ALEXANDRE DUMAS PERE – The Count of Monte Cristo. Penguin, hardcover, 2013. Translation by Robin Buss. Illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

   The Count of Monte Cristo is a book everyone knows, most people will claim to have read in some form, and almost everyone knows is a classic of little more than children’s literature, one of those homogenized 19th Century classics approved for animated features, comic books, and “safe” to read for all ages.

   And yet the plot of the book involves the following elements and always has:

    “… a female serial poisoner, two cases of infanticide, a stabbing and three suicides; an extended scene of torture and execution; drug-induced sexual fantasies, illegitimacy, transvestism and lesbianism; a display of the author’s classical learning, and his knowledge of modern European history, the customs and diet of the Italians, the effects of hashish, and so on; the length would, in any case, immediately disqualify it from inclusion in any modern series of books for children.”

   As Robin Buss argues in his introduction to this new translation, part of the problem is simply the book hasn’t had a new complete translation since 1910, meaning even the best English translations of the book are heavily censored by Victorian and Edwardian prudery and the stiff and uninspired literalism that can make the book hard going.

   It is true Dumas was not a great stylist, and wrote in collaboration, but he did write in a style at least equal to the modern bestseller. Most translations have ignored that and disguised or obscured the racier elements of the novel as mentioned above behind the most heavy handed of Victorian prose and unimaginative translators.

   Note how Dumas introduces the reborn Edmond Dantès as Monte Cristo tying him to the popular figure of the vampire in literature:

    ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘Lord Byron swore to me that he believed in vampires. He even told me that he had seen them and described how they look – and that was it, exactly! The black hair, the large eyes glowing with some strange light, that deathly pallor. Then: observe that he is not with a woman like other women, but with a foreigner – a Greek, a schismatic – and no doubt a magician like himself. I beg you, stay with me. Go and look for him tomorrow if you must, but today I declare that I am keeping you here.’

   That idea of Monte Cristo literally risen from the dead is one key to the novel. It is not merely the story of Dantès’ stunning revenge and undoing of injustice, but also of Dantès’ resurrection and return to life, an element often lost in prior translations designed to disguise the more serious themes as well as the darker aspects of the novel. Other elements of the novel link it to Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in the near prescience of the brilliant Abbe Faria.

   I’m not really suggesting most of you will want to read this latest 1,500 plus page translation of the novel, only that if you do you will discover much you missed in earlier readings. The story you think you know is much different than the reality, the book both easier and more felicitous to read, and certainly no classic of children’s literature.

   Read in this new translation, it is easy to see why the novel has held such sway over the popular imagination, and why it was one of the greatest best sellers of French and English literature. It holds a little bit of everything, from Near Eastern intrigue to international skulduggery, mystery, romance, and adventure. This translation is almost the equivalent of a new and previously unknown work by one of the masters of French literature.