Tuesday, January 21, 2014

After the Last Page

“'Who can say whether we shall ever see them again?' said Morrel with tears in his eyes.
'Darling,' replied Valentine, 'has not the count just told us that all human wisdom is summed up in two words?—“Wait and Hope.”'” —Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo.
There is a unique sadness waiting at the end of every great book.

I finally finished The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I say finally, but I think that conveys a sense of relief that I don't at all feel. My heart was heavy when I took away my bookmark and laid the weighty volume aside. The Robin Buss translation that I read from Penguin runs just over 1200 pages—more if you count the notes, which of course I also read . . . mostly. To be clear, I do not consider this an accomplishment. I have not since checked one more capital 'c' Classic off of the sacred list handed down to me by my former professors, those high priests of the English canon. I read Dumas because I love his pension for the dramatic—those lofty notes of Romance.

I probably spent about five months with the book. When you spend that long with characters who you like and who capture your interest, watching them navigate equally engaging settings, the effect of parting is modified somehow, if not enhanced. You get to know them, obviously, but more than that, you become comfortable in their company. You look forward to sitting down with them, as with dear friends, and losing track of time. And suddenly, when you reach that white gap after the last page, it is distinctly the end of more than just a story. It's like moving away from a town you can't ever go back to. That favorite spot where you used to sit, half in the sun with a hot cup of something within easy reach—that place is gone. You'll have to find its steady reassurance somewhere else.

Its the time that makes the difference. The longer you spend, the harder it gets. I've read shorter works that I have enjoyed more intensely than The Count of Monte Cristo, but my enthusiasm for the work often carries me past the last page, even if there is an acute pang of regret that the story is now over. Not surprisingly, I have been the saddest at the conclusion of anime series, such as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. I'm having trouble thinking of live action experiences that produced the same effect. The Lord of the Rings comes to mind, but I think the yearly release of the films gave me adequate opportunity to prepare myself. I'll probably have a hard time when Sherlock airs its final episode, but lets none of us think too long on that inevitable tragedy.

Dumas's novel should have such modern day series for company. The Count of Monte Cristo is not a novel as we understand the term today. The novel was released in eighteen monthly installments from August 1844 to January 1846, and was only later collected as a complete novel. This is the long running series and subsequent blueray box set of its day. Anyone who reads The Count of Monte Cristo should do so with this understanding in mind. The book does not follow what we have come to accept as the traditional structure of rising narrative tension. There are smaller climaxes throughout the novel which you could point to as the finale of a given season, after which the story collects itself and begins building again.

Anyway, it was great. The book was a journey, from the bustling port of Marseille, France, to the lightless dungeons of the Chateau d'If. Dumas fills the page with the uninhabited Isle of Monte Cristo from which the profoundly betrayed Edmond Dantes takes his alias, and on from there to carnival in Rome and Parisian society and elsewhere. We see Edmond Dantes transform from a naive, but good-hearted merchant sailor, to a terrible instrument of revenge in the form of the Count of Monte Cristo. Admittedly, I can only read about a character 'emotionally turning their eyes heavenward' so many times before the phrase ceases to communicate any sentiment, but nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Clearly I am not alone in my appreciation—no, my outright demand for more of what I like. Not only do so many people seem ravenous for the next novel series, but we continue to find ourselves in a golden age of television (thanks again, Mark Gatiss). In some ways, I suppose, I measure my affection for a work by how profoundly I feel its loss when it is over, as well as my dread of that moment. I could read the book again, or watch the episodes over, but it's never the same. All I can do is steel myself for the coming famine and return to the hunt for the next piece of wonder.

To all the mourners with hunger pains, happy hunting.

As it happens, I have at least found some relief in Naomi Novik's gem, His Majesty'sDragon. Laurence and Temeraire, you darlings!  If you have any works that have especially touched you, share it below.

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