You Can Count on Him

The plot of a recently published book by a British comedian-writer has been unabashedly lifted, lock, stock and baron (well, count) from a great classic.

I happen to be a great fan of the actor and comedian Stephen Fry. The BBC Prime channel indulges me in broadcasting reruns of his comedy program "Bit of Fry and Laurie" (with Hugh Laurie), and I'm awaiting the arrival of the latest movie starring Fry, "The Discovery of Heaven," based on a novel by the Dutch writer Marcel Moring. In the meantime, I have to make do with Fry's achievements as a writer.

To this date, he can boast of one volume of autobiography ("Moab is my Washpot"), a collection of his newspaper columns ("Paperweight"), and three novels ("The Liar," "The Hippopotamus" and "Making History"; the last two have been translated into Hebrew). His great sense of comical timing is paired, when he acts the part of the writer, with a great command of language, and a real inventiveness and creative imagination where action and characters are concerned.

Therefore, my expectations were rather high when I purchased his latest, "The Stars' Tennis Balls" (Arrow, 484 pages, 6.99 pounds sterling). The title is a quote from John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi," and the motto of the book is a slightly longer quote from the same play, (Act V, Scene 3): "We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and banded / Which way pleases them." Small letters on the second page, beneath the bibliographical data, inform us, as is customary, that "this novel is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental."

Strange coincidences

The hero of the story is an English youngster, handsome but rather daft, a son of a conservative MP (the year is 1980). He falls in love with a Jewish girl, whose parents are leftist radicals, and he arouses the envy of a schoolmate who plants some marijuana in his possession as a prank and calls the police. Prior to that, on a sailing trip, the sailing teacher suffers a stroke, but before dying, leaves in our hero's hands a letter to be delivered to an address in London. Upon our hero's arrest, the letter is found by the police, and turns out to be a secret message from the IRA, with a list of possible targets and code words that show that the list is not a hoax, and that the threat imbued in it is genuine.

But, it turns out, the letter is addressed to the mother of the interrogator, an Irish lady, divorced and remarried, who lives in London. The interrogator, in order to protect his mother, spirits our hero off to a secret institution for mental patients, situated on a Swedish island. There our hero spends long years in isolation, and meets another inmate who teaches him a lot - languages, philosophy, etc. - and who, before dying, leaves him with a numbered account in a Swiss bank, and instructs him how to escape, passing himself off as a dead man, in a coffin.

Here I started to doubt whether this is all really a product of Fry's imagination. The plot is lifted, lock, stock and baron (well, count) from "The Count of Monte Cristo" by Alexander Dumas pere, one of my best-loved books ever. And, indeed, I was not the first one to notice this: "The Literary Review" called the novel "A `Count of Monte Cristo' for the generation."

I went on reading, and the hero indeed finds the treasure in the vaults of the Swiss bank (and sells some of the morphine he steals from the hospital on the way out, thus getting even - and even richer), and then takes revenge on all those who plotted his downfall. The details of the revenge are identical to those in Dumas' book, with the necessary adjustments to the 20th century.

Thus I found myself rereading "The Count of Monte Cristo" as rewritten by Fry, and wondering about the sheer cheek of his imagination. `Tis true that the characters in the story are not actual persons, but I am ready to make a convincing case that Dumas' imagination created characters who certainly were "alive" - even though they were not living in the strictest sense (and, therefore, could never die) - at least for me and millions of readers worldwide. What is clear is that the resemblance here is not coincidental. It is certainly intended.

In Fry's version, the hero is not a count of Monte Cristo, but an Internet start-up mogul who calls himself Simon Cotter. Almost all of the names in the novel are anagrams of the names of Dumas' characters. The hero's real name is Ned Maddstone, an anagram for Edmond Dantes. The interrogator who imprisons him unlawfully to protect his relative is named in Fry's book Oliver Delft - an anagram for de Villefort, the state prosecutor's name in Dumas' novel. The envious friend, the snake-in-the-grass who plants the grass on him is called here Ashley Barson-Garland, an anagram for Baron Danglars, and so on. I checked, but Alexander Dumas is not an anagram for Stephen Fry (and vice versa).

When he is not making anagrams, Fry delights in other word play. The incriminating letter is addressed in Fry's book to Phillipa Blackarow. In Dumas' book, the name of the recipient is Noirtier. Mercedes, the beautiful Catalan, the love of Dantes, undergoes a metamorphosis here into a beautiful Jewess named Portia, (which sound like Porsche, another car), which also allows Fry to quote from "The Merchant of Venice."

When the initial shock waves of recognition had subsided, I asked myself, after all, why not? Did not all spectators of Sophocles' "Oedipus" know the plot before the curtain went up (OK, I know there was no curtain then, but you know what I mean)? Is not the plot merely the skeleton on which the writer adds sinews, muscles and skin, to the best of his ability and imagination, and are not those the factors which truly make (or break) the book?

Well, with all due respect to Fry's skills as a writer, not in this case. His new book is certainly a good read, because he can write, but it is not for the details of the plot as added by him, but for Dumas' genius for plotting and characterization. And what about those thousands, or millions of dot.comers, who had never read "The Count of Monte Cristo"? Poor things, they did not know what they had been missing.