I was already in my thirties when I opened the first page of my father’s favorite novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. He had been counseling me to read it for…oh, I’d say about twenty years. Of course, I hadn’t listened. He was my father, for heaven’s sake. What did he know about literature?
Just about everything, it turns out. He, Samuel Reuben, was of that breed of first generation Americans who read to be transported: From poverty. From drudgery. From life’s cruelties. From repetitive and unrelenting monotony.
I will set the scene: Young Sammy Reuben, living with Yiddish speaking Russian immigrant parents, two brothers, and a sister in a Chicago tenement. He started to work in his father’s clothing store on Maxwell Street when he was eight or nine years old. He owned and managed his own tuxedo rental store by age fourteen. But in the secret recesses of his mind, he had been abiding all that time with swashbucklers, escaped convicts, knights in shining armor, and brave and noble warriors.
Let me tell you about the three books that my father loved: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The Wandering Jew, by Eugene Sue.
First things first. The Count! He was born a simple sailor named Edmond Dantès. In an act of vile treachery, he is denounced as a Bonapartist and consigned to the Château d'If, a bleak and terrible dungeon from which the wretched are never released. There, he encounters the Abbé Faria, a priest who imparts vast stores of knowledge, gives Dantès the map to a buried treasure, and provides the means for his escape. I can’t even begin to tug at the edges of the rest of the story, but I can briefly allude to Dantès first taking on the identity of Sinbad the Sailor, then the Count of Monte Cristo, and finally wreaking havoc on those who betrayed him. The book is thrilling. It has adulterers, bandits, children born out of wedlock, a beautiful poisoner, mind-altering drugs, Aladdin’s caves, Nubian servants, Sultans, unscrupulous politicians, and even a beautiful slave girl with whom the Count eventually falls in love.
Whenever I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I am the benificiary, not only of wonderful characters and a marvelously Machiavellian plot, but also the gift of imagining my own dear father as a youth—marriage, children, and adult responsiblities far off in the future—clutching this same remarkable novel in his hands as he plunges into the miracle of its pages, in much the same way that I do.
I was equally recalcitrant in starting Ivanhoe, which I must have read five or six time by now.
How my father loved it. He would write letters to me when I was in college, with a thick nibbed fountain pen, about Rebecca, Lady Rowena, and the noble knight they both loved. I also came to know Isaac of York, the vilified Jew who is Rebecca’s father and who saves Ivanhoe’s life. Cedric the Saxon, who disinherits his son and tries to force Rowena into a loveless marriage with a dottering fool. A burly, jovial, and flagrantly immoral hermit who turns out to be Friar Tuck. King Richard, traveling incognito as the Sluggish Knight. And one of the most interestingly evil characters of all time—Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Knight Templar so consumed by passion for the beautiful Rebecca that, when she rejects his advances, he denounces her as a witch.
“Tempter,” Rebecca reacts to him in horror. “Begone! I hold thee as my worst and most deadly enemy!”
Now, that’s a girl who knows how to turn a guy down.
Of the three books that my father cherished, the only one I have not finished is The Wandering Jew. The plot? Well, it involves the Renepont family, unknowlingly the beneficiaries of an inheritance that, over the centuries, has grown to a staggering amount. The Reneponts are the good guys. The bad guys, angling to murder them off and steal their fortune, are the Jesuits.
That is the impossible-to-cram-into-a-nutshell version.
Among the intriguing characaters who compose the Renepount family are Siberian orphans, an Indian prince, a Parisian workman, and a honorable factory owner. Those out to destroy them include poisoners (poison is big in French novels), diobolical priests, and a sect of murderers based on a society of stranglers in India who kill for their religion—the Thuggees.
Why, you may wonder, have I not yet finished reading The Wandering Jew? My fondness for one of the doomed Renepounts, Adrienne de Cardoville, prevents me. She is innocent. She is kind. She is intelligent. She is beautiful. Her credulous aunt, in cahoots with a former lover, has had her incarcerated in an insane asylum. And I know ... I just know that when I turn the next page, someone ... a Thuggee or a Jesuit or a malevolent physician ... is going to sneak into Adrienne’s cell and kill her. I do not want Adrienne de Cardoville to die, so, I categorically refuse to turn that page.
One of these days, however, I will. For the simple pleasure of revisting my father’s imagination. Because, by the sweet and simple process of reading the same words that he has read and partaking in the same romantic adventures that once stirred his soul, I can enter a time machine and return to a day when, older, wiser, and far better versed in literature than I, he held out a book to me and said, “Read this.”
And lucky, lucky me. That is exactly what I did.