Monday 11 February 2013

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

It is unusual, but not unheard-of for me to watch a film before having read the book it was based upon, but unfortunately I ran out of reading time before Les Miserables hit the UK cinemas, and I was impatient to see this epic musical. I hope my readers will excuse the inevitable comparisons with the later, and therefore obviously inferior, version of the tale. (I say this with some flippancy, assuming the unbreakable truth that "the book is always better." Certainly Victor Hugo's novel has the higher claim of being "the real thing," but does it follow that it is necessarily is the best?)

Well, it is certainly the most thorough! At 1200 pages, Les Miserables has the luxury of being able to spend plenty of focus time on each of the important characters and events, which, though important appear but briefly in the musical adaptation. Hugo also had a disconcerting habit of leaving the story to discourse freely and at length upon any subject that even slightly tied in with the novel's setting, giving chapters upon chapters of historical context for a single scene, and passing judgement upon it all. It verges upon the ridiculous, and I do not think I am alone from thinking that Les Miserables could benefit from a ruthless editor without having to lose its nickname of "The Brick." The most heinous examples are the forty-one pages of the Battle of Waterloo, twenty-five detailing life inside a convent (and an additional twelve pages have been cut from my translation to appear as an appendix) and fifteen all about the sewers of Paris. Don't get me wrong, all these make interesting reading - who, after all, can fail to be entranced by fifteen pages about poo? - but I'd rather read these digressions when Jean Valjean's fate is not in question.

Each member of Les Amis de l'ABC (ABC Society in this translation) the student revolutionary group, has a name, character and history: the fearless leader Enjolras, shy poet Jean Prouvaire, philosopher Combeferre, charismatic Courfeyrac, and cynical drunkard Grantaire. And then, not of them but with them, is young Gavroche, the kinder French cousin to the Artful Dodger. Maybe ten or eleven years old, this young urchin is a scoundrel with a heart of gold, the terror of the respectable folk, but generous to the unfortunate. He provides some delicious heartwarming and comic moments in this heavy tome - "I'm on my way to fetch the doctor for my wife, who's in labour!" But he will break your heart, too. If I can guarantee nothing else, I guarantee that.

Fantine, who appears so briefly if beautifully in the musical, has an entire history as Hugo chronicles her fall from innocence to despair: her friends and lover who deserted her as a sick idea of a joke, her sink from poverty to utter destitution and desperation. I wonder whether Les Miserables may have caused a stir when it was first published, for Hugo's insistance that a woman can be pure and virtuous of heart even when driven to prostitution. After all, didn't even Oliver Twist's Nancy cause outrage in Victorian Britain for being allowed to redeem herself? But Hugo's central message seems to be that good and evil are equally spread across the entire human race, and that desperate circumstances can lead to desperate acts. Justice is not merely the keeping of the law and punishment of crime, but compassion and forgiveness.

Of course the failure to grasp this truth is where Inspector Javert falls down. The policeman is an unambiguously unsympathetic character in his first introduction, a fact which may surprise fans of the film and show. "The Asturian peasants believe that in every wolf-litter there is a dog-whelp which the mother kills, because otherwise it will devour the rest of her young. Endow this dog with a human face and you have Javert." As far as Javert is concerned, the law must be upheld at all costs, as it is absolutely infallible, and law-breakers are utterly irredeemable. Once a criminal, always a criminal, and incapable of doing anything good. Hugo unequivocally condemns Javert's idea of righteousness untempered with mercy. My first impression was of a grotesque, a caricature, far from the tormented individual of the musical. But Javert is not without his strengths - he has a snarky sense of humour, for one, applies his rigid standards to himself as well as to others, and shows a great deal of courage. And we come to feel his anguish as Jean Valjean brings his worldview crashing down around him. Were it not for that first introduction, Javert could be seen as a tragic figure with a fatal flaw.

Hero Jean Valjean is portrayed as an almost messianic figure in the movie adaptation, but here in the novel, his goodness is at times swayed by flaws of character or judgement, particularly when concerning his adopted daughter Cosette. I was rather surprised by the lack of jealousy in the movie at his discovery of Cosette's having a suitor - or, rather, that he does not let his jealousy get the better of him. Somehow, I felt that it would be a critical part of the story, and so it is in the novel - a believable,  understandable, if not admirable trait. I could not help feeling that his withdrawal from Cosette's life after her marriage, doubtlessly intended by the author to be an act of selflessness, was actually rather a petulant and self-martyring act that helped no one and hurt a lot of people.

In Cosette we see her loving, sweet-natured mother Fantine once more, but with her fortunes reversed, rescued by Jean Valjean out of squalor, raised in humble but respectable circumstances by a foster-father who adores her, and ending up both happily married and wealthy. Her story is as happy as her mother's was wretched.

Ah, but the love story. I expressed confidence that Marius' and Cosette's romance had to be better depicted than the film's rushed version. Alas, I was mistaken. Yes, their courtship has more time devoted to it than the movie's two glances and one love song - but sadly more time and page space does not  necessarily mean more substance. Victor Hugo was doubtlessly a believer in love at first sight, but I found such a concept ridiculous. Instead of Marius dripping all over the stage singing, "Black! My world if she's not there!" immediately after seeing this pretty girl for a few seconds, he follows her regularly to the park - never speaking, mind you, only watching her like everyone's favourite romantic stalker - and then spends months putting his life on hold in favour of moping. And when they do finally start holding secret trysts, instead of, y'know, getting to know each other, they just seem to spend the whole time telling each other how in love they are with each other and how pretty the butterflies are when you're in love. (Of course, it is possible that there is nothing to tell, for neither of them seem to have any personality.)

So, in short, is Les Miserables worth reading? My answer is yes, absolutely - once. It gives so much depth and life to the story that is somewhat rushed in the musical, and making the characters much more rounded (even Marius, if not pretty little Cosette.) It is a huge book, not just in size, but in scope - Hugo included everything, and for the most part this is a great achievement. Between the book, the movie (which I have now seen twice) and the soundtrack (which I have been playing on repeat for the past three weeks) Les Miserables has proven to be one of those stories which takes over my head for a little while.

But I think in this case there is no shame in cheating, if you feel the need: skip the discourse chapters, or even read an abridgement. I don't know whether I will read Les Miserables from cover-to-cover again, at least for a good long time, but I will hold on to the book. I can't part with it after the times we've had, and I feel quite sure it will be one I'll want to refer to again and again.

Note: I read the 1976 translation by Norman Denny.


  1. I've read the Collins Classic edition translated by Isabel F. Hapgood and it stands at 1361 pages. I agree that like Ben-Hur, Les Miserables desperately needed a "ruthless editor". And though not comparable to the monumental stature of the book,the movie is quite phenomenal IMHO.

  2. I'm captivated by your review of this one! So much so that I just might consider picking it up.

    Marlene Detierro (Software Download)

    1. It's worth doing - but I give you permission to skip sections if you find the non-story parts too laborious. :D I probably shan't read it all the way through again.


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