Friday, 27 June 2014

What I've been Reading: The Princess Bride, The Count of Monte Cristo

I suppose after last week's little rant about idiot abridgements, it was only natural I returned my attention to the most lauded and memorable 'good bits' version it's been my pleasure to read. I am talking, of course, of S. Morgernstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, The Princess Bride, abridged for us lesser mortals by William Goldman. This was partly because of a recent argument I got involved in regarding the sexism that pervades said text (no matter how much I love it, it does. There is. Sob. Sorry) and partly because of the way Goldman's attitude towards adventure fiction reveals a parallel, but very different course, to my own.

The Count of Monte Cristo was written at a time when the genre lines that govern fiction were not so strictly defined. We do Dumas as much as a disservice by pigeon-holing him as a historical Romance writer as we do by perpetuating the myth that he wrote children's books. The 'Rome' section (the bit I've just read) is as pure and concentrated Gothic as Udolpho. It's all Italian banditti, Edmond-the-Vampire and slightly strained reference to Lord Byron. In fact, the novel itself follows the pattern of a Gothic beautifully,we follow our hero from pastoral (or perhaps maritime) idyllic poverty, through terror and bondage (and that word is ruined forever) into the more violent, 'primitive' places where different rules govern behaviours and men - remote islands, Italian forests, the Eternal City - only to bring that terror back with us to the stylish salons of the so-called civilised world. In fact, the evidence is that Dumas really wanted to write a Gothic in the truest sense of the word, in that he wanted to start the book in Rome, have us meet Edmond-the-vampire before we met Edmond-the-poor-but-honest sailor. Like the ambiguous, Byronic villains whose apparent supernatural origins are eventually explained away, we were supposed to be mystified by the terrifying, 'savage' honour of 'Sinbad the Sailor' before we understood the betrayal that had shaped him.

Thanks to the intervention of Auguste Maquet, however, that is not the story we have. So we, with our more rigid interpretations of genre conventions, we find ourselves expecting Napoleon, vengeance, true love and high adventure and instead get dropped in the catacombs of San Sebastiano with a bunch of Byronic bandits. 

Well I, for one, am not complaining. *Whistles innocuously*

Mmm. Edmond Dant├Ęs
But coming back for a moment to The Princess Bride, Goldman perfectly captures the savage realism and emotional challenge that novels like Monte Cristo offer to young readers. Especially denuded of the societal satire, the dirty bits and the political context, these stories are incredibly shocking beneath their veneer of 'far away and long ago.' The Three Musketeers is a tale of friendship that overcomes all odds and then just sort of... ends as the four men go their separate ways. The Count of Monte Cristo is about a man getting vengeance on his betrayers, on the man who stole his future and his wife and then, all obstacles removed, their enduring love for each other admitted, he.... goes off with someone else. The Princess Bride is about a couple who brave the the Cliffs of Insanity, the Fireswamp, torture, only for one of them to die and the other to marry another. No one even 'gets' Humperdinck!

They aren't fair, these novels. There is no Providence, no ever loving God looking out for the virtuous. And actually, come to think of it, our heroes aren't that virtuous. Goldman captures - perfectly - the frustrations of a child who has grown up with the sanitised, naive, 'happy ending' versions of these stories, only to discover in adulthood that they weren't simple or as reassuring, that the undercurrent of discomfort they created was their real legacy, their enduring power. 

After all, Who said that life was fair? Where is that written?

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