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A Little Life or The Count of Monte Cristo?
I know everyone’s taken their turn at A Little Life over the years — perhaps even a little more than their turn, and if we want to preserve the fields for future generations, we’ve got to practice crop rotation to minimize nutrient depletion and topsoil erosion and leave things to lie fallow for a while. But I did sit out the first five years, and the wonderful scattershot reviews for To Paradise, Yanagihara’s latest (either an uneven Henry James pastiche [Publisher’s Weekly], a complex tour-de-force emerging from the white heat of the moment [The Guardian], or prestige slash fiction [Datalounge]) have been too pleasurable to resist. I’m not especially interested in renegotiating the role of the “trauma plot” (fine, I’ll bite a little, I don’t think it’s a coherent category, much less “a trope” that can either deepen or flatten characters; I think Sehgal is confusing execution for type), but I am interested in highlighting the parallels between Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Jude in Hanya Yangihara’s A Little Life.
What Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden” is to The Odyssey, A Little Life is to The Count of Monte Cristo. Odysseus returns to Ithaca during a ten-year journey to find his home upended and his wife pursued by rivals; he is recognized by a faithful old servant due to his old scars, kills his enemies, hangs their accomplices, reveals himself to his wife, and resumes his kingship. Enoch Arden, also shipwrecked for ten years, returns to find his wife has happily remarried his childhood best friend, who stands as father to Enoch’s children; he dies of a broken heart, unwilling to reveal himself. Odysseus will not be cucked; Enoch is unwilling to be anything but cucked, returning to his old life only as a watchful ghost.
Edmond Dantès and Jude are similarly run through intricately-detailed stations of the cross — how they suffer!!! — but the accumulation of suffering tips both into different roles, Dantès as Job restored to earthly happiness and Jude as Christ, martyred off the living page. Dantès wears the fury of revenge all the way out, exhausting anger into hope; Jude is so inured to the possibility of retribution that all his friends become Peter in Gethsemane, wildly slicing ears off centurions in fruitless secondhand outrage. For whatever it’s worth, I think they’re both fairly interesting case studies in the advantages and limits of self-pity, although my own natural preferences incline me more towards Dantès’ type than Jude’s.
You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful (And That’s What Makes You Beautiful)
“Faria gazed fondly on his noble-minded, single-hearted, high-principled young friend, and read in his countenance ample confirmation of the sincerity of his devotion and the loyalty of his purpose.”
In December, Willem had been nominated for a major award for his work in The Poisoned Apple; in January, he won it. Then he was nominated again, for an even bigger and more prestigious award, and again, he won. He had been in London on business the night Willem won, but had set his alarm for two a.m. so he could wake and watch the ceremony online; when Willem’s name was called, he shouted out loud, watched Willem, beaming, kiss Julia—whom he had brought as his date—and bound up the stairs to the stage, listened as he thanked the filmmakers, the studio, Emil, Kit, Alan Turing himself, Roman and Cressy and Richard and Malcolm and JB, and “my in-laws, Julia Altman and Harold Stein, for always making me feel like I was their son as well, and, finally and most important, Jude St. Francis, my best friend and the love of my life, for everything.” He’d had to stop himself from crying then, and when he got through to Willem half an hour later, he had to stop himself again. “I’m so proud of you, Willem,” he said. “I knew you would win, I knew it.”
“You always think that,” Willem laughed, and he laughed too, because Willem was right: he always did.
“You must teach me a small part of what you know,” said Dantès, “if only to prevent your growing weary of me. I can well believe that so learned a person as yourself would prefer absolute solitude to being tormented with the company of one as ignorant and uninformed as myself. If you will only agree to my request, I promise you never to mention another word about escaping.”
The abbé smiled.
“Now, it will scarcely require two years for me to communicate to you the stock of learning I possess.”
His silence was both a necessity and a protection, and had the added benefit of making him appear more mysterious and more interesting than he knew he was. “What about you, Jude?” a few people had asked him, early in the term, and he knew enough by then — he was a fast learner — to simply shrug and say, with a smile, “It’s too boring to get into.”
A Natural Swimmer
Every morning he gets up and swims two miles, and then comes back upstairs and sits down and has breakfast and reads the papers. His friends make fun of him for this — for the fact that he actually prepares a meal instead of buying something on the way to work; for the fact that he actually still gets the papers delivered, in paper form — but the ritual of it has always calmed him.
The day passed thus; he scarcely tasted food, but walked round and round the cell like a wild beast in its cage. One thought in particular tormented him: namely, that during his journey hither he had sat so still, whereas he might, a dozen times, have plunged into the sea, and, thanks to his powers of swimming, for which he was famous, have gained the shore, concealed himself until the arrival of a Genoese or Spanish vessel, escaped to Spain or Italy.
Speaks As Many Languages As Robert Langdon
They would go on a honeymoon to France and Germany, where he could finally use his languages around real French and Germans, and to Italy and Spain, where Brother Luke had lived for two years: once as a student, once the year after he graduated college. They would buy him a piano so he could play and sing.
He spoke Italian like a Tuscan, and Spanish like a Castilian; he would have been free, and happy.
Scars Tell The Truth! The Truth Is Pain!
Villefort mechanically felt for the handle of the door; Valentine, who understood sooner than anyone her grandfather’s answer, and who had often seen two scars upon his right arm, drew back a few steps.
“Mademoiselle,” said Franz, turning towards Valentine, “unite your efforts with mine to find out the name of the man who made me an orphan at two years of age.” Valentine remained dumb and motionless.
“Hold, sir,” said Villefort, “do not prolong this dreadful scene. The names have been purposely concealed; my father himself does not know who this president was, and if he knows, he cannot tell you; proper names are not in the dictionary.”
“Oh, misery,” cried Franz: “the only hope which sustained me and enabled me to read to the end was that of knowing, at least, the name of him who killed my father! Sir, sir,” cried he, turning to Noirtier, “do what you can—make me understand in some way!”
Three years before Willem died he had finally been able to ask him to massage the cream into the scars on his back, and Willem had done so, and for a while, he had felt different, like a snake who had grown a new skin. But now, of course, there is no one to help him and the scars are once again tight and bulky, webbing his back in a series of elastic restraints. He knows now: People don’t change. He cannot change.
Only My Friends Know How Important I Really Am
How much had he told her? he asked at one point. “Enough,” she said, “to convince me that there’s a hell and those men need to be in it.” She didn’t sound angry, but her words were, and he closed his eyes, impressed and a little scared that the things that had happened to him — to him! — could inspire such passion, such vitriol.
“Certainly, I might have lived happily amongst those good people, who adored me, but my perverse disposition prevailed over the virtues which my adopted mother endeavored to instil into my heart. I increased in wickedness till I committed crime. One day when I cursed Providence for making me so wicked, and ordaining me to such a fate, my adopted father said to me, ‘Do not blaspheme, unhappy child, the crime is that of your father, not yours, — of your father, who consigned you to hell if you died, and to misery if a miracle preserved you alive.’ After that I ceased to blaspheme, but I cursed my father. That is why I have uttered the words for which you blame me; that is why I have filled this whole assembly with horror. If I have committed an additional crime, punish me, but if you will allow that ever since the day of my birth my fate has been sad, bitter, and lamentable, then pity me.”
He’s Like A Son To My Father
His father in particular liked Jude — he often told Malcolm that Jude had real intellectual heft and depth, unlike his other friends, who were essentially flibbertigibbets — and in his absence, it would be Malcolm whom his father would regale with his complicated stories about the market, and the shifting global financial realities, and various other topics about which Malcolm didn’t much care. He in fact sometimes suspected that his father would have preferred Jude for a son: He and Jude had gone to the same law school. The judge for whom Jude had clerked had been his father’s mentor at his first firm. And Jude was an assistant prosecutor in the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the exact same place his father had worked at when he was young.
“Mark my words: that kid is going places,” or “It’s so rare to meet someone who’s going to be a truly self-made star at the start of their career,” his father would often announce to Malcolm and his mother after talking to Jude, looking pleased with himself, as if he was somehow responsible for Jude’s genius, and in those moments Malcolm would have to avoid looking at his mother’s face and the consoling expression he knew it wore.
“I have only kept this secret so long from you,” continued Faria, “that I might test your character, and then surprise you. Had we escaped before my attack of catalepsy, I should have conducted you to Monte Cristo; now,” he added, with a sigh, “it is you who will conduct me thither. Well, Dantès, you do not thank me?”
“This treasure belongs to you, my dear friend,” replied Dantès, “and to you only. I have no right to it. I am no relation of yours.”
“You are my son, Dantès,” exclaimed the old man. “You are the child of my captivity. My profession condemns me to celibacy. God has sent you to me to console, at one and the same time, the man who could not be a father, and the prisoner who could not get free.”
And Faria extended the arm of which alone the use remained to him to the young man, who threw himself upon his neck and wept.
When Poochie Isn’t Onscreen, Everyone Should Be Asking, “Where’s Poochie?”
“Allow me to observe, madame,” said the count, with that kind tone he could assume so well, “you are really very severe with that dear clever child.”
“Oh, sometimes severity is quite necessary,” replied Madame de Villefort, with all a mother’s real firmness.
“It was his Cornelius Nepos that Master Edward was repeating when he referred to King Mithridates,” continued the count, “and you interrupted him in a quotation which proves that his tutor has by no means neglected him, for your son is really advanced for his years.”
“The fact is, count,” answered the mother, agreeably flattered, “he has great aptitude, and learns all that is set before him.”
It was also Ana who, after the doctors determined he wouldn’t be strong enough to go to school, found him a tutor so he could finish high school, and it was she who made him discuss college. “You’re really smart, did you know that?” she asked him. “You could go anywhere, really. I talked to some of your teachers in Montana, and they think so as well. Have you thought about it? You have? Where would you want to go?” And when he told her, preparing himself for her to laugh, she instead only nodded: “I don’t see why not.” “But,” he began, “do you think they’d take someone like me?” Once again, she didn’t laugh. “It’s true, you haven’t had the most —traditional—of educations”—she smiled at him—“but your tests are terrific, and although you probably don’t think so, I promise you know more than most, if not all, kids your age.”
You Mean All This Time, We Could Have Been Happy?
“Alas,” murmured he, with intense suffering, “I might, then, have been happy yet.”
He hadn’t been expecting the question, so he had to think before he answered. “I don’t think anything’s wrong with him, sir,” he’d said, carefully. “I just think he’s not—” Happy, he nearly said. But what was happiness but an extravagance, an impossible state to maintain, partly because it was so difficult to articulate? He couldn’t remember being a child and being able to define happiness: there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery or fear, and the latter state was all he had needed or wanted.
“Do you think of dying, my lord?” said she.
“The wise man, my child, has said, ‘It is good to think of death.’”
“Well, if you die,” said she, “bequeath your fortune to others, for if you die I shall require nothing;” and, taking the paper, she tore it in four pieces, and threw it into the middle of the room. Then, the effort having exhausted her strength, she fell, not asleep this time, but fainting on the floor…
“Oh, heavens,” exclaimed Monte Cristo, “can my suspicions be correct? Haydée, would it please you not to leave me?”
“I am young,” gently replied Haydée; “I love the life you have made so sweet to me, and I should be sorry to die.”
“You mean, then, that if I leave you, Haydée —”
“I should die; yes, my lord.”
“Do you then love me?”
“Oh, Valentine, he asks if I love him. Valentine, tell him if you love Maximilian.”
The count felt his heart dilate and throb; he opened his arms, and Haydée, uttering a cry, sprang into them.
“Oh, yes,” she cried, “I do love you! I love you as one loves a father, brother, husband! I love you as my life, for you are the best, the noblest of created beings!”
“You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. “You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
“What happened to him?” asked the owner, with an air of considerable resignation. “What happened to the worthy captain?”
“Fell into the sea?”
“No, sir, he died of brain-fever in dreadful agony.”
I still don’t know what to say about that letter, I still cannot think of it. All those answers I had wanted about who and why he was, and now those answers only torment. That he died so alone is more than I can think of; that he died thinking that he owed us an apology is worse; that he died still stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself—after you, after me, after all of us who loved him—makes me think that my life has been a failure after all, that I have failed at the one thing that counted.