The appeal of The Count of Monte Cristo is simple: it’s an awesomely epic story. Every contour of it is just so outsized. The draconian punishment that’s inflicted on the Count for no reason; the tiny little missteps that seal his fate; the length and horror of his imprisonmnent; the size of his eventual fortune; the magnitude of his revenge.
Now, though, I am reading The Three Musketeers and enjoying it, but it does feel like a much smaller novel than The Count of Monte Cristo. Not just in length (though it is half the size), but in terms of scale and focus. Even though TTM deals with events of geopolitical importance (the conflict between the King of France and his first minister), nothing seems that serious. I mean, if all this stuff was a big deal, the musketeers probably wouldn’t be constantly getting drunk and fighting random duels and bollixing stuff up, right?
I think that most novels, not just adventure novels, succeed or fail on the basis of the world that they create. For instance, Tom Jones, which I just finished reading, had such a fascinating view of morality. The hero, Tom, was in TWUE WUV with his neighbor, Sophia, but he still can’t help cheating on her constantly. And all of his servants can’t help betraying him or stealing from him. And Sophia’s father can’t help brutalizing her. Everybody has remarkably good intentions, but they’re all slipping up constantly. Which is a different view of morality than most books present. In most books, your actions are a reflection of your essential character. If you steal from your benefactor, then that’s a reflection of some deep flaw inside you or within your relationship. But not in Tom Jones!
And it’s seeing people operate inside that world which is interesting.
Similarly, TTM builds a great world: you’ve got these drunken, oafish musketeers rumbling around Paris trying to uphold the honor of the king against the polished, spit-shined Guards of the Cardinal. And you’ve got D’Artagnan running around in the midst of it, not understanding what’s happening, but somehow very attracted, on an aesthetic level, to these musketeers.
Incidentally, I think that’s why lots of modern adventure novels fail. They think that what they need is to tell a new story in an old setting: their authors want to write what is, in essence, the further adventures of the three musketeers or the further adventures of Horatio Hornblower. When really what they need is to breathe to life a setting that feels as vivid as the ones that actuated the classics that they loved.
On a sidenote, there’s a translation of TTM by my favorite translator of Russian novels, Richard Pevear (well, half of my fave translator, since he translates the Russians in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky but he did TTM alone) and that was obviously the translation that I defaulted to. However, there is something really wonky about his translation of the book. For instance, on p21 Pevear writes:
…few gentlemen could lay claim to the epithet “faithful.” …Treville was one of the latter; he was one of those rare organizations…who had been given eyes only in order to see if the king was displeased with someone…
My eyes stumbled over that puzzler and I re-read it, trying to figure out what he meant by ‘rare organizations.’ And finally I went and bought a different translation, the Modern Library translation, which translates that same passage as:
…but few gentlemen could boast that of loyal, which constituted the first. Tréville was of this small group, and high among them for the rare combination of virtues that were his. Quick of eye and prompt of hand, he seemed to have been endowed with sight only to discern who displeased the King…
Which makes sense. I mean, come on, Dumas is not the most masterful prose stylist in the world. When you translate him, you just need to have the result make sense. So I’m reading the ML edition (translated by Jacques Le Clercq) instead. Sorry Richard.