A tale of two classics

Sometime this summer, I decided to re-read some canonical novels and read a few classics I’d missed. In part, it’s a self-education thing. For me, it’s about being well-rounded.

The other part? I won’t go off on a long “the canon is bullshit” spiel, but that was my thought. I’m curious to know if these so-called classics really are worth the hype. In two instances where I read books unfamiliar to me, I was a bit surprised with the results: Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms.

The Count of Monte Cristo is one I’d been wanting to read for awhile, and it just never panned out. But this summer I made the leap. I found it to be … epic. Not in the way my grade school-age daughter and her cohorts abuse the word. In the true, grand, sprawling definition. It takes place over decades, draws people from around Europe, Asia and northern Africa and is the longest of long cons. Dumas’ plotting and characters are all what and who they need to be to make a story this complex work.

However, you could probably cut 150-200 pages from The Count and not miss much. Why? First of all, the novel lacks in the dialogue department. Oh, there’s plenty of people talking. But much of it is A) re-hashing stuff that doesn’t need re-hashed or B) monologues disguised as dialogue. Second, there are too many lengthy side-trips in the set-up. The chapter where the Count brings a friend of one of his marks to his island in an effort to move at said mark sideways could have been covered in a quick paragraph of conversation later as a flashback/aside. Instead, it was a long chapter of indulgence on the Count’s part and self-indulgence on the author’s part. A modern editor would make quick work of plenty of Dumas’ bloat. I’d really be interested in seeing a leaner version of this story. I think the pacing would be significantly improved, and rather than getting buried in the excess of Dumas’ prose, the result would be a better read.

As for A Farewell to Arms, most of my familiarity of Ernest Hemingway comes from The Old Man and the Sea. My junior high, high school and college teachers/professors thought Old Man was a necessity. Coughbullshitcough. Maybe it’s just seafaring books – I really can’t stand Moby Dick, an overly long fishing tale sold as a must-read story of obsession – but I kind of kept hoping the sharks would just eat the old bastard so I could move on to the next reading assignment. Unlike The Count of Monte Cristo, I was in no way looking forward to A Farewell to Arms.

And the joke was on me: A Farewell to Arms could end up becoming one of my favorite books. The description of the toll of World War I on Europe and its people is amazing. I thought Hemingway’s style was visceral and potent. The way he captured the early, silly nature of the relationship between Henry and Catherine was silly and true-to-puppy-love form. The way both their desire and their situation drove them closer, Henry’s decision to seek out Catherine after his near execution and their boat ride to freedom were all spot-on. There’s no bloat, not a word wasted.

But what did it for me was the ending. I have to admit, I was kind of expecting Catherine to die in childbirth. But when the child died, too, I was surprised. Hemingway could have given Henry a partially happy ending. Instead, Henry’s world was rocked. There is power in the sadness and shock that surrounds the death of loved ones, and Hemingway captured it perfectly. Henry had been witness to the vulgarity of war and limped away relatively unscathed. But the death of his wife and child carved a hole in him. Beautiful in its heartache.

What’s next? Well, I don’t know that Brave New World is considered canonical, but Aldous Huxley’s disturbing tome on the future of the new world order is definitely a classic. I just wrapped up the re-reading of it and am now a few chapters into Catch 22, which may be the funniest and most outrageous American novel not written by someone with the name “Vonnegut.”

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