Naomi Alderman's first novel, Disobedience, was published in 2006 in 10 languages; it was read on BBC radio's Book at Bedtime and won the Orange Award for New Writers. Penguin published her second novel, The Lessons, in April 2010. In 2007, she was named Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and one of Waterstone's 25 Writers for the Future. In 2009 Naomi was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award. From 2004 to 2007 she was lead writer on the BAFTA-shortlisted alternate reality game 'Perplex City' and she has just completed work on an online game for the BBC. She writes a weekly games column for the Guardian. Here Naomi discusses Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.
Naomi Alderman on The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
There are some pieces of literature which, even if you haven't read them, you feel as if you already know. Oedipus Rex is like that: we all know the story, so it comes as a surprise to read the play and find that it's actually structured as a detective story. And Romeo and Juliet – such an archetype of love that it's startling to realize how very boring the central couple are.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a book like that: we've seen it done so often in film or TV that it feels dull before we begin. And it's a classic theme, a story so perfectly formed that it's hard to believe it didn't already exist. A sailor, Edmond Dantes, is betrayed by his friends and sent to the Chateau D'If prison (and what a wonderfully evocative name that is for an English speaker – the Castle of If). There he meets a fellow prisoner who tells him the location of a great treasure. Dantes escapes from prison, finds the treasure, and using his now unlimited wealth sets out on an elaborate, long-plotted and long-executed revenge on his betrayers.
This is not a 'what happens' novel, but 'how it happens'. We already know that Dantes will have his revenge; what's astonishing is the variety of incidents and interwoven plots that we meet along the way. Like Dickens's Bleak House, The Count of Monte Cristo is a novel which contains pretty much everything. There's romance, both happy and thwarted. There are bandits and costume balls and battles and comedies of society manners. There's tragedy and betrayal. There's a prolonged scene of drug-taking.
If you've only ever seen one of the many movies, or read an abridged version you were given as an 11-year-old, you've missed out. The joy of the book isn't in Dantes himself - always a cipher of a character, who starts out terribly good and naïve and ends being almost erased by his own quest; the joy is in the gorgeous richness of the minor characters. Did you know that, among the many multi-stranded stories, there's a lesbian sub-plot? No, I didn’t either. There's a pair of women, great friends. One of them, beautiful Eugenie Danglars, goes about dressed in men's clothes and declares she has no desire ever to be married to a man. The other, Louise D'Armilly, floats around in pretty dresses and plays the piano. Eugenie fears her father will try to force her to marry, and she and Louise decide to flee together:
"Listen, Louise, I abhor this society life, ordered, measured and ruled out like our sheets of music paper. What I've always wanted, aspired to and yearned for is an artist's life, free, independent, where one depends only on oneself and is responsible only to oneself. Why should we stay? So they will try, in a month's time, to marry me off again?..."
"How strong and courageous you are!" the fragile young blonde said to her dark-haired companion."
Oh chortle chortle, I said to myself as I read the book, Dumas has no idea what a clichéd butch/femme couple he's put in here, how this reads to modern eyes. He blooming did know what he was doing: on page 1067 we find them in bed together. Oh Dumas, how I underestimated you.
In my other life, when I'm not writing my own sadly far more sedate novels, I write the stories for online games. And it's there that Dumas has provided me with inspiration again and again. The novel - like so many of its size - was originally published in monthly instalments. In this way, it's like a TV series, or an online narrative. Every chapter ends with a hook. Every character's fate is in the balance. Every page turn leads you somewhere you didn't expect to go. The Count of Monte Cristo is a masterclass in both teasing and pleasing the reader, something that literary fiction often forgets about.
So don't read it because it's good for you. Don't read it because it's a classic. Don't read it because you'll learn something. Buy a paperback copy, expect it to get battered as you take it everywhere you go this winter. Immerse yourself in it. Read it because it's such bloody good fun.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]