Book Review: War and Peace

I wrote the bulk of this book review in September, but I wasn’t happy with it, so I set it aside. Despite its retaining some flaws, I decided it has enough going for it to make it worth sharing, so here it is: my review of Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.

The Nature of War and History

Leo Tolstoy was a better storyteller than philosopher in his classic work War and Peace. More frequently and for longer sections than in other classic novels I’ve read, the author strays from storytelling into open rhetoric. Tolstoy gives himself ample space for this focus with a book of 587,287 words. Then, he lingers on pontification, unfortunately, through the second and final epilogue.

I can’t say how he does compared to other Russian authors such as Dostoyevsky because I haven’t yet read enough of those, but I can compare him to professional philosophers and myself as a philosophy graduate and self-directed student. Mainly, I’m interested in considering Tolstoy’s efforts within this single volume of writing.

From my post Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for. . . .

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

His arguments are not without merit; most of them I found to be novel (no pun intended), therefore intriguing, extremely well developed, and frequently persuasive. Tolstoy is better at this in the earlier books and chapters of War and Peace than toward its end. Yet, for all its careful argumentation, War and Peace proves its most remarkable illustration of those arguments, and its best outright craft, in the fictional story itself.

People in 19th-Century Russia

All the main characters become highly complex, dynamic, real human creations by the time their epilogue, the first of two, ends. Whether the reader focuses on Andrew, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas, or Mary, the shocking rises and falls they experience lay the groundwork, in at least three cases, for an immense depth and breadth of change that defies reader expectation and imagination.

One character’s girlish exuberance brings her readily to love, but then inexperience makes her prey to shameless seduction, which plunges her into mournful ruination, and thence to physical illness. With medical intervention, she recovers. Her spirit’s plunder gives rise to austere devotion in the midst of war, and she returns to deepest mourning. Renewed connection to a reformed friend at last allows her to live in her element with unapologetic womanly vitality that saturates her large, happy brood.

Another’s troubled soul, as heir to the fortune of an estranged parent, becomes trapped in external corruption, seeks spiritual solace, and commits to religious renewal. Though he marries sloth and gluttony, he cannot escape his palpable conscience, which compels him into mission-bound patriotism and thence to a purified, liberated spirit as he escapes from war imprisonment and suffering. Thus cleansed by conflict, robbed of legal freedom, and reduced to attending only his basic human needs, he emerges like a phoenix into spiritual freedom, and then into balanced, happy, duty-bound marriage and fatherhood.

His friend, who begins as a spiritual foil to him, in embittered, cynical not-quite-youth caught in an unwanted marriage, allies his atheism with devoted military service and advancement. Shackled by his sense of family duty, his extended courtship as a widower with a son jeopardizes his future happiness. Transformed by falling under the oppressive weight of disappointed hopes and twice into near-death experiences, he is temporarily re-embittered, then fully embraces forgiveness, transcendence, and God.

A subservient daughter with unshakable religious fervor endures hateful, long-extended parentage and, despite having effectively adopted a child from within the family, discovers freedom in her parent’s death. After slowly treading the gauntlet of requisite postmortem guilt for feeling a natural sense of freedom after wishing for the parent’s suffering to end, she finally asserts her natural leadership in estate affairs. She then falls in love with a strikingly earth-bound admirer but retains her faith in God and her strong moral center to the end.

A spoiled playboy with childhood sweetheart matures gradually through a series of experiences the reader might think should have greater impact on his character. Following a false start in his native high society, he seeks glory in war but discovers the shame of false recognition. He gradually detaches himself from the girl he still loves as he devotes himself to Russia, even as libertine tendencies persist.

He later surprises himself by falling in love with a woman very unlike him, takes his time accepting it, then ages painfully under the austerity of inherited debt and dedication to his mother’s unfettered expenditures. Though eventually happy in his new worker’s role, he struggles to reshape his pugilistic instincts with a much more scrupulous, cerebral wife who loves him fully without even remotely understanding him.

Each character’s capacity for completely loving others takes a form as unique as each individual, but that fully proven capacity testifies to their humanity more than anything can which they experience directly or live through nationally.

Natasha effuses love her entire life, a selfish love until scandal and tragedy humble her into contrite devotion. Then, though better balanced and more giving, with a live mind but an even more indomitable spirit, she returns to a naturally selfish state, in her unexpected renunciation of society, so as to embrace vigorous investment in marriage and motherhood.

Pierre most loves his intellect until he meets Andrew and Natasha, both of whom he loves unconditionally despite not understanding them, learns to love life after the shackles of war imprisonment, witnessed atrocities, and famine that ironically free him from his former self of decadence, social imprisonment, and eternal questioning.

Andrew has trouble showing his love to close family, even his son, until he meets Natasha, gives himself to her, then suffers the pain and humiliation of their break-up. His war experiences and severe wounds teach him a pure love of God, transcendence, and death.

Mary loves God and servitude to a fault in allowing her father’s constant abuses of her, loves her brother Andrew deeply, loves her nephew, whom she raises, learns with surprise to love Natasha as a sister in their shared love of Andrew, and loves Nicholas so deeply that she ignores or forgives all his transgressions, while also alerting him to his path of improvement.

Nicholas is the only character in the top tier that seems superficial in all his loves, first wearing the ease of beloved childhood, then the delights of wealth, followed by the steady hum of enjoyed military service, and then the application of that same sense of duty to managing his family’s debt, until he practically falls into marriage with a rich woman he has gradually grown to love without needing to love her for her money. If he seems to love superficially, perhaps it is only that he suffers by contrast with the more absolute loving in the likes of sister Natasha, would-be brother-in-law Andrew, brother-in-law Pierre, and wife Mary.

It is these distinctly different journeys through love that best convince the reader of Tolstoy’s impassioned message that history is misleading if not wholly false, that great leaders prove time and again to be inhuman hypocrites and surprisingly powerless fools, that the imperial government’s transitory and useless nature robs it of meaning, and that only love and humanity in the individual lives of common citizens really matter.

With protagonists whose motivations, experiences, and shifting outlooks testify to the depth and vividness of their simple forms of love, Tolstoy has convinced me that self-absorbed, mutually invested individuals will always be the thing that makes a nation’s shared history and collective identity great.

Tolstoy argues explicitly that the highest, purest form of patriotism is the keen attention and investment in the good of one’s own particular personal life, and he proves his claim in the storytelling. As the reader follows the lives and deaths in this microcosm of Russian society, she learns that to value individual people—siblings, cousins, friends, parents, and children, fellow citizens caught in the snares of war and punishment—is truly the best one can do.

The “Patriotic War of 1812,” a.k.a. the French Invasion of Russia

Yet, if the title were “Love Conquers All” instead of War and Peace, somehow it would lose its impact. By viewing particular humanity through the lens of society’s struggle for international survival, the contrast between killing and loving comes through more sharply. And the book is as much about abhorring war as it is about loving people.

In other respects, like similarly interminable books, War and Peace does tend to lag even in the fictional chapters, especially in the latter third of the book, which focuses heavily on portraying the military machinations of Napoleon’s and Alexander’s respective armies. In so doing, Tolstoy also gives flesh to his particular claims about the characters of Napoleon, his generals, Alexander, his generals, and the different component parts of each army’s skeletal structure.

The extent of these portrayals on the one hand feels fitting as a representation of war in action, fulfilling a promise made by the book’s title. On the other hand, I personally found myself yawning as I searched for a point in the storytelling that the author had not already made in the rhetorical sections before and after the fictionalized histories.

An unsettling, perhaps intended, irony of Tolstoy’s choice to deplore so thoroughly Napoleon and the French on one side and to expose as fools many of the Russian patriots on the other side is that the reader who deigns to believe Tolstoy’s claims about the falsehoods of history must then necessarily doubt the author’s own historical portrayals.

While his direct claims matching his fictional characterizations of the same historical figures pique reader curiosity to learn what really happened, both his highly personal insights, which history tends to omit or avoid, and the fervent broadcasting of his views ensure that the reader who does conduct individual research will meet only disappointment.

This disappointment will be twofold: You can’t verify the fictionalized accounts, and it will be extremely difficult and therefore time-intensive to find texts whose historians agree with Tolstoy’s overt perspective on historical fact. If Tolstoy’s perspective had been as revolutionary as he no doubt ardently hoped, my experience of history class in grade school would have been very, very different.

If it were one of Tolstoy’s key points to profess that history is subjective and the facts of historical events impossible to know in their truthful essence, then this juxtaposition would work in his favor. But since Tolstoy’s real point is that the typical historians are wrong and he himself is right about what really happened during the French invasion of Russia in 1812, that in fact, the truth is knowable and he knows best how to know it, his political rhetoric and war storytelling undermine his purposes to a noticeable extent.

These elements do diminish the novel’s effectiveness as a cohesive work of art, dulling its beauty that resulted from wholly admirable craft, especially in characterization of invented figures. However, what’s most remarkable to me is that, after all the toggling between philosophy, pontificating, and storytelling, I am nonetheless left with such intense admiration for the fiction in its own right.

Conclusions and Recommendations

War and Peace is a book for many different people from all walks of life. Those not educated past, say, high school may have difficulty understanding any of it—fiction or philosophy—without guidance. The rest will naturally take away things as diverse as their individual perspectives, given the real estate Tolstoy provides for readers to get lost in.

The work as a whole suffers under the weight of its author’s bifurcated ambitions, but simultaneously, a quick scan will tell the story lover or the history lover which parts to focus most on reading. There is much to learn, admire, and discuss about the massive cultural deposit that is War and Peace.

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the admiration, learning, and discussion-worthy content covered a contiguous string of pages from start to finish; as it is, while the whole picture is less complete without a complete read, its quality sinks with a forced reading of every last word.

I agree with my friends who gave me permission, a tacit recommendation, to skip the second, last epilogue. It’s largely extraneous, but I couldn’t skip it myself; I’d come too far not to finish absolutely. The second epilogue’s repetitive, obfuscating philosophy with extended metaphors confuses earlier points when it doesn’t directly contradict them.

In short, Tolstoy could have benefited from either a more insistent editor or a more flexible approach to details for the sake of a publishable whole. But as a text of many volumes, books, and chapters examining in depth the nature of individual humanity and embattled society, War and Peace will always offer something readers can find worth exploring.

War and Peace makes you think, it makes you feel, and it makes the budding writer want to abandon the enterprise. It can also drive natural thinkers a little crazy and lessen the positive effects of thought and feeling by too forcefully insisting upon explicitly intertwining the two. The book would have been a better novel if Tolstoy had simply told the story, and it might have been a better rhetorical treatise without muddling the rhetoric with fictionalization.

In the end, the imperfect, blended product proves to be an intriguing, if sometimes puzzling, exercise and a fascinating cultural artifact for multifaceted study and discussion. While not the best book club selection or high school text, War and Peace may be particularly fruitful in certain specialized college courses in history, Western civilization, world literature, and other fields.

Although I read it over a long summer that lasted from early May to late September, I wouldn’t recommend this for summer reading unless you dislike looking up in the sunshine. And while I started by repeating the diverse-medium approach that I applied to finishing The Count of Monte Cristo, Librivox’s volunteers for War and Peace proved too tedious to stick with and the book itself too long to finish with five library book renewal periods. I resorted to reading most of it on my phone using an epub file, and that worked fine.

To close, again, from Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well [Outlander or Tolstoy or anyone] portrays history in fictional form pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, [but this questioning can only ultimately be] literary criticism.

Art is for everyone to make of what they will. As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in a conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Book-Cover_War-and-Peace_Pevear-Volokhonsky-translation

edition I recommend for print reading


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Backyard Brief: Little White King

The other day, my husband spotted another striking, first-time visitor to our house, a male white-crowned sparrow. One day in rain, the next in sunshine, he stuck to the grass to forage for fallen seed.

According to my slightly outdated North American birds guide, we’re in His Majesty’s winter range. Perhaps he has been dethroned and is migrating northward to a new seat of power. I wonder if he is related to the White King in my Alice novel. Look closely: This fancy little monarch even wears white eyeliner on his lower lids.

He must be French, or maybe Quebecois.

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

count-monte-cristo-cast-into-the-sea

“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)


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Who might you be otherwise?

“I was reflecting, in the first place,” replied Dantès, “upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained. What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?”

[The abbé replies] “Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect. Compression is needed to explode gunpowder. Captivity has brought my mental faculties to a focus; and you are well aware that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced—from electricity, lightning, from lightning, illumination.”

– from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Vol. 1, Ch. 17, “The Abbé’s Chamber”


True or false?

Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

Before:

So here’s the state of the art on my painstaking vacation planning. Gee, I thought vacation was supposed to be fun. . . . Huh.

Despite (or because of) all the great things to see, despite my fondness for Shakespeare and English literature, and despite a long process of selecting favorite English regions, cities, and sights, England, let alone London, has not made the cut.

Scotland is now our sole target country for this first dedicated family trip of some length.

I feel kind of foolish because I’m not Scottish and neither is my husband. It feels illegitimate somehow, like we’re imposters or something. Since we aren’t going to an extremely different climate and culture as would be the case on an African safari or in other seemingly more exotic locales like the Tropics or Tokyo or Tasmania, I feel compelled to be very selective about the part of Europe we explore together. It feels as if we should have some personal connection, relatives, work purpose, or people we know there.

He’s Slovenian (Italian-ate) and Latvian; I’m Irish, English, German, and Dutch. I travelled France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands (where some known cousins live) almost 20 years ago during college, and he’s been to the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and France on business. I speak French; he speaks (a little) German, understands some French.

So why Scotland?

It’s really all down to Outlander and my obsession therewith. Through the journey of the story, Scotland has become personal. Scottish Gaelic is even becoming my third language. Visiting does seem full of purpose. I feel as though I do know the people, at least more than I did before my deep and abiding interest in the book and TV series set there.

No apologies, no excuses, no misgivings, no sheepishness, but maybe some sheep, and maybe for dinner . . . mmm, haggis (?!). Research, plan, prepare, go, enjoy, and remember. And be grateful for the chance. And remember, the best laid schemes . . .

Five Scottish regional destinations for a 2-week visit, clockwise order from the south-west: Most preferred sights are listed for each area, though we may will not make it to all of them.

  1. Glasgow and environs (4 nights Glasgow) – Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Park, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral/Necropolis, a play, boat ride on the river Clyde; Cumbernauld (Outlander studios drive-by), Falkirk Wheel, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle (Monty Python, Castle Leoch), Wallace Monument
  2. The Trossachs, Argyll, and Central Highlands – Loch Lomond (and maybe Loch Katrine) in Trossachs National Park; Loch Awe, Inveraray Castle; Glencoe
  3. The Great Glen, Highlands, and west coast (2 nights Fort William) – Fort William, Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite Rebellion launch), Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, lochs and walks in the Great Glen; Eilean Donan Castle
  4. Inverness and environs (3 nights Inverness) – Inverness Visitors Centre, excursions to Foyers Falls, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle (maybe a boat ride), Cawdor Castle (Macbeth), Culloden Moor (Jacobite Rebellion), Clava Cairns (standing stones with split rock), Cromarty, Black Isle, Moray Firth
  5. Edinburgh and environs (4-5 nights Edinburgh) – Edinburgh Castle, National Museum of Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile main street, which includes Writers’ Museum, Greyfriars Kirk (“Bobby” the Westie), St. Giles’ Cathedral, Scott Monument, and more; Southern Uplands including Rosslyn Chapel and maybe Abbotsford House (Sir Walter Scott) and Melrose Abbey
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Glencoe & the West Highland Way. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record online

The above sites are separate from several specific towns and rural locations where the Outlander TV series has been filmed. After some consideration, I’m inclined to skip a packaged Outlander tour in favor of making our own. I know enough about the books, TV series, and show creators that information won’t be lacking, and we need not be further restricted in our movements or schedule.

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Eilean Donan Castle, W. Highlands. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record online

Outlander-related locations, many of which we can catch en route to others, include (my preferences in bold):

  1. Culross, Fife, between Edinburgh and Stirling (Crainsmuir, the Black Kirk)
  2. Falkland, Fife, with the Covenanter Hotel (Mrs. Baird’s B&B, 1940s Inverness)
  3. Pollok Country Park, Glasgow (Castle Leoch grounds, Paris woods duel)
  4. George Square, Glasgow (Frank’s wedding proposal to Claire)
  5. Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Highlands (wool waulking, rent collection)
  6. Loch Rannoch/Rannoch Moor near Glencoe (backdrop for Craig Na Dun)
  7. Tulloch Ghru, Highlands, near Cairngorms National Park (opening credits and hilly woods between Craigh Na Dun and Leoch)

Those near Edinburgh are:

  1. Blackness Castle, on Firth of Forth (Randall’s Fort William, of Jamie’s flogging)
  2. Linlithgow Palace, West Lothian (Wentworth Prison exterior, corridors, eps 115-116)
  3. Hopetoun House, West Lothian (Sandringham’s stately home in ep109)
  4. Glencorse Old Kirk, Glencorse House grounds, Pentland Hills, Midlothian (Jamie and Claire’s wedding, ep107)
  5. Midhope Castle/House, a private residence, Abercorn, Hopetoun estate, South Queensferry (Lallybroch)

I’d also like to visit the Southwest/Borders region closest to England–including Caerlaverock Castle and Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, Dumfries, and Robert Burns sights–as well as the Isle of Skye, but there won’t be time. At some point, we’ll need to sample the peaty whiskey (whisky) among the many distilleries.

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Caerlaverock Castle, Borders/Southwest. Image by ScotlandNow, The Daily Record

Life is large and detailed, as is the world. I relish details, the worlds within worlds on this planet. I like to get lost in them, as must be obvious by now from my blog. For two weeks, we’ll get lost, and be found driving on the wrong side of a single-track road along a beautiful loch in the Highlands of Scotland. Details.


After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – snapshot from the Seabank B&B, Trossachs National Park (posted Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (posted Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (posted Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (posted Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (posted Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (posted Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem & photos from the National Museum of Scotland (posted Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, presenting filming sites in Central Scotland (posted December 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – continuing in Central Scotland with filming sites in Glasgow, then southward to the Ayrshire coast and Dumfries & Galloway (posted December 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wrapping up orientation with sites in the Highlands, from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness (posted Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – the story of my trip planning process, snapshots of planned vs. actual itinerary, summary of our experience, and reflections on improvements (posted March 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (posted March 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. part 5) our Outlander tour and Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL filming sites, list of 40 OL filming sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour company links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (posted April 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6, the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (posted June 15, 2017)

Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202

Highlights of Episodes 201 and 202

Spoilers imminent (but we’re mid-season, so it’s time to catch up anyway)

Sparkling Overall Performances:

  1. Caitriona Balfe as Claire
  2. Tobias Menzies as Frank
  3. Duncan LaCroix as Murtagh
  4. Andrew Gower as Bonnie Prince Charlie–quite the caricature
  5. (as always) Simon Callow as the Duke of Sandringham

Sparkling Moments of Performance:

  1. Sam Heughan as Jamie battling the Black Jack Randall demon in ep202
  2. Lionel Lingelser as Louis XV in ep202–so funny!

Delightful New Characters:

  1. Jared Fraser, Jamie’s cousin and a wine merchant, resident of Paris
  2. Prince Charles Stuart, presumptive heir to the British throne
  3. Louise de Rohan, Claire’s new friend and a marquess
  4. Mary Hawkins, Louise’s charge and teenager engaged to Le Vicomte Marigny
  5. Fergus, a young French pickpocket at first named Claudel, whom Jamie employs to steal letters to and from Prince Charles
  6. Suzette, Claire’s lady’s maid, an expanded role thanks to Murtagh’s expanded . . . ahem, role
  7. Bouton!, border terrier and diagnostic partner of Mother Hildegarde at l’Hopital des Anges
  8. and, of course, Mother Hildegarde herself

The Look:

Production Design, Set Decoration, and Costume Design all demonstrate their usual attention to beauty, detail, and symbolism, with the vibrant results to leave you oo-ing and ah-ing at the sumptuous subjects of Parisian architecture, interior design, and dress.

Costumes Highlight – Every time Balfe appears in a new costume, the eyes feast and many of us drool, a hazard that men of the 18th century must often have encountered with all those low-cut, corseted busts. While show costume design and decoration seem to represent history well overall, the 1700s costumes in particular purposely blend mid-20th century styles into the look of Claire’s wardrobe in subtle but noticeable ways. One of these is a Dior sample Terry Dresbach used for Claire’s silver-jacketed dress with neat black hat in episode 202. See Terry’s website for details.

Jamie also cleans up nicely in his own velvets, satins, and crisp white jabots, along with that clean-shaven square jaw and dimpled chin framing the piercing blue eyes Heughan sports so expertly. And of course, there’s the flowing, curly red hair. * enamored sigh *

Other Notable Elements:

Cinematography: ep201 multi-scene and ep202 Versailles

Film editing: ep201, mainly

Plot outlining and writing — overall, very good with very few flat or off moments

Book fan pleasures: Continued close following of enjoyable original dialogue and narration

Highlights of Great Scenes 

Numerous scenes in ep201 and ep202 conveyed emotional depth and effective drama in acting and dialogue. For a sample, the following illustrates my experience of ep201’s . . .

. . . Tears (70%) and Laughter (30%): Moment by Moment.

Episode 201

Cries in Ep201 from the opening moments to 45 minutes in (all of 1948)–that is, moments when tears actually fell from my eyes:

Although the opening scene is gut-wrenching, I was too intent on paying attention and too bewildered and horrified by Claire’s screaming for crying to be an option.

Cry #1 – Claire kneeling and sobbing in the road after coming back to the 1940s and hearing from the passerby that the British had won the Battle of Culloden. Whoa.

Cry #2 – Mrs. Graham reaches and grabs Claire’s hands, the strings rise, and she tells Claire to cherish her experience. It just grabbed me so tightly in the chest like.

Cries #3 and #4 – Frank crying and then pleading with Claire to let them be reunited as husband and wife as he professes his love (violins rising). Poor Frank . . .

Cry #5 – Claire’s reaction to Frank’s condition that she conduct “no more research” into her dead husband Jamie. Not only must she mourn his loss, but now she must not “re-member” either. And yet, a reasonable request, really.

Cry #6 – “I will” let him go, she says. “I accept your conditions.” *Heart tears open.*

Cry #7 – When Claire tries to take off her 1740s wedding ring but cannot. It’s a wonder she doesn’t collapse to the floor again right there.

Cry #8 – Putting away love, into her suitcase, in the form of the other ring she brought back with her that is missing its jewel. So much adjusting, so soon, so sad.

Cry #9 – When Claire sees Frank burning the 18th-century Scottish apparel she wore back through the stones (music rising — volume and pitch). All traces being erased.

Cry #10 / Final heartbreak, and this one may surprise some viewers – The visual transition from Claire taking Frank’s hand as she de-boards the plane in New York to Claire taking Jamie’s hand as she disembarks from the Cristabel in Le Havre, France. (Claire and Jamie musical theme surges.) Some saw this as a moment of triumph, but it is at least bitter-sweet, and I found it somewhat hollow after the absolute gutting perpetrated by the first 45 minutes.

Laughs in Ep201 — from the transition point forward, all in the 1700s setting:

See my list at Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ ep201.

The effect of this chosen sequence and emphasis on the 1940s is to propel the audience into a season in which we’re desperate to cling to every positive moment possible between our beloved heroes Claire and Jamie. Although the selections above suggest a tolerable contrast of 70/30 between heartbreak and joy, the experience of it is more like 80/20, or even 85/15.

The darkness and deep sorrow of knowing from the beginning that the Frasers ultimately lose each other at the end of the season invests the viewer more keenly in their 1740s togetherness, and particularly in their luxury and high status, if not quite revelry, as stewards of Cousin Jared’s house and business in Paris while Jared expands his endeavors overseas.

Simultaneously, the heavy weight of the first 45 minutes of Episode 201 brings the audience so low that we’re more than ready for the sex, laughter, diversion, and above all, levity (i.e., frivolity, materialism, beauty, and style) with which Paris is replete.

The hope portrayed in the landing at Le Havre soon gives way, however, to the dark cloud that has followed Jamie and Claire from Scotland into the City of Lights. This shadow hovers ominously as they plunge headlong into political intrigue, double dealing, wariness of whom to trust, and danger amidst new enemies. Their overarching anxiety primarily takes the form of the dual and competing (indeed, conflicting) pressures and strains of Jamie’s recent traumatic past in the hands of Black Jack Randall and of the impending birth of the couple’s first child.

Any normal human being would crack under the weight of it all. Thank goodness this is fiction, and Jamie and Claire are (as Jamie describes Claire to Jared) “sturdy” people.

Good Surprises and Divergences from the Book:

A bold move it was indeed to start season two in the 1940s since the non-book-oriented audience expects to see Jamie and Claire arriving in France after last season’s finale. Bolder still, and risky to some degree, to linger there for so long with the pain and sorrow between Claire and Frank before transitioning back to the past.

Readers of book two, Dragonfly in Amber, may recall that the book also opens in the twentieth century, but 20 years later, when we meet grown-up Brianna and grown-up Roger Wakefield, the Reverend Wakefield’s adopted son. It will be fascinating to see how that time leap element is treated later this season–or next.

Murtagh’s expanded role from book to show honors Duncan LaCroix with well-deserved opportunities to shine.

Episode 202

From start to finish, ep202 is an eye-popping firecracker, ending in literal fireworks. The opening scene of Jamie’s nightmare is disturbing and shocking, particularly when his sure-fire murderous stab-a-thon ends with BJR’s eyes opening, still alive.

The sexual indulgences of the second episode are largely humorous in nature, at times fascinating and at others disturbing, but always of that entertaining levity to counterbalance the nightmares and anxieties that linger.

The ridiculousness of King Louis’ “dressing” comes off splendidly. Lionel Lingelser commands the room whether through melodramatic constipation or royal diffidence and lurid looks. His sizing up of Claire will prove relevant mid-season.

In keeping with a slightly more daringly sexual Claire the show and Balfe have formulated, a nonetheless pregnant Sassenach matches the French women’s sensuality step for step. Between the “third-rib” V-neck red dress she “helped design” that stirs up trouble at Versailles and the more private “honeypot” scandal, Claire’s bold efforts to mesh with Parisian high society prove a shock to Jamie’s more traditional, 18th-century sensibilities.

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Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) in THE red dress with new friend Louise de Rohan (Claire Sermonne), at Versailles. Image credit: STARZ and Sony Pictures/ Left Bank/ Tall Ships

Speaking of shocks and meeting one’s match . . . .

A Grand, uh, Climax:

Toward the end of ep202, the Frasers’ confrontation with the Duke of Sandringham at Versailles presents great suspense and layered implications, thanks mainly to the writing and to Simon Callow’s stunning performance. The exchange between the Duke and Claire after Jamie and Murtagh walk away is so good, subtle, and biting that it deserves a closer look, which I provide in the next post in this series. I didn’t catch several of the layers until I viewed it a second time myself, so stay tuned!

See also Five-Phrase Friday (37) on Simon Callow’s characterization of Sandringham.

A compressed plot, especially in ep202, with overlapping events that are more spread out in the book, works very well. Pacing is on track in the first two episodes, along with the undulation of moods. Overall, the progression of scenes does not feel rushed, and it very easily could have. Kudos to the writers and producers for their care and creativity.

Aspects Somewhat Less Than Stellar

While not quite a detractor, I have been less than impressed with Dominique Pinon’s performance as the apothecary Master Raymond. It may in part be the difficulty I had in understanding his French accent when he speaks English. Perhaps it’s the nature of the role as well, and the fact that I’ve seen Pinon dig into meatier ones, namely, as a jealous womanizer in the quirky, surrealist French film Amelie, starring Audrey Tautou.

Le Comte St. Germain, played by Stanley Weber, provides juicy menace, but by the end of ep202, Weber hasn’t had a chance to shine much yet. It’s been mostly slow striding with his scepter, quiet brooding, and hungry, if subtle, murderous looks of “I will get you” toward Claire and Jamie.

A Lowlight of Episodes 201 and 202

The other time problem, which I wrote about concerning last season, this season turns out to be a mere typographical error in ep201 captioning: “Le Havre, 1745” should have read “Le Havre, 1744.” The effect of this sloppiness? Initial confusion and distress give way to disappointment at its cheapening of the series.

However, it was not until ep203 that I found more to critique, though there is still plenty to praise.


Come back next time for more thoughts on subsequent episodes in season two of Outlander STARZ.