November 28, 2010

The Geography of the Count of Monte Cristo

The geography of the Count of Monte Cristo is very instructive for a Northern European. This is a mediterreanean novel. The main action takes place in Marseilles, then in the Chateau d'If just off Marseilles, then in Corsica, in Monte Cristo itself, in Rome and lastly in Paris and the sea itself. This may seem a blase comment but its not. The entire book is suffused with the Meditereanean. The last fourteen hundred years have seen most people in the West think about Europe as an entity that centres around the Rhine valley, with its appendages to the West (Britain), the south (Spain), the East (Poland into Russi) and the north (Scandinavia). Our political imagination sees the capital of Europe as naturally Brussels or Strasbourg and its political centre naturally running between Paris and Bonn or Berlin. There are many political and geopolitical reasons behind that: it is a longstanding political fact as well, Charlemagne's empire still rules our imagination of what Europe is.

It is worth remembering that that does not have to be what Europe is, nor is it what Europe meant in the past. For the Greeks and Romans, Europe was the northern shore of the Meditereanean and that northern shore formed a geographical unit with its southern shore- rather than the barbaric swamps of Germany. Gaul was to the Romans a massive armed camp, Britain a massive cold and wet armed camp. For Monte Cristo France leads into Italy and Spain not into Germany and Britain. The English make an appearance as exoticisms: the Count disguises himself as the English Lord Wilmott and uses the English offices of Thompson and French to bank with. But his imagination is of the East: he has a Greek mistress, he has Greek art and Greek music, oriental custom excites him and his friends rather than anything from Berlin or Bonn. Furthermore in a book which takes its characters to the Papal States, Lombardy, France, Spain, Corsica, Algeria and the East: none ever goes north or crosses the Northern seas. One of the reasons to read the Count of Monte Cristo therefore isn't just that it is amazingly fun (though it is) but because its Europe is not the same as the Europe that we all think about.


ofsmith said...

A very interesting observation - I enjoyed reading this. Olivia