I’m taking a break from Adaptations with this one, though both the books I write about have been made into films:

 

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas (E book edition)

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (Vintage, 2010[1987])

 

It’s a commonplace of the Creative Writing tuition industry that being a reader will make you a better writer.

I recently bought an e-reader that was pre-loaded with several dozen books in English. Among them was The Count of Mote Cristo, and it was that which I chose to read to surrender my e-reader virginity. A short time later I was loaned a copy of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and wanting to return it quickly, set into that one too!

The coincidental parallel readings threw up an interesting comparison of these two long novels, so widely spaced apart in time, yet dealing in many ways with similar themes. I can imagine Dumas and Wolfe sitting together in that circular room which Forster proposes in his Aspects of the Novel (Arnold, 1927).

The differences between the novels are obvious. Dumas’ story covers decades, and deals with one man’s quest for revenge upon a group of people who have ill-used him in the first fifth of the thousand page epic. Wolfe’s story covers only a few months, and describes the way one man’s folly is exploited by a group of people around him. Yet where there is difference we instinctively search for similarity. Both stories are firmly rooted in their ‘one man’, and use him to explore his wider society.

Their settings, centuries and continents apart, are the same, the worlds of high society and high finance, in both cases, being contrasted with the worlds of low-life criminality and the judiciary. Paris is the New York of its time, and Wolfe’s character Arthur Ruskin makes the connection: ‘This city is what Paris used to be’ (Wolfe, p590), but the main protagonist, Sherman McCoy has done so five hundred pages earlier: ‘There it was, the Rome, The Paris, the London of the 20th century.’(Wolfe,p81)

The two cities are in the nature of characters themselves, and their natures are themes of the respective stories. Though the word is not used in either book, celebrity is at the heart of them both. Whether it is to weddings or funerals, the crowds come to gape in The Count; and in Bonfires, again in the mouth of Ruskin, we are reminded that living in New York is about being seen: ‘she can’t sleep nights thinking that ( ) the people ( ) in New York might not know who the hell she is.’ In both books the crowds are drawn to the courtrooms, and in both books critical turning points are reached in those courtrooms. In The Count, both Fernand, and Villefort suffer their decisive defeats in the Courtroom, and the climactic scene of Bonfires takes place there too.

It is not only celebrity and the justice system that is examined in common however. Behind both of these stands the inequality in financial resources that is at the heart of both societies. Both books deal in currency, quoting figures that by the time of my reading are almost equally meaningless in representing value. We understand them, not because of their detail, but because of their contexts. Monte Cristo’s hundred million would not get him onto the Rich List these days, and $150 is about average for a decent restaurant meal nowadays, even out in the provinces where I live! Yet we know that the figures being quoted are always breathtakingly high to the characters quoting them and in both books money, the need for money, as much as the love of it, drives them on.

What I found interesting, among other things, was that Bonfires, on its covers, is pitched as a comedy, something which I did not find in it, until quite near the end, as Judge Kovitsky’s courtroom spirals into riot, and I wasn’t sure that it was intended that way. The Count is certainly no comic creation, as the man who was Dantes, enriched beyond the dreams of his time, plans and executes, the destruction of those who incarcerated and betrayed him.

Here again, in the two so different stories, I found similarities, for as Monte Cristo first sees, and then reacts to the true nature of his avenging persona, so McCoy goes on a personal journey, becoming almost an avenger himself by the novel’s end.

The similarities throw me back onto differences though. Whereas both books have a strong ‘love’ interest, their treatment of women is surprisingly different, with Wolfe’s story seeming, to me at least, to treat its women more contemptuously than Dumas’. The X Rays and Lemon Tarts, even the apparently successful Judy are portrayed as essentially useless; none have the nobility of Valentine, Eugenie, or even Mercedes. Dumas’ presentation of Eugenie must have been daringly positive in his time, as he makes the point that though they book twin beds, during their flight from Paris, she and her female companion are using only one when Andrea bursts in upon them.

The foregrounded relationships between the sexes disappointed me too, especially in The Count, seeming to be between ‘roles’ rather than people, and that between the Count and Haidee I found the most disappointing of all. At least McCoy’s Mrs Ruskin had something about her that he could respond to without her being entirely submissive to him. They remained individuals, though they came to see through each other in the end.

In the matter of race, I found Dumas’ world less inherently racist than Wolfe’s, though both categorise people by their ethnicity. Dumas’ characters’ racism seems to have less self-conscious malice about it, and in Wolfe’s novel it is so insistent and all pervading. Of course, this may represent a heightened distaste for it in the later novelist, rather than a greater prevalence of it in the society he depicts.

Another difference was the parochialism of the stories. Despite the mention of Lake Como, and the 747 Middle Eastern air flights, mention of places outside New York are rare in Wolfe’s book, with the exception of his, to me, surprisingly large, English influences, whereas Dumas’ characters inhabit a wider world. Bearing in mind the comparative modes of transport this is even more surprising. Hardly any of the major characters in Bonfires travel, yet most of them in The Count do.

Does this reflect the cultural differences between two times, or between two cultures, or is that a spurious question? Certainly, it seems to me that the world view of Dumas’ Parisians is somewhat broader than that of Wolfe’s New Yorkers, even among the poor.

What both stories do, in their similar and different ways, is to examine the way that we spend our time, and to draw attention to the fact that, unlike our fortunes, it cannot be built up or replaced. Death, and the certainty of it, is contemplated throughout them both. The Count ends with Monte Cristo sailing away with Haidee, while Morrel is reassured by his beloved Valentine that we must ‘wait and hope’, which might be taken for two words that sum up the burden of the story. Wolfe’s novel ends with a press report, taken from a year after the closing events of the main text. As a Dickensian ending does, the author here ties up a few loose ends by outlining what has become of his major characters. Wait and hope though seems to have morphed into endure, but that might be my reading of the novel.

Comparing the two, being aware of the two, gave me a greater sense of each, of how they handle their themes, and settings, and characters, and stories, which makes me wonder, if being a writer might help you to become a better reader.

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