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!

 

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The Accidental Satanist : John Milton – “Paradise Lost”

 “Lucifer” has just reminded me: I was due to revisit John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” I’d gone through it in college, but it was a rushed read, part of a course  that also expected us to inhale, in a few months, half of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. I recall “Beowulf,” John Keats’ “Endymion,” William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene,” and Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” all got some prominence. That sort of diet fattens, but fatness and good digestion are not necessarily concurrent.

Which is to say, I do not remember particularly enjoying “Paradise Lost,” as much as scavenging for the essay-ready “quotable bits,” which luckily were plentiful.

And upon revisiting, the surprise: aside from the quotable bits,  I’m STILL lukewarm about it.

ABOVE: Lost Boy

It’s obviously a dissenting opinion. Look how apologetic I get right away:

The STORY is amazing. This is Biblical fan-fiction that, blasphemous as it may sound, outdoes its source. It is simply the ultimate epic about good and evil, fuller, deeper, more poetic… More INSPIRED, so to speak. Milton spins out his 12 books of blank verse  out  out of the first three chapters of Genesis, stray Biblical allusions, peripheral angel lore, gnostic and medieval folklore. When he can’t find enough philosophical material in centuries of ecclesiastical commentary, he expands his religious universe to include folk legends and Greco-Roman allusions. When even that fails to feed his all-consuming genius, he simply MAKES THINGS UP. That takes chutzpah: it is very easy for irreverent post-deist modernity to expand upon and remix Biblical tales, but Milton was  a fierce believer, one who must have had carved in his heart the closing words of the King James Bible:

“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

ABOVE: Hell’s Angels

Why then, is it ok when Milton “adds unto these things”? Because if Dante could add upon Virgil, and Virgil could add upon Homer, those were role models enough. Also, he’s inflamed by the vision that illuminated everything in his blindness: when he’s inventing n0n-Scriptural events, he fully believes in them too. He is literally an ORIGINAL believer, originating his own religion through his poetry. The writing of “Paradise Lost” was an earnest religious ritual, a ritual half-Christian and half-pagan. If there is some contradiction or hypocrisy in Milton’s praying for the help of a Greek Goddess to sustain him through the tale of monotheistic zealousness, Milton never noticed. Fanaticism is its own cognitive dissonance.

That’s the good.

The bad ( for me) is that I can’t escape the feeling that our insistence on the majesty of “Paradise Lost”‘ has two dubious causes. First, that the English writers bowed to it in Imperial pride because in its absence, the English language is bereft of a great epic. “Beowulf” is barely English; “The Faerie Queen” is incomplete; there’s too many fart jokes in Chaucer.

The second source of its appeal lies on some cheesy proto-Heavy Metal fixations. Forget Gustave Dore; “Paradise Lost” should have been illustrated by the dude who does Jim Steinman / Meatloaf album covers.

ABOVE: Paradise Lost by the Dashboard Light

As for Milton’s language, it has the effect of any dazzling fireworks; too much of it, and it turns into eye-straining monotony. The grandiloquent pomposity grates on me. I know, I know, if you can’t be grandiloquently pompous about the Ultimate Battle Between Good and Evil, what CAN you be grandiloquently pompous about? But Milton gets too proud-fully, sinfully excited by the overwrought iron work of his own verse, which is fit to decorate the infernal gates. And the thing it’s not as distant from the cosmic ponderousness of Stan Lee’s Silver Surfer as people would like to think.

ABOVE: Are you SURE he’s not quoting “Paradise Lost”?

If Milton loses to Dante in appeal, the reason is simple: Dante knew that when you’re putting the reader through hell, you gotta throw in a couple of jokes.

There IS one ironic joke in “Paradise Lost,” the one any modern critic and reader immediately confronts, but I do not think Milton was as conscious of it as we elect to think he was. That uncomfortable irony, of course, is that Satan is the goddamned hero, (er, no pun intended.) Satan is brave, noble, Achillean. His cursed heel is, of course, his unwillingness to be a slave in Heaven. “Better to reign in Hell! They may take away his soul, but they can not take away his freedom!”  He comes out looking a LOT better than the tyrannical, paranoid, wrathful King Lear of the Heavenly throne.

Even the title suggests this epic is written from Satan’s perspective; it’s not called “Paradise Cleansed of Traitors.” I agree with William Blake that Milton was not aware of his slant: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

ABOVE: Paradise Pity

Here’s a further irony:

Milton decried grand churches and opulent temples, whose gateways opened to idolatry. Still he wrote a grand temple in verse, and set many memorable idols around the iconostasis. Satan; Beelzebub; Belial; Moloch; the horrible Sin and Death; the copulating Adam and Eve; even sword-swinging Michael… they are all much more arresting than the irascible Father by the altar, threatening to annihilate Creation at the slightest provocation, or the bashful Son tugging at his sleeve, trying to keep the old man from losing his mind again and again. Not only does Milton fail to justify God’s ways to man: he even fails to justify God’s ways to his Son, who seems as mortified by Dad’s uncool behavior as the average teenager caught with the parental units at the mall.

Robert Burns: “I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments – the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, the noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage, SATAN.” 

John Milton: the accidental Satanist.

RATING: Ugh. I feel absurd saying “Paradise Lost” is not a MASTERPIECE!!! How about this? It’s a masterpiece AND a devilish chore.

POST-SCRIPT:

ABOVE: Bat out of Hell

Thought it might be fitting to go out on 8 glorious minutes of Meatloaf:

Man of Understanding : Ezra Pound – “ABC of Reading.”

The Greek-loving students in Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” must have run into Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” at some point, and rejoiced at Pound’s appreciation for Homer’s melodious inventiveness, (or been upset by Pound’s dismissal of Greek drama as Homer-influenced stage business.) But “ABC of Reading” (1934) has dripped its wisdom upon far less sophisticated heads, and many (too many?) of its axioms are collegiate gospel, (“Literature is News that Stays News” may have won the popularity contest, and for a prize has been pinned to card-boards at English departments galore.)

ABOVE: Ezra got his nickname after a schoolmate shouted: “Hey, you spent your last pound on hair product again, didn’t you?”

Beyond the axioms lies an idiosyncratic, sometimes downright unhelpful textbook on how to read and write poetry. At its most academic, it defines the three effects poetry aims for:

  1. phanopoeia – to throw the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination.
  2. melopoeia – to induce emotional correlations by sound and rhythm of the speech.
  3. logopoeia -to  induce 1 & 2 by stimulating associations with other word/word groups.

But then he’s much better when sneering at dissection (“observe a fish too academically and you’re bound to end up knowing a lot about a dead fish.”) Pound demurs at discussing novels, saying he’s not qualified since he hasn’t written a dozen great novels, (the humble implication being that he HAS written a dozen great poems, but, hey, when he’s right, he’s right.)

It’s probably for the best, since Pound reduces the whole of novelistic history to the five or six novels he likes. Basically, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne … then maybe Jane Austen … then nothing good ’til Flaubert. (Stendhal did manage to write some 80 good pages in “The Red and the Black,” by Pound’s estimation.) It IS refreshing to know that one can plow through ALL the worthwhile novels in a month of heavy reading.

ABOVE: “So after I finish this stack I’m caught up with everything? Awesome!”

Poetry is Pound’s metier, and what he likes, (Chaucer, Chinese poetry, Ovid through Golding’s translation, Provencal folk songs), is not as revealing as what he DOESN’T like. Shakespeare was just ripping off Italian folk-songs (and is simultanenously too merely English.). Milton is grossly and utterly stupid and obtuse. Wordsworth is full of dead moments. Here’s  his homework exercise, one that the law courts would call “leading” : “Find a poem by Byron or Poe that doesn’t have seven major defects.”

“ABC of Reading” is elegant, curmudgeonly, and quite bitter about British and American decline. By 1934, Pound had shifted alliances (he’d already met gushingly with Mussolini, against the recommendation of quasi-pupil Ernest Hemingway)  and saw in fascism possibilities for a cultural renaissance. Clearly he thought the declining Anglo-speaking empire needed SOMETHING (elsewhere he’d praised Lenin):

“The man of understanding can no more sit quiet and resigned while his country lets its literature decay, and lets good writing meet with contempt, than a good doctor could sit quiet and contented while some ignorant child was infecting itself with tuberculosis under the impression that it was merely eating jam tarts.”

But it’s an over-reader who looks for Heil Hitlers in “ABC of Reading.” It’s not half as didactic as Pound intended: as a teaching tool, its worth is questionable. The poet was ambivalent about lecturing anyway. According to him, lecturing consists of endless obfuscating for financial purposes. Teaching must be stretched to the hour’s length, (and his book to the 50,000 word mark), simply because the truth is brief, and brevity is distrusted and unrewarded. A man who can talk for an hour without interruption is impressive and on the way to tenure. A teacher who came in to deliver the book’s simple writing instruction ( “LISTEN to what you write”) and then walked out the classroom should not count on a paycheck at the end of the week. Pound believes France improved its culture drastically when French classes got shortened by 20 minutes. That kind of rumination isn’t going to help much with your poetic process, but it’s what makes “ABC of Reading” preferable to textbook dissections.

ABOVE: “Yo, is this lecture ever gonna end? Homey in the blue there just passed out!”

RATING: COOL!