“Thinking always involves a certain amount of inner revolt and he was annoyed at having anything like that in him.” – Les Misérables
I had a hard time getting through the last few pages of Les Misérables. It’s difficult to read while weeping-blurry vision, worrying about getting the pages wet, (it is borrowed after all) my heart aching for Jean Valjean….
What an epic. It was the hunger that struck me. Hunger for affection, a place in society, love, bread- It is the heart of the book. The other organs are: politics; social, religious and economic philosophy; the history of nunneries, sewers, and the French Crown; Napoleon and the battle that did not take place at Waterloo; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…..M. Hugo does not hold back.
In a way it compares to Moby Dick: there is a compelling story that is interspersed with an array, nay- an onslaught, of ancillary information. But where Melville is very….American in his near pedantic display of knowledge and Calvinistic glory to the work required to write and read it (I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t like Moby Dick, “like” is an appropriate word for my level of enthusiasm, and it’s true that I never laughed so hard as I did reading of poor Ishmeal’s night sleeping with Queequeg). Hugo is very…..well, French I suppose. He has a much lighter touch than Melville. The breadth and depth of knowledge is there, but it is put forth with a sort of insouciant humor. His pedantry comes from pure joy. He just wants to share all the interesting bits, not because one should know, but because, hell- one wants to know.
There is something alive about Les Misérable, and the manner in which Hugo inserts himself into the story, as the writer of the story, which is somewhat unusual, gives the book a clear place in time. As you come to know and enjoy Hugo the writer, the story and history are brought to a reaching distance. You feel as though you’re just listening to a really great conversationalist. Plus, he wins the prize for best chapter titles ever- a small sampling:
Tholomyés Is So Cheery He Sings a Spanish Ditty
A Chapter Where Everyone Adores One Another
Napoléon in a Good Mood
Do We Have to Think Waterloo Was a Good Thing?
Poverty, Misery’s Good Neighbor
What Is There to Do in a Bottomless Pit but Talk?
It May Be Muck, but It Is Still the Soul
Sometimes We Have Run Aground When We Think We Have Landed
Of course as the main title suggests there are some wrenching moments…Fantine’s teeth (I’ll never recover from that) Jean Valjean’s redemption, Javart’s crisis of idenitity, Gavroche…I had to put the book down when he met his end.
“Well I never!” said Garvoche. “Now they’re killing my dead on me.” I just loved that little gamin.
And Enjolras: “We’re hungry here. Are we really going to die like this without eating?”
Or Grantaire: “On that note, I insist on drinking.”
Even Éponine. So many of the people in this book- “All these beloved beings, sorrowful, valiant, charming, or tragic..” It is hard to let a good book go, you get so that you miss everyone.
It’s really such a beautiful and powerful story. The love and compassion that Hugo shows for humanity is infectious. A 1200 page book is a commitment, but the reward is a complete immersion into the mind and heart of the story. There is plenty of time for a long swim in the tale, at times turning on your back to rest, at other times speeding along with the current taking in the twists and turns. I’m done now, back on shore. I’ve only to wring my heart out and pick up my next book.
The translation I read was written by Julie Rose, and I never once wondered how a different translation would have sufficed. It is a marvel. I can say no more- “He kept his mouth shut, precisely because his heart would have leapt out of it.”
“You have to be neither a dilettante nor a virtuoso; but you have to be an artist. When it comes to civilization, the thing is not to refine but to sublimate.”
Les Misérables – Victor Hugo