Sunday, August 31, 2014

August's Book: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Literature (1844 - 460 pp.)

This entry will not be particularly academic, as a mountain of academic material has already been written on The Count of Monte Cristo. There is not much more I can reasonably add on a blog. Additionally, I will only hint at a few parts of the book, as The Count of Monte Cristo is so plot-driven it is difficult to comment on much without accidentally giving spoilers. While it may seem like the story is so well-known there is no harm in spoiling it, some people have not read even the most obvious literary choices.

The Count of Monte Cristo combines early modern French romance with travelogue to create a swashbuckling adventure story. Our hero, Edmond Dantes, is a successful young merchant sailor who is wronged by his peers for various reasons and then whirled through a twisting, exciting adventure. This adventure is primarily located in Marseilles and Paris, but detours to Rome and (offstage) to Greece. Dumas's consistent references to Hamlet and to Greco-Roman mythology underscores the educated nature of most of the characters, who are mostly noble either by birth or by acquisition of a title.

Two of the defining aspects of The Count of Monte Cristo are the melodrama and the humour. Characters regularly go on lengthy rants in flowery language, often about threatening to commit suicide whenever something goes wrong. More surprising is that sometimes the third-person omniscient narrator is similarly flowery. A well-written example is when considering a character's choice of future husband: "What devotion does she deserve from him for whom she has sacrificed everything! How ought she really to be supremely loved! She becomes at once a queen and a wife, and it becomes impossible to thank her sufficiently." (300) However over the top a passage like this is, it makes me smile. Similarly, Dumas is fond of cracking jokes within the narration. Possibly the funniest example is in explaining the difficulty for an ignoble man to appear noble among strangers: "Many, also, who were not aware of the circumstances attending his withdrawal from Paris, were struck with the worthy appearance, the gentlemanly bearing, and the knowledge of the world displayed by the old patrician, who certainly played the nobleman very well, as long as he said nothing, and made no arithmetical calculations." (430) The mental image of incompetence here is enough to make the reader feel like one of Dumas's elites.

Dumas demonstrates no interest in showing what characters like Danglars, a banker, or Villefort, a lawyer, actually do for a living. Danglars delivers exhortations on the importance of money above all else while speculating wildly; Villefort froths at the mouth while discussing a very one-sided view of justice. Everything is moulded to Dumas's principal interest of crafting a riveting adventure. Other details, like how someone fresh out of a long-term prison sentence can retain social skills, are equally fantastical. The one time The Count of Monte Cristo is not quite so riveting is when characters, most notably Albert de Morcerf and Franz d'Epinay, appear seemingly out of nowhere in order to be more mysterious, which may come off as confusing rather than intriguing. Even so, all the characters' valuable secrets are generally revealed a few dozen pages later. The book's winding plot is eventually explained in full, with no lingering question at the end.

Interesting fact: The Count of Monte Cristo is approximately 464,000 words, yet the edition I read is only 460 pages. That is a little over 1,000 words per page. Anyone reading the same edition may find that each page takes about twice as long to read as that of a different book. There is a good reason why.

Thanks to a friend for recommending this one. As it was serialized from 1844-1845 in its original incarnation, it proved quite voluminous for a series of blog entries called Book a Month. Just about anything can be read in a short period of time, though... I suppose.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 3

Sunday, August 3, 2014

July's Book: Maus

Maus by Art Spiegelman
Graphic Novel (1991 - 159+136 pp.)

Maus, a graphic novel in two parts, is renowned comic book artist Art Spiegelman's transcription of two years of conversations he had with his now deceased father Vladek, a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor. The book(s) alternate between life in Europe from about 1930-1945 and life in Queens, New York in the late 1970s. Different national and ethnic groups are shown as different animals, most notably Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Art, whom I call "Spiegelman" through this entry, shows anguish throughout the book(s) as to how he will represent Holocaust-related events, his relationship with his father, and how to show his father's less desirable traits without conjuring up visions of negative stereotypes of Jews.

I won't get into any political or historical commentary here, as I try to approach my sources as neutrally as possible. Sure, I could get upset that Spiegelman portrays my mother's ancestry as a bunch of pigs, but that wouldn't be much different from a segment of Iran that was offended by 300. I'd rather accept someone's perspective and appreciate a work for what it is than worry about taking offence to things.

The storytelling is quite good. The reader gets an idea as to how Vladek lived, who his family was, what their priorities were, and how World War II changed everything forever. Although I do not know graphic novels that well, I enjoyed the animation thoroughly. Spiegelman invested a considerable amount of work into the panels, which came out in serialized form in his Raw magazine for eleven years (1980-1991). The direct quotations from the family members in their dialects, the emotion the characters demonstrate, and the lack of large blocks of text make Maus a fun, accessible work.

The most interesting part to me is Art and Vladek's relationship. The mention of children being forced to finish food on their plates before eating anything else (I: 43) is something I've encountered in some of my experiences with Continental European culture more generally. Vladek's extreme financial conservatism is evident in statements like, from his second wife Mala, "He has hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, and he lives like a pauper!" (I: 132) Mala often comes off as overly desirous of Vladek's money, though, especially from Vladek himself, so the reader is left to wonder whether anyone is right or wrong in the frequent arguments about money in the Spiegelman household. A particularly hilarious/worrisome episode comes when Vladek, unable to eat old cereal, attempts to return it despite the box being opened (II: 78).

Spiegelman's struggles with the book go to an existential level. He grapples with attempts to commercialize Maus, something he opposes virulently, (II: 42) and with an inability to draw tin shop equipment he has never seen (II: 46). Then there is the guilt of worrying about things like how to properly depict an electric drill press when so much of the book concerns death and lost love.

Ironically, Maus is very human. It's not educational in terms of politics or history, as I disclaimed above, but it's great for learning about how peoples' experiences shape their lives. It makes me wish I could interview my grandfather, whose story from the same time and place would have been fascinating to tell...

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 6

P.S. I have a bit of a history of publishing these blog entries on my birthday. It's more fun than a lot of the other things I could be doing, I suppose.