Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.


They are les misérables - the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the fallen who have most need of charity?
I started my re-read of Les Misérables on 22nd December, and early this afternoon I finished it. Whether it be because it was a second read, or because of the different translation (Norman Denny, 1982) to my first Les Misérables (Julie Rose, 2009), I loved it even more, which is saying something as I originally gave it five stars. 

I think, when I decided to re-read it, I was hoping to write more about the historical setting (1815 - 1832, the June Rebellion), and perhaps have Émile Zola (a Hugo fan in his youth) in mind. But it hasn't worked out like that: all I want to write about is just how damn good it is! 

There's no use saying with how awe-inspiring it is. Perhaps, on beginning it, or even before beginning it, it is awe-inspiring. It's very long, it's French, it's very clever, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece. But, if you haven't read it yet, forget all that. One of my favourite features of this book is Hugo himself - he's almost his own character (although I read somewhere that Marius, one of the main characters in Les Misérables is loosely based on Hugo). As a narrator, he is sublime, and he's talking to you. In my mind, it's no good being filled with awe because if one is filled with absolute deference, it becomes intimidating and instructive, and that isn't the ingredients for reading for pleasure. Les Misérables is not an intimidating book. So forget that it's a French classic: it was written for the people, all people. As Hugo wrote to his publisher, 
I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: "open up, I am here for you".
Forget, too, the length of it: it's divided into five parts - 'Fantine', 'Cosette', 'Marius', 'The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis', and finally 'Jean Valjean'. Each of these parts is around 300 pages or less, and that's not intimidating. If length puts you off, take it a part at a time. And so, therefore, not even the length of Les Misérable is intimidating. 

It digresses, as the best conversations do: Les Misérables is not just a novel, it contains essays as well, essays on Waterloo (I admit that one is slightly hard-going), Paris (this is my favourite one - it's at the beginning of the third part, 'Marius'), sewers, convents, and language. It's generally said that they do not have much relation to the plot. I can't see why people would say this - it is part of the scene, the action, or the milieu in which the events take place. I'm not saying they're essential to the plot, but aside from being very interesting and even, in parts, increasing tension and anticipation, they are as part of the novel as Paris is. It's a pity to dismiss them. 

Not that they are always historically accurate. In my edition, Norman Denny pointed out a few mistakes in Hugo's grasp of the facts, but that doesn't matter either. Hugo is not writing a history of Paris, he's writing about spirit, the human condition. He writes about love: "agape", from the Greek ἀγάπη meaning "unconditional love", which naturally extends to charity: it is this that matters above all else. This, agape, is the novel's heart and soul. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, agape is the highest love, a selfless love committed to the well-being of others. In Matthew 5: 43 - 44 (the Sermon on the Mount),
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love* thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which dispitefully use you, and persecute you. [KJV]
* 'Love' is written as "Ἀγαπήσεις": agape. Scriptural and theological knowledge of the Christian definitions of 'love' is not essential, I should add, just interesting, particularly having read Les Misérables.  

'Ma Destinée', by Victor Hugo (1867).
And it reads like the sea, imagine the waves gently lapping, building in intensity, rising, crashing, now at ease, now growing once more. It's length suggests that it is long-winded, and that's for each reader to judge, but know that Victor Hugo can give you a physical shock, a chill, a stomach-lurch of dread, with one very brief and very simple sentence. He does draw you in, and is imperfect which makes it all the more perfect, with this sense that he is, at times, chattering away to you, laughing sometimes, serious at others, sharing his own thoughts on early 19th Century France, Paris, the police, prisons, socio-economics, morality, and, as I've said, above all else, love. Love can transform - this is what Hugo tells us in Les Misérables. It inspires change, heroic acts, charity, and indeed love: love inspires love. One of my favourite characters appears right at the beginning, Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, who showed true, selfless love. How different Jean Valjean, the hero of our book, might have been without his encounter with this great man.

It is, in short, a wonderfully inspiring, thoroughly engaging book written by a master novelist. It is not intimidating. It should be read. And, although I'm not qualified to say what the best translation is, I can say my preferred translation is by Norman Denny. But I have no doubt that if I come across a new translation at any point, I will buy it and read it and share my thoughts once more!

Incidentally, I said at the beginning of this post I had Émile Zola in mind at times of reading this. I'm not going to get into a compare and contrast section here, but I will say I did find something interesting. In L'Assommoir, Madame Boche says,
... children pushed up out of poverty like mushrooms out of manure.
In 'Paris in Microcosm', Book I of Part III ('Marius') of Les Misérables, Hugo writes of children born into poverty,
He is born of the rankest clay, but a handful of mud and a breath created Adam.
Something I'll keep in mind when I come to writing about L'Assommoir

Comments

  1. I have this translation -- I have been slowly collecting the Penguin clothbound classics, and they are the Norman Denny version. I really want to read it this year, though I am so in awe of its sheer length. But I love Zola so I really feel like I should give it a try. And L'Assommoir was wonderful. I read the Oxford World's Classic edition which was wonderful.

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    1. I read the Penguin translation of L'Assommoir, Leonard Tancock, but I'm eager to read a new translation so I'll look out for the Oxford - I *think* (but I'm not certain yet) that the Oxford ones are pretty high quality.

      Do try Les Mis - just don't feel you have to read it without breaks if the length puts you off. Maybe a part a week or every ten days or something :)

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  2. This is an encouraging post b/c I plan to read Les Mis this year. Actually, this is more than encouraging, but inspiring. I will consider it a work regarding the human spirit - the best kind of story.

    My only experience with Les Mis is a couple of theater productions and a copy of Les Mis 25th Anniversary Concert, with Alfie Boe, which is so awesome - we love it. But it is time to finally read Hugo's words for myself.

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    1. I've never seen the musical or any stage adaptation, but I do want to see the film with Anne Hathaway - I keep meaning to buy it!

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  3. I loved reading Les Miserables in 2012! Enjoyed reading your review.

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    1. Thanks :) I first read it in 2012 as well - part of a readalong, is that how you read it?

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  4. For some reason, this book intimidates me. I actually don't know much about it-never read a full summary, never seen the musical, never watched an adaptation.....perhaps I need to just dive in?

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    1. I think that's the best way :) I get that the length is a little intimidating, but as I say it can be broken down easily enough. But the rest of it - it's just not intimidating. It's a very enjoyable conversation :)

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  5. When someone asks what is my favourite classic, I can never point to just one, but Les Miserables always enters my mind when asked. I especially loved the differences and similarities brought out in Jean Valjean and Javert. Both are seeking redemption and work endlessly to redeem themselves, Valjean from his life as a convict and Javert from his heritage. Javert appears to be the evil pursuer and we dislike him for his harassment of Valjean, when, in fact, in his mind he is trying to do what he believes is the right thing. Such tension and examination of human nature, Hugo does so well!

    I love how you used the word "discussion." To me, well-written books are always a discussion between the reader and the author and I especially felt this with Les Miserables.

    I also loved your description of "agape" love. There are certainly different loves and I think, "agape" is a very rare type of love. I've just seen it in Mr. Peggotty while reading David Copperfield but it does not show itself often.

    I haven't read any other Hugo novels and I smack my head and wonder why? I must add him to my classics list!

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    1. "When someone asks what is my favourite classic, I can never point to just one, but Les Miserables always enters my mind when asked." - same here! And you're bang on about Javert.

      I've read Hunchback, and I didn't get on terribly well with it, but I do plan on re-reading it. And Tom (below this comment) is telling me to read The Toilers of the Sea, which I plan on doing very soon! :)

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  6. You are right - it is a five book series. If it were published that way, more people would read it. People read five-book series amounting to 1,500 pages all the time.

    It is curious that you compare Hugo's writing to the sea. Now you are almost obligated to someday read The Toilers of the Sea, the novel that resulted from Hugo, in exile, spending much of each day watching the sea.

    Come to think of it, much of Les Miserables was written in the same place. Yes, it is like the sea.

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    1. I will indeed read Toilers, and soon - I have a copy. I'm planning on reading it next month, I reckon. I know very little about Hugo - I did know he was exiled, and I know the odd snatch here and there from reading Zola's biography, but I didn't know he spent a lot of time watching the sea. I might get myself a biography at some point :)

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    2. Suddenly the son raised his voice and asked the father, -

      “What think you of this exile?”

      “That it will be long.”

      “How do you intend to employ it?”

      The father answered, “I shall gaze at the ocean.”

      From William Shakespeare.

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    3. I love that - thank you :)

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