I’d had a copy of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862) on the TBR for years and I wanted to redress my woeful ignorance of classic French literature. I began reading back in February, intending it to be one of those books that I read little-by-little on the train, at the coffee shop, and in waiting rooms of one sort or another. Instead found myself hooked, abandoning other books that I should have been reading for various book groups and reviews…
Les Misérables is a wonderful introduction to classic French literature – I read the Isabel Hapgood translation and loved it! Although I’ve read a fair few short stories by Balzac and listened to an abridged version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I had never before read anything by Hugo (1802-1885) and I didn’t know his style. Since the entire Les Mis stage show phenomenon had passed me by, I didn’t know the plot either and I was soon captivated by the pathos.
(As you might have guessed, I do not care for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rather pedestrian music, of which the clip below is a fair example, watch it at your peril.)
This one is worse, the chorus is excruciating:
Anyway, enough of Les Mis and back to Les Misérables.
It begins, disarmingly enough, by introducing the saintly bishop, impoverished firstly by the Revolution and then by his own monastic lifestyle and generosity. He shares his home with his submissive and godly sister, and a slightly more lively housekeeper whose devotion to the Bishop keeps her common sense observations in check. Then we meet Jean Valjean, an embittered convict who on his release from 19 years imprisonment is turned away by everyone in the village – except (you guessed it!) the Bishop who gives him a bed for the night and the opportunity to steal the silver.
But then there are the digressions. In Chapter VII. Hugo, having provided Valjean’s back story and history of hunger, poverty, petty crime and then rebellion in the prison system, reflects at some length on the causes that destroy a man’s soul…
Valjean knows that punishment for his crime is just, but its excesses are iniquitous. Anger can be ‘foolish or absurd’ or wrongful, but ‘one is exasperated only when there is some show of right on one’s side‘ (Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter VII, Kindle Location 2247-52). During the years of his imprisonment he has learned to read, and to become immensely strong and supple – his hatred and rage has solidified into evil which he bears away into his freedom with little hope of redemption. Hugo holds civilisation to account for this.
Later on, (much later on, this is a very long book!) there is this:
The only social peril is darkness.
Humanity is identity. All men are made of the same clay. There is no difference, here below, at least in predestination. The same shadow in front, the same flesh in the present, the same ashes afterwards. But ignorance, mingled with the human paste, blackens it. This incurable blackness takes possession of the interior of a man and is there converted into evil. (Kindle location 11839-40 Chapter 2 of Vol 3 Book 7)
For fear of spoilers, I shan’t go on – even though I suspect that I am the only person in Western Civilisation who didn’t know the story. (There’s a summary at Wikipedia, of course.) Suffice to say that as a veteran of the classical canon, I was unprepared for the malice of fate; the pathos of Cosette’s life; the cruel injustice of Jean Valjean as quarry of an implacable hunter; the insouciant courage of Gavroche; Eponine’s humanity; and the perfidy of Marius. Expecting to be immune to the sentimentality of 19th century narratives, I was also surprised by the painful hope that kept me reading long, long into the night.
Then there were the unforgettable settings: the chaotic back streets of Paris, the misery of the Jondrette garret, the barricades at Faubourg Saint Antoine and Faubourg du Temple; the extraordinary privation of the Bernardine Order in juxtaposition with its Garden of Eden; and ugh! the foul labyrinth under Paris through which Valjean shoulders his burden. Hugo uses these settings as metaphors for all the evils of the world, most graphically when Marius consigns Valjean to the cellar for his visits to Cosette, gradually removing even the chairs. What he doesn’t understand is that these constrictions are nothing compared to the monastic lifestyle that Valjean inflicts upon himself…
There were times when Hugo’s pontificating jarred a bit. I was with him all the way about crime and punishment, about cruelty to children and animals and about the invidious effects of poverty in an inequitable society. I like his theme that unconditional love can transform a brute into a man of humanity. I quite enjoyed his digression about the Battle of Waterloo from a French perspective, but oh dear, he did go on and on about cloistered convents and monasteries! I wonder why he had such an axe to grind about them? And the rant about slang? What was that all about, eh? (My Penguin version puts these chapters at the back as a separate appendix.)
Although some of Hugo’s allusions were over my head his personification of Paris made me think about cities then and now. Hugo has a social agenda and to promote philanthropic reforms like the education of the city’s children his criticism is necessary, but – oh yes indeed! he’s still alert to the rivalry between London and Paris. ‘Paris makes more than the law; he writes, it makes the fashion’, (Vol3, Bk 1, Ch XI, Kindle location 9851-4) but would Hugo still say this today? Paris makes fashion, but not the fashion. France is an economic powerhouse and a leader of the European Union (though it’s Germany that has bankrolled Greece out of bankruptcy) but as home of the great artists, musicians, writers and thinkers Paris been in decline since the early 20th century. Why is this? Was it the loss of their best and brightest in two world wars on their soil? Is it just due to the rise of English as the universal language and their stubborn refusal to use it? Something to do with their education system maybe? Or has that infamous surrender to Hitler compromised its sense of daring, the daring that Hugo says is the price of progress? ( Vol3, Bk 1, Ch XI, Kindle location 9875-80)
Audacity…is necessary, for the sake of the forward march of the human race…there should be proud lessons of courage permanently on the heights. Daring deeds dazzle history and are one of man’s great sources of light. The dawn dares when it rises. To attempt, to brave, to persist, to persevere, to be faithful to one’s self, to grasp fate boldly, to astound catastrophe by the small amount of fear that it occasions us, to affront unjust power, again to insult drunken victory, to hold one’s position, to stand one’s ground, that is the example which nations need, that is the light which electrifies them. ( Vol3, Bk 1, Ch XI, Kindle location 9880-84)
Maybe it’s just that they’ve been preoccupied with politics and economics…
There are some super minor characters to enjoy in Les Misérables. When I retire, I think I may introduce M. Gillenormand’s prohibition on daytime visitors. ‘ The day is vulgar’ said he, ‘and deserves only a closed shutter.’ (Vol 3, Bk 2 Ch 7, Kindle location 10858-63) I don’t think I’d care to dine at five as he did, but I like the idea of barricading the house against all callers and having peace and quiet to read all day.
Then there is Babet who had had a wife and children, but ‘lost them as one loses his handkerchief’ (Kindle location 11853, Vol 3, Bk 7 Ch III) and Guelemer whose lair is the sewer of the Arche-Marion…
He was six feet high, his pectoral muscles were of marble, his biceps of brass, his breath was that of a cavern, his torso that of a colossus, his head that of a bird. One thought one beheld the Farnese Hercules clad in duck trousers and a cotton velvet waistcoat. Guelemer, built after this sculptural fashion, might have subdued monsters; he had found it expeditious to be one. A low brow, large temples, less than forty years of age, but with crow’s feet, harsh, short hair, cheeks like a brush, a beard like that of a wild boar, the reader can see the man before him. [Indeed we can!] His muscles called for work, his stupidity would have none of it. (Kindle location 11842-8, Vol 3 Bk 7 Ch III)
Gavroche (Thenaardier’s boy) is a superb creation, and Eponine a flawed but interesting heroine, with more spirit and initiative than Cosette. Hugo’s characterisation makes for interesting comparison with Charles Dickens, (1812-1870) who was also a literary social reformer but used droll caricatures to lampoon his villains.
I was startled to read in Vol 4 Bk 10 Ch 4 that Hugo himself had to take shelter from a hail of bullets behind the column of some shops during the 1832 uprising – it’s sobering to think that this man of genius might have been shot and killed and then there would have been no Les Misérables…
Last weekend I borrowed the DVD of Les Miserables, the version starring Gerard Depardieu, and once I got used to the strange confusion of accents (French, British, American and some strange rather Nordic sounding one for the Bishop) it turned out to be ok. (I only watched Part I because I didn’t want to spoil the plot for myself, I’ll watch Part II this weekend now that I’ve finished the book). The settings are really well done and actually contributed to my pleasure in continuing reading, and I liked being able to visualise the characters cast in the film. But really, the book is infinitely better: so much has to be left out of even a long film version, and of course the sometimes rather endearing pontificating is missing too.
I’m so glad I read this!
PS The small print in my Penguin turned out to be too hard on my eyes, so I downloaded the story to my Kindle free from Project Gutenberg (because you can adjust the size of the text.) Eventually however I bought the Amazon version (for $2.99 USD!) because it was too hard to keep track of the chapters on the Gutenberg version. This version – despite its horrible cover - turned out to have some rather quaint illustrations too, so it was worth the vast expense.
Author: Victor Hugo
Title: Les Misérables
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Source: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/135 & Amazon Kindle Store.
(The Hapgood translation seems an expensive way to buy it if you want the book rather than an eBook because it comes in three separate volumes. There are much cheaper versions by other translators here, but beware, some of them are also separate volumes of the story rather than the whole book. It might be an easier way to read it, though, because the Penguin version translated by Norman Denny that I have, though much cheaper ($17.14 free delivery) is a good two inches thick and not very handbag friendly.)