-written book. Where was this book all my life? Why subject students to The Scarlet Letter and stamp a boot into the face of their urge to read, forever, when you could give them a book they couldn't put down?

This month I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo and am having that same feeling all over again. It is a book that is so superbly crafted, so honed, so polished, that — to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams — every few pages I have to suppress the urge to break into spontaneous applause.

"I mean to propose a meeting in some quiet corner where no one will interrupt us for ten minutes; that will be sufficient -- where two men having met, one of them will remain on the ground." Danglars turned pale; Cavalcanti moved a step forward, and Albert turned towards him. "And you, too," said he, "come, if you like, monsieur; you have a claim, being almost one of the family, and I will give as many rendezvous of that kind as I can find persons willing to accept them."

I came to the book, amusingly, because I had seen an animated version, called Gankutsuo, that I thought was quite good. My friend Dan, one of those infuriating people who speaks 6 languages fluently and can explain to you exactly why The Master and Margarita is not worth reading except in the original Russian, refused to watch it. This was odd, because Dan is addicted to all things anime. His explanation was simple: "It's the best book ever written. So they can't possibly do it justice." At the time, I enjoyed the animated version very much.

And now, having read the book, I see that he was right.

We are children of Hollywood. Any story can be pitched in 10 seconds or less. If the story has heart, and we can get Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis to star in it, it doesn't matter how shabby the writing is. Anger over this was, I believe, one of the factors underlying A.S. Byatt's blistering excoriation of the Harry Potter books in the New York Times. I enjoy Rowling's books very much. I think she's a wonderful storyteller. But being a wonderful storyteller is a different thing than being a wonderful writer. Rowling, however powerful her stories, does not write beautiful sentences. To give a more extreme example, Frank Herbert's Dune is a book with a compelling story but that is so badly written that you should read the Cliff's Notes version instead.

The inverse of this problem, to find a piece of writing with beautiful sentences but a stupid, dull, or boring concept, seems to me to be more rare. Perhaps this is because good writing, to some extent, is its own excuse. But it does happen, as in Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is an endless succession of beautiful sentences wrapped around a moral and intellectual vacuum.

Dumas writes beautiful sentences. That they maintain their beauty in English is to the credit not simply of the translator, but to the directness of his prose. He was a 19th century Frenchman who, with his ghost writers and collaborators, wrote clearly and simply, yet with great subtlety. Compared to his contemporaries (consider Dickens), Dumas' writing was as sharp-edged as Raymond Chandler's. Monte Cristo works today because it is the convergence of both great writing and a timeless story of love, loss, and revenge. Subsequent expressions of boyish id-birthed fantasies, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond, and Batman, all have their roots in Monte Cristo's Edmond Dantés. One hundred and fifty years after this book was written it still reverberates in Western culture.

"I am brutal, — I not only allow it, but boast of it; it is one of the reasons of my success in commercial business. Why did he kill himself instead of you? Because he had no cash to save. My life belongs to my cash. M. Debray has made me lose 700,000 francs; let him bear his share of the loss, and we will go on as before; if not, let him become bankrupt for the 250,000 livres, and do as all bankrupts do — disappear. He is a charming fellow, I allow, when his news is correct; but when it is not, there are fifty others in the world who would do better than he.

As I said, I began reading it about a month ago. I checked it out from the library, and about halfway through realized that I wanted to own a copy, because I will surely re-read it. Upon searching for one to buy, I noticed something odd. The book I was reading was just under 1500 pages. Nearly every edition I could find was about 500 pages. The version that most English-speaking people read is terribly abridged.

I have nothing against abridgements in general. There are many books that should only be read after they have been judiciously edited. For example, I'd pay good cash money for a copy of The Lord of the Rings that simply had all the poetry excised. And I wouldn't cry crocodile tears if, say, you erased every third word from Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before. But I cannot for the life of me imagine how you remove a thousand pages from this book and preserve its soul. Perhaps one could tighten up the first few chapters a bit, but beyond that, I don't think I could remove fifty pages without feeling like I had done violence to it. Every page, once the story proper gets underway, is superb.

And the count burst into a laugh; a terrible laugh, that showed he must have suffered horribly to be able thus to laugh. However, the struggle still continued, and it was dreadful to witness. The people all took part against Andrea, and twenty thousand voices cried, "Put him to death! put him to death!" Franz sprang back, but the count seized his arm, and held him before the window. "What are you doing?" said he. "Do you pity him? If you heard the cry of `Mad dog!' you would take your gun -- you would unhesitatingly shoot the poor beast, who, after all, was only guilty of having been bitten by another dog. And yet you pity a man who, without being bitten by one of his race, has yet murdered his benefactor; and who, now unable to kill any one, because his hands are bound, wishes to see his companion in captivity perish. No, no -- look, look!"

I don't have any deep point to make here. Perhaps writing this paean to Dumas' finest work is my way of channelling all that energy created by repressing my urge to cheer while reading it. If you've never read The Count of Monte Cristo, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Just be warned: you may have trouble putting it down.

Additional Resources

  • A.S. Byatt's article Harry Potter and the Childish Adult enraged many readers. In places she is terribly, terribly wrong, but to dismiss her points entirely would be a mistake.
  • There are people who will comment on this article to say that I am wrong about Dune, that in fact the writing is not that bad. These people are utterly mistaken. Consider that a hilarious parody of Dune was written which got most of its power from lampooning Herbert's turgid, repetitive style. ("So young, she thought. They too, play a dangerous game. And that broad-woman...their mother ? She plays a dangerous game. Everywhere you look, somebody's playing a dangerous game. Yet, if we are to bend these Freedmenmen to our will, and hire them as help for the business, we must play a dangerous game, too. Yet it is........dangerous.")
  • The full text of The Count of Monte Cristo is online, both in English and en français. If this doesn't motivate you to learn French, nothing will. ("[J]e veux vous proposer un rendez-vous dans un coin écarté, où personne ne vous dérangera pendant dix minutes, je ne vous en demande pas davantage ; où, des deux hommes qui se sont rencontrés, il en restera un sous les feuilles")
  • Or, you can buy the book at amazon
  • Amazon also carries the Japanese anime version. It's an interesting work in its own right. It is visually bold and unique, has wonderful music, and makes some interesting narrative choices (for example, converting Albert's relationship with the Count from vigorous admiration into an overt homosexual crush was a bold move.) But it's telling a fundamentally different story. Enjoy it if you will, but don't fool yourself that you "know" the book just from seeing the animated version.
  • A different, more informed perspective on what makes good writing: Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. (Summary: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.")
  • I'm told that The Master and Margarita is effectively untranslatable into English. I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Posted by peterb at March 1, 2006 09:59 PM | Bookmark This

I will have to find a copy of the count and try it out. Is it necessary for the sentences of a book to be beautiful for the writing to be superb? Perhaps Dune is like one of those pictures that is all static unless you unfocus your eyes. Or music made from noise. I am glad I've finally made it to the point where the movies have caught up with the Harry Potter books I've read. I can therefore be surprised by the next movie and fully enjoy it, rather than waste it on the awkward writing of the books. I've said that before and had to run away from angry mobs.


Posted by Doug at March 2, 2006 12:37 AM

I must disagree. Dating a really cute French girl could motivate me to learn French. That probably won't.

Posted by rmitz at March 2, 2006 01:27 AM

Dumas is a hoot. He's definitely better unabridged; I have the Tor paperback versions of _The Count of Monte Cristo_ and _The Three Musketeers_.

After reading _The Three Musketeers_, you might try Steven Brust's Dumas pastiche _The Phoenix Guards_. (Be warned: Its narrative style will affect your email for days.)

Posted by Christina at March 2, 2006 02:13 AM

Frank Herbert's writing style takes some getting used to, but Dune remains one of my favourite sci fi novels. He's one of those authors who is hard work to read, but if you can get the prose style to work in your head, it ultimately pays off. Another example of this is Mervyn Peake. The Gormanghast trilogy is even harder to read than Dune - but ultimately very rewarding. (Well, the first two. He died before completing the third one...)

Mind you, I like all sorts of dead authors who you would probably find unbearable to read, such as Joseph Conrad and Emily Bronte. :)

(I don't get on with the Lord of the Rings, though, despite having read it twice. It reads like it was structured by a chimp).

Perhaps books should have a difficulty level printed on their back cover? From No Brainer (Harry Potter) to Incomprehensible (Finnegan's Wake). :)

Posted by Chris at March 2, 2006 04:05 AM

What's wrong with Byatt's critique of Harry Potter? The stuff is just pure junk food on the page.

Dumas is definitely great--and you have a couple of hundred of his books (including ghost-written) to choose from. ;-)

Posted by Chris Ryland at March 2, 2006 09:49 AM

Dumas is usually fun all around, but The Count of Monte Cristo is on a different level. It's without a doubt his masterpiece. Great entry.

Posted by Arlo at March 2, 2006 11:41 AM

I read Treasure Island my freshman year of college and I enjoyed it very much. Generally I find the adventure classics more enjoyable because you can't get bored and want to scratch out your eyes (like I wanted to when i read Madam Bovary). And now I am going to have to read Count of Monte Christo, because you are the second person I have heard (read?) speak this way about this book.

Posted by Lindsey at March 2, 2006 01:38 PM

The issue with DUNE is not that it's difficult. It's that it's badly written. The story sticks in everyone's head. But the writing? Comparing that to Bronte or (heaven help us) Joseph Conrad as if people didn't read them for the same reason doesn't cut it. There are reasons not to read Conrad, I suppose, but I don't think being allergic to bad prose is one of them (Nabokov would say otherwise, but what did he know?), while it is a reason not to read DUNE.

Posted by Alex Groce at March 2, 2006 01:48 PM

I read The Master & Margarita recently in the newish (I think) Picador translation, it was probably the finest thing I've read for quite some time. There were probably many layers I wasn't getting, but as a satire and a story it worked just fine for me.

Of course, I keep calling it The Master & The Margarita, which makes me thirsty...

Posted by Paul Herzberg at March 2, 2006 01:57 PM

I've found the same experience you have - once I got over my distaste for what I read in class, I found out there's a reason this stuff lasts. I use Bloom's "The Western Canon" as a kind of sherpa for reading - he has a huge reading list in the back and I'll use that as a jumping off point for other reading material.

My personal favorite experience with this was reading "Bleak House", which Bloom worships almost as much as he worships Shakespeare. The revelation I got out of that book is that Charles Dickens was _really fucking funny_. Bleak house is almost a 1000 pages, and I loved every page of it.

A similar one was Twain, especially after I found the bitter stuff he wrote later in his career. The letter from the recording angel to Abner Scofield, Coal Dealer, may be the most viciously funny indictment of hypocrisy I've ever read.

Posted by Mike Collins at March 2, 2006 03:29 PM

Have you tried Trollope? Wonderful, meaty, almost tasty writing, but not everyone's cup o' tea.

Posted by Chris Ryland at March 2, 2006 07:12 PM

I second Dickens. Sublime.

Posted by Tim F at March 3, 2006 10:46 AM

One modern writer that I think combines a sheer sense of boyish adventure with nicely written prose is Jack Vance. His "Demon Princes" books for example, that tell a revenge yarn similar in places to "The Count of Monte Cristo".

Posted by Palafox at March 4, 2006 12:31 PM

Sorry, Chris. Your credentials are acceptable, but you couldn't be more wrong about the difference between Dune and Gormenghast.

Yes, there is ultimately a payoff in slogging through Dune, and many people have gotten to it. It is the payoff of realizing that there is a whole universe of fascinating technology, history, and relationships, and it makes your brain fizz with the possibilities. It doesn't change the facts that actual story told by the book is rather mundane (managing to collapse a fantastic eight-sided conflict down to only three) and that the sentence "Immerse it!" remains one of the most gut-wrenchingly awful ever written in the English language. Never mind the usual argument of whether the movie was better than the book--in this case the book was beaten by the board game! This is not a criticism of the *concept*, it is a criticism of the *execution*, in the same way that the Star Wars Expanded Universe remains a vibrant creative ground despite the fact that George Lucas is such a shit director of movie actors. For a taste of what might have been, try The Tower of Fear by Glen Cook.

Gormenghast, contrarily, is difficult to read because it is so *good* at the level of *every* sentence, paragraph, and chapter. To use Elmore Leonard's language, it is Ivory soap: 99.44% pure hooptedoodle. The text itself presents a very weird choice to the reader. On the one hand, each chapter is a fine little essay on a minute corner of a ritual-driven world being bumped from its habitual track. The end of each chapter invites the reader to stop and ponder, to appreciate this very precise viewpoint fully. And yet, on the other hand, the human desire to know what happens next propels the reader forward past this point of view, without giving it full value. The overall effect is that of making a conscious effort to percieve the forest despite the trees, knowing quite well that each tree deserves its own attention, and feeling a sense of loss that it cannot be given. This serves to compound the overall sense of loss that the story describes, of the decay of a monstrous seventy-six-generations-old castle and the families within it. That is the poetic effect at work, the language fully serving the emotional impact of the story.

Posted by Jon F at March 4, 2006 02:10 PM

Jon F - your comments on Dune are my standard SF Gripe; there are an enormous number of classic SF/Horror/Fantasy pieces which read better in the -abstract- then when I'm faced with the actual artifact. Lovecraft is a classic example of this, but there's an inordinate amount of classic SF where the prose, plot and characterization is workmanlike at best. SF's great contribution to literature may be the idea of formal world building, but there's too much of it which stops there.

Not to condemn the entire genre so flagrantly, I still hold a Canticle For Liebowitz up to anything else written this century.

Posted by Mike Collins at March 4, 2006 09:22 PM


This touches on a subject that interests me. I am painting with a very broad brush here, but there's an argument to be made along the lines of "Science Fiction that is well written isn't on the Sci-Fi shelf; it's on the Literature shelf." This is, of course, a grossly unfair generalization. But what I'm trying to do is point out the existence of "sci fi" (or fantasy, or mystery, or what have you) as more of a "marketing genre" than as a useful designation.

Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" is as much sci-fi as anything on the sci-fi shelves. But the writing doesn't suck, so it's on the general fiction shelves.

Posted by peterb at March 4, 2006 11:32 PM

Careful with that brush, Eugene. "Literature" is just as much of a marketing designation. It means, "Fiction that, somewhere in the world, you can get college credit for reading," and is still no guarantee of quality. That's where they put Ayn Rand, after all.

Posted by Jon F at March 5, 2006 01:30 AM


Posted by peterb at March 5, 2006 07:27 AM

Jon F -

True enough, but the "Literature" section is also the great unclassified of the bookstore, and I think that's the key point behind Pete's assertion. There are microgenres within literature, like the Bridget Jones style women-having-breakdowns-at-30 books, but since they're next to the Kobo Abe and Alexandre Dumas, I think you get a much more mixed message.

In contrast, when you have a well-defined genre like SF, you have a fair degree of ghettoization going on, because there are authors whose entire existence is playing to the tropes of the genre, like the incessant David Drake novels. You have authors who are aware of and occasionally shred the genre's conventions (China Mieville being a good example), but they're still basically bounded by it. This is reinforced by audiences who will basically pick up a random novel in the category because it is is fantasy - as long as it falls within the genre boundaries, they expect reasonable satisfaction.

Taking it a step further, most of these genres are descended from a relatively small number of authors. Diana Wynn Jones wrote a really nasty piss-take on fantasy novels, "The Rough Guide To Fantasyland" which points out that there's a prevalence of "Anglo-Saxon Cossacks" in fantasy lit. This is directly descended from Tolkien, who had a specific reason for wanting Anglo-Saxon light cavalry. Michael Moorcock occasionally gripes that he doesn't see much point in reading fantasy because everything is a ripoff of him or Tolkien. I think if you were to break down Fantasy to descended from Tolkien, Howard, Moorcock and Gary Gygax, you'd be able to plot almost all contemporary books somewhere close.

The question in SF, then, I think, is whether or not obeying the conventions of the genre means also ignoring the finer details of plot and characterization. Banks has referred to The Culture as something of a response to the Heinleinian hyper-capitalist future, and I think we can count the origin SF authors fairly easily - Smith, Asimov, Heinlein. None of these guys are great prose stylists, their work is primarily sold on ideas for their audience - the tendency for egoboo in the SF fan community, and the intensive nitpicking that characterizes the ink spilled over the genre is a good indication that the major issue is the ideas and the manipulation of the ideas behind the story, rather than the story itself. I don't think anyone's ever praised I, Robot for the characterization of Susan Calvin, and rereading _Foundation_ recently, I was reminded of just how doofy Hari Seldon's appearances are.

Posted by Mike Collins at March 5, 2006 10:53 AM

Mike, you managed to touch on about half a dozen of my favorite things to argue about, so I'm still pondering my response. I just stopped in to link to this nugget:

Posted by Jon F at March 8, 2006 04:44 PM

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