Translated by Julie Rose
First Published: 1862
Translation Published: 2008
Pages: 1330 including notes – plus introduction (Paperback)
Sensational, dramatic, packed with rich excitement and filled with the sweep and violence of human passions, Les Misérables is one of the greatest adventure stories ever told. It is a novel peopled by colourful characters from the nineteenth century Parisian underworld; the street children, the prostitutes and the criminals. In telling the story of escaped convict Jean Valjean, and his efforts to reform his ways and care for the little orphan girl he rescues from a life of cruelty, Victor Hugo drew attention to the plight of the poor and oppressed. Les Misérables is a masterful detective thriller, a comic, and a tragic story of romance and revolution and, ultimately, a tale of redemption and hope.
I was first introduced to Les Misérables, without knowing it, through my music centre’s ‘easter camp’ – three days of learning new music pieces for brass band and being forced to sing in a choir with the lame woodwind and string kids – when I was about six. We sang ‘Can you hear the people sing’ while marching up and down the school hall. It’s a memory my mother is very fond of bringing up while bursting into laughter and was the only time I ever enjoyed myself in any choir (and my mum persuaded me to try a lot of choirs, apparently oblivious to the fact that I am so tone-deaf that the conductor always had a quiet word with me after a few sessions to request I either mime or take singing lessons) but I had no idea, until years later that it was part of anything bigger than a cool song about French martyrs and/or slaves with drums.
So, like most people, my initial understanding of the actual story only came when I finally went and saw the musical in my late teens and quickly devoured the plot description in the programme before the curtain came up so that I would know what the hell was going on. It’s set in 19th century France where ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks redemption, adopts an orphan girl, and is ruthlessly pursued for over a decade by police inspector Javert, also there’s a slightly lame love story and lots of awesome revolutionary singing. Oh and the staging of the street barricades is fucking spectacular. I knew it was based on a long book by Victor Hugo (aka that guy who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame)but until I grew up a bit out of my silly ‘classics are all boring and even when the plot’s good they’re way too slow and written in irritating ways’ phase , I wasn’t much interested in picking it up. (And can I just say how glad I am that I got over that phase!)
Sooo, fast forward a few years, I’m a bit less of a prat and I know a bit more about the book, mainly that not only is it huge but very, very, dense – going off on multi-chapter author tangents on anything from the Battle of Waterloo to the architecture of Parisian sewers. Still, I wanted to give it a go, I don’t mind thick books, love a bit of history, enjoyed the stage show, have a relatively high tolerance for tangents, and just thought that this was one of ‘those’ classics that you should probably at least try. After doing a small bit of research into the various unabridged translations, it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I picked up my brick-sized copy and started to read. And both feelings turned out to be pretty well-founded in the end too; I absolutely adored the novel, it was truly brilliant in places, but bloody hell some of it was tedious – just not necessarily the parts I had expected.
‘There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell – not even on the background‘. The book loves tangents so much it even starts with one; fifty pages of in-depth character study for a bishop who disappears around ninety pages in – though his actions set in motion the entire plot. The primary character, Jean Valjean, does not appear until page fifty and Fantine, the character the first section of the book is named after, does not appear until page one hundred and three. It could easily be frustrating, especially when the bishop is so very very perfect and good and exactly how an ideal bishop should be, but actually, I really enjoyed it. The writing was fabulous, and the character study was so in-depth that I didn’t feel annoyed by this near perfect portrayal. I suspect it’s something that many readers have to struggle and force themselves through, but for me, it worked.
And, actually, so did a lot of the author tangents. I struggled with the fifty pages detailing the Battle of Waterloo later – but I still enjoyed it, I simply had to take it slowly, having no head for military strategy myself. I enjoyed the asides about French politics, I fucking adored the chapters on the architecture and history of Parisian sewer system (adored!). I’m probably odd (I also like the farming sections in Anna Karenina better than the main plot), but I liked a lot more of these overgrown author tangents than I disliked, and they made me pine for an education system where the French revolution and Napoleonic Europe is a compulsory part of the history curriculum rather than a ‘some schools offer it’. The Tangents I did dislike though, I found really irritating; the study of the monastic system (normally a subject that fascinates me) ground the whole plot and the high-tension exciting scenes before hand to an absolute standstill (though contained a gem of wonderful prose in its comparison with the prison system), same with the excruciating dissertation on Parisian criminal slang (to be fair probably a hard subject to translate into English). Whenever the plot seems to be going somewhere at any sort of speed and you’re really getting into it, WHAM! Author tract to slow things back down again. But actually, the things that frustrated me most in this book, related more to the main plot and the characters than to the infamous tangents and info-dumps.
‘Grown up’ Cossette is, frankly, one of the most insipid, uninspiring, and dull characters in literature. The only point where I put this book down for a whole day wasn’t during any of the lectures on French politics but during the romance sub-plot with her and Marius (who started out interesting and grew gradually less and less likable the more he mooned over Cossette until, at the very end, I wanted to punch him repeatedly in the face). I’m not a big ‘love at first sight’ fan at the best of times but this love story was just….eh. There were glimmers of something more interesting in Cossette, of her acting like a real teenager; when she discovers she’s ‘pretty’ she becomes a little vain, she gets over heartache quicker than Marius, notices other handsome men, but ultimately her characterisation is shallow and she exists only as a plot device – something to provide motivation for the two male heroes of the book, her ‘father’ Jean Valjean, and her love interest Marius. Every flaw she’s given fails to turn her into a more complex character (as it is with the men) but merely confirms her role as ‘shallow female love interest’. And I’m not entirely sure that Hugo is very good at writing women in the first place either. He over-romanticises them, puts them on a pedestal, and sings the praises of their purity and innocence. Only Éponine – the urchin girl with feelings for Marius – manages to rise above the good woman=feminine and fragile, bad woman=unfemine, rhetoric to be presented as a complex and compelling character in her own right – and it makes her, along with Javert and John Valjean, one of the best characters in the novel.
When it’s good though, it’s great. The Jean Valjean vs Javert plot is as compelling as it is totally improbable. I only wish we had seen a bit more of Javert. From the musical I was expecting him to be a bit more of a major character than he is, as it is he just sort of pops up where needed, steals the scene, and then disappears again until the plot calls him back. The dogged pursuit of John Valjean I’d been sold is really less ‘dogged pursuit’ and more John Valjean constantly being thrown by sheer chance into the same policeman’s path again and again (there’s a lot of chance and coincidence in this book). But those encounters are still wonderfully tense and dramatic and, whatever the other subplots, the real climax of the book is the beautiful resolution of this storyline. It’s in these chance encounters, the chase scenes and the attempts to hide their identity from each other, that the book starts moving at a bit of a clip and I found myself thinking ‘1200 pages really isn’t all that long, I’ll be done in no time!’. Arguably that’s just because I’m much more of a fan of adventure stories than I am romances but I found this plot line more compelling and better written. Realistic would be the wrong word, it relies too much on contrived coincidences, but I found the characters and their motivations more believable.
All the bits that annoyed me though – from the ‘women are angels’ to the ‘stalking is love’, ‘love makes you not give a shit for anyone but your love interest’, the slightly heavy-handed lectures, and the idea of ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ lurking beneath the portrayal of many characters, was totally forgiven by the last section of the book. Even if I had hated the beginning and middle I would have had to give five stars to this book just for the chapters set in the Paris sewers and Javert’s final scene. Wonderful, wonderful writing. It’s possibly that I’m odd, but I think many people have a fascination for the tunnels and buildings underneath cities – from the abandoned tube lines in London to the catacombs and sewers of Paris – Hugo certainly does anyway and so do I. I’m not about to go all urban exploring or anything because I’m a wimp (though I have visited the Paris catacombs), but I will read the fuck out of a book that makes effective use of these creepy abandoned underworld beneath the city. The claustrophobic atmosphere in these chapters were just great, I could totally see the scenes playing out in my head as the characters tried to find their way in the dark maze of stinking sewers, their feet sinking into ‘bogs’. I loved it so much I even adored the info dump, which started out as an unpromising essay on why human manure should be sent to fertilise the fields rather than ferment in the sewers but ended up being a fascinating history of the sewer network in Paris, the dangers to the people who work (and lurk) there and the clean up mission started under Napoleon. It doesn’t sound fascinating, I know – but what can I say, I’m the daughter of a civil engineer and a town planner; I can’t help but find infrastructure cool. Other people love the barricade scenes (which were ace as well – and without doubt the highlight of the stage and film versions) or the romance, I love the sewer chapters – different strokes.
Without that though, it would still be a solid 4 and a half, at least, star book. I may have been bored by Marius and Cossette – and Marius started as such a promising character too before he lost interest in anything but Cossette . I may have found the odd info dump annoying and poorly placed, but the sheer scope and ambition of the piece is astounding. Yes, it’s definitely heavy-handed at points and the ‘redemption’ story feels a bit of a joke to me as a modern reader because Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family hardly makes him a criminal who needs redemption – he’s simply not a bad man to begin with. But the call for prison and judicial reform and the message of how society can force a good man or woman (in the case of Fantine) to desperate and illegal actions out of love for a child – and how society then expels and ostracises them rather than attempt to understand or lend a helping hand is one that, sadly, is still applicable today. It’s heavy-handed because, at the time, it needed to be. If nothing else though, the book taught me a lot of stuff on 19th century France – and I’m never averse to learning more about historical periods I know very little about.
Aaaaah. There is just so much stuff I could say on this book! So many themes and characters and scenes that I could talk for ages about that I haven’t even touched on here but I’ve gone on long enough and I’ve put down my main impressions of the book (I think), so I’ll leave it here. A long, brilliant, and occasionally frustrating book. I thought it was wonderful and, though I won’t be embarking on a reread any time soon, it’s going pretty hight on my list of favourite classics.