Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”

bridge

“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.

RATNG: COOL!

 

Lit Up : M. L. Stedman – “The Light Between Oceans”; Anthony Doerr – “All the Light We Cannot See”

ABOVE: “I’m going to show you my lighthouse. Yeah, that’s my name for it.”

A lighthouse in post-WW1 Australia provides the picturesque excuse for M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans.” Now, this is a very pretty romance, for the most part; a Nicholas Sparks pot-boiler solemnized by history and setting. The premise is genuinely good: Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife, Isabel, are still mourning over her inability to bear a pregnancy to term. They stumble upon a dying man and a baby, presumable the dying man’s daughter. The couple then makes an ethically questionable choice that is justified by their grief and their location: they keep the baby and raise it as their own.

The baby, of course, belongs to a family that knows as much about grief and loss as the couple.

The first two thirds are absorbing: lyrical language, sympathetic characters, enough Aussie-ness to make the foreign reader feel like they’re getting their educational worth…That will do for most readers. But the resolution disappointed me.

SPOILERS:

A tear-jerker should accept its intentions. Even at their little-girl-killing worst, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens had the courage of their convictions. But “The Light Between Oceans” half-asses its tear-jerking. We’re promised melodrama of nearly operatic power. Instead, we get a climax that is nearly undone by a triple set of flaws.

First: An element is introduced for cheap suspense- and it does not pay off. (It is hinted again and again that Australia’s wild life, in particular snakes-in-Eden and scorpions, will bring about a deadly denouement. They don’t, and it pisses off the Anton Chekhov in me.)

ABOVE: They even put the frikkin scorpion in the cover!

Second: The potentially horrifying climax is built upon the frustrating, clichéd, ridiculous contrivance of people refusing to tell a simple truth out of proud reticence EVEN IF IT MEANS KILLING SOMEONE THEY LOVE.

Third: Let’s say we accept the melodrama and we’re biting our fingernails over it. I half did! But THEN- it all comes to naught. Without further spoiling: imagine if a novel’s final act was about how a husband refused to give his wife an alibi because he was upset about a cold soup, so he puts her in a position to be given the death sentence- and then a judge was like: “Eh, let’s give her two months community service instead. Oh, and the couple should make up.” VERY DEFLATING.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH


“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.
—Joseph Goebbels”

ABOVE: All the poetry we cannot grasp

Anthony Doerr’s WWII novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” ticks off any number of crowd-pleasing melodramatic tropes on its way to some eventual Oscar-bait cinematic adaptation two or three years down the line. Pulitzer prize winners have rarely been this mild and conservative, (“Did you know that Nazis suck?” might very well be its most provocative statement.) I’m a sucker for this stuff, (how can I resist the fact that Marie Laure, a blind French girl, is a Braille-reading fan of both Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas?). But I’m hating on it because nearly universal praise should always be punctured a little.  Doerr can endure my insignificant hate. This IS a lovely novel, a delicate novel, but surely these are times when Pulitzer prizes should go to sturdier stuff, not to lovely and delicate novels about little blind French girls and sweet German boys forced into the horrors of war!  (The National Book Award did indeed go to “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which caused an uproar among the very, very small circle of people who care about such things.) “All The Light we Cannot See” is a very conventional, respectable novel, is what I’m saying. But, I mean. WWII? Again? It’s kind of playing it  safe, isn’t it?

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

 

 

 

Captains Courageous # 4 : Emilio Salgari – “Captain Tempest”

(Re-read from childhood.)

Literature does not care for lieutenants and rarely for generals, but captains were saluted for most of the 19th century. Emilio Salgari’s “Captain Tempest” is the first in a two-volume cycle, (along with “The Lion of Damascus”). Plot-wise, it sticks to Salgari’s heroic formula, with one notable twist that finds the author at his most “progressive”: the titular captain is actually a cross-dressing Neapolitan woman, Leonora of Eboli, out to rescue a mansel-in-distress, the Vicomte de Hussiere, from the claws of the Islamic Estate, or its 16th century equivalent.

EXOTIC SETTING: 1571, Venetian Cyprus,  under siege from the Turkish forces of Mustafa Pasha.

TOPICS OF INTEREST: That old “Christians vs. Muslims” trope. One thing that Salgari’s novels have, and this I also valued in Jules Verne, is that for all the crude national stereotypes, the characters are more into globalization than into parochialism. Here, we have Neapolitan, Venetian, Cyprian, Turk, French, Greek, Polish, Arab, and Hindu characters fighting side by side and throwing slurs at each other with cosmopolitan abandonment.

HEROES: Captain Tempest, a heroic woman who has joined the Venetian resistance in drag; the imprisoned Vicomte de Hussiere; and Muley-el-Kadel, the handsome Muslim warrior who makes the Vicomte de Hussiere look extra loserish by comparison.

SIDEKICK: El-Kadur, the converted Turk who repeatedly offers to kill himself for the sake of pretty Captain Tempest; a large number of Venetians, Greeks, and Arabs who vow to do the same.

VILLAINS: Haradja, the curvy, capricious, blood-thirsty daughter of a Baja who only cares about the Coran when absolutely convenient to her plans, and who falls for both Muley and Leonor, (neither of those romances work out for Haradja, which is kinda surprising, because Salgari writes her as a genuinely hot femme fatale); Slaczinski, a coat-turning Polack.

ACTION SCENE: The siege of Famagusta is a marvel of a massacre; several thrilling scimitar fights; burning, exploding galleys.

MEAN ANIMALS: LEECHES.

TORTURE SCENE: The torture scene in this is one of Salgari’s creepiest: Christian prisoners are forced to earn their keep by turning into leech-fishers, an occupation that involves sinking into a swamp until their leech-covered bodies are allowed to emerge and valuable leeches are plucked from their wounded flesh. This exciting activity continues until the exsanguinated prisoners stop becoming attractive to the leeches.

BIZARRE MOMENT: DID I MENTION THE LEECHES?

DIALOGUE GEM:

“Lay down your swords, you dogs! Don’t you see this man is a Christian, like us? We are not murderers! We only kill people from different races or religions!”

CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “I knew that the Turks were God-forsaken savages; but little did I know that Polacks were even closer to the animal state.”

RATING: Kinda COOL!

Heroes and Monsters : Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill – “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” V. 1 and 2 (Re-Read)

“The British Empire has always encountered difficulty distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.”– “Campion Bond,” 1908, presumed ancestor to future spies.

The steam-punkish Victorian England that Alan Moore put together for  1999’s”The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is almost as densely referential as the world of Warren Ellis’ subsequent “Planetary.” There’s some friendly competition between those titles and creators- and both inspired plenty of imitators during the last decade. Every recent team-up culled from the public domain owes much to how the mysterious “M” brings together no-nonsense, heavily-scarfed Mina Harker, (from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”); former adventurer, present opium-sot Allan Quatermain, (from H. Rider Haggard’s books); Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo (from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island”); H. G. Wells’ Hawley “Invisible Man” Griffin; and the dichotomous disasters that are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

ABOVE: The Astonishing X (traordinary)-Men

Peripherally involved are Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars; we find out that a previous generation of Leaguers involved Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver, the Baroness D’Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Russell Thorndike’s Doctor Syn, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo- the Minutemen to the League’s “Watchmen”. Loftier and subtler literary references also abound, from one-panel nods to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Emile Zola’s “Nana,” Anthony Trollope’s “The Warden,” and Henry James’ “The Bostonians”, to other allusions I would never have sussed out without some looking around, like the cheeky nods to Susan Coolidge’s series of Katy novels, or to “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”

In any case, Sherlock Holmes is dead (or-is-he?) and has left a power vacuum that allows treacherous forces to rise against the British Empire. In Volume 1, the League battles against evil, metaphorically Celestial forces (that is, against Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu-Manchu, not then in the public domain and therefore not mentioned by name); in Volume 2, the evil forces become literally Celestial, as we find out what truly happened during “The War of the Worlds.”

Moore’s intent might be in tying together literary creations in Wold Newton fashion, but his satirical barbs are aimed not so much at the heroes of his own literary youth as they are at an Empire in absurdly grimy decay. Here’s the sardonic, “in-our-next-issue” Narrator, indulging in xenophobia while teasing an imminent battle against Martian invaders:

“Lord love us! Can our nation’s doughtiest defenders quell the influx of these queerly-behaved foreign devils who show no sign of attempting to adapt to our time-honored English way of life, with cricket on the green and ladies bicycling to Evensong?”

P.S.: The annex to Volume II is its own marvel of fictional geography. Less marvelous was the 2003 film adaptation- a critical and popular flop that had Moore divorce himself from future Hollywood projects and is nonetheless being primed for rebooting because why not.

ABOVE: You’d forgotten this existed, hadn’t you?

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

 

 

It’s a Strange World, Let’s Keep it That Way : Warren Ellis, John Cassaday – “Planetary”

John Cassaday and Warren Ellis took turns leaving their mark in “Astonishing X-Men,” but it’s their combined work in the classic “Planetary” that I would recommend. This is a short but dizzyingly dense sci-fi/adventure series that follows the team exploits of Elijah Snow (white-haired and with a Tom-Wolfe sense of fashion to match ); the technologically-gifted “Drummer”; and kick-ass heroine Jakita Wagner. Together they investigate the wonders of a snow-flake-shaped multiverse (with 196,833 dimensions, if you must know) while sending-up all sorts of 20th century literary sub-genres and publishing formats.

ABOVE: Paneltary

Where SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW!

Where heroic icons of the past (stand-ins for Tarzan, Fumanchu, the Shadow) collide in multi-existential conflict with superheroes present (stand-ins for Batman, the Green Lantern, Wonder Woman).

Where the corpse of Godzilla rots in the island of dead kaijus as a warning to the children of the atom.

Where ghost cops roam the streets of John Woo’s Hong-Kong to remind us that there is no “justice”, there is “just us.”

Where a giant Art-Deco reality-shifting ship waits for the seven humans that can save it from shipwreck.

Where Doc Savage Brass is the century-long reminder of how pulp fiction gave way to today’s superhero epics.

Where the alter-Fantastic-Four are the direct result of Nazi ingenuity.

Where what starts as a knowing homage to John Constantine “Hellblazer” expands to include the rest of the Vertigo line – and then a political explanation of what compelled the British comics invasion of the late ’80s / early ’90s – and then a hilarious comment on how that forever altered mainstream American superhero comics – and THEN bringing it all together into a personal explanation of what inspired Ellis’ own “Transmetropolitan.”

Where “Magic is the cheat codes for the world. Sending a signal to the world’s operating system, see?”

Where ’50s mystery science features come from outer space in full Technicolor glory, and alter-Marilyn-Monroe is there to explain things.

Where that crashing shiftship leads to a meditation of the roles of fiction – and a make-believe planet comes into play.

Where you won’t even believe what happens to alter-Superman and alter-Wonder-Woman and alter-Green Lantern. (Let’s just say Ellis eviscerates DC.)

Where alter-James-Bond clues us all to Cold War mind games.

Where memory unclouds and the Fourth Man is revealed.

Where the “Open Conspiracy” of the creations Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, William Hope Hodgson, Mary Shelley, and Edgar Rice Burroughs is put to rest as the vestige of a century long past… WHILE Ellis also takes a side-swipe at Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” (Moore’s terse blurb for “Planetary: “This is  an exemplary turn-of-the century mainstream comic book.”)

Where the alter-Fantastic-Four are the ultimate, most marvelous of nemeses.

Where the Jewish book of Genesis works best in aboriginal dream time.

Where Wuxia showdowns involve dragons and gravity-defying sorcery, the way they’re meant to.

Where a trip down the heart of darkness leads to the lost world of Opak-Re – and the realization that there was more “heart” than darkness there all along.

Where we find out what really happened to the heroes of Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” (it ain’t pretty.)

Where Stan Lee meets Stanley (Kubrick) and alter-Galactus-the-Devourer-of-Worlds finds himself at the end of his space odyssey.

Where the Thing and the Swamp Thing turn out to be one and the same and it’s both unpredictable and so obvious it’s hard to believe no one had ever made it happen before.

Where the doors of perception are blown open, (with a nice Victor Moscoso homage for a cover, too.)

Where the legacy of the Lone Death Ranger looms larger than you thought.

Where we finally learn the origin of Planetary’s less “developed” member.

Where Elijah Snow’s true mission is revealed… but no more will be said here.

Go read it and devote it some time : Ellis has a tendency to cram so many themes and allusions and subtle plot hints in every line of dialogue that those rushing through are bound to be confused. As a character warns at one point: “Learning curve is steep on this one, so keep focused.”

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!