There are probably very few people who have never read this very big book but believe that they have a good understanding of what it is all about; thanks to a hit musical; films, both with and without music; and a recent BBC television series, adapted by a rather famous screenwriter.
I was one of them, and I even gave my copy away, because it is such a very big book and because there were so many other books that I hadn’t read that I knew even less about.
The time came though when I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I saw some wonderfully positive comments from a year-long read-along, and as I have read some other big classics that I thought I would never read over the last few years, I began to think that I really should tackle this one too, and that it would be a wonderful way to fill the 1862 hole in my 100 Years of Books Project.
I always meant that to make me read the big classics and the well-read authors I had always meant to read but hadn’t – yet. I’d had some major successes. I was so taken with ‘Anna Karenina’ that I had to read ‘War and Peace’ too, and this is the project that made me finally understand why so many people love Anthony Trollope …
That is why I invested in a new copy Les Misérables. I worked my way through it, slowly and steadily; and I am very glad that I did. The adaptations did well at condensing a big book, but the big book itself is so much deeper and richer.
It explores real history through the intersecting lives of a wide-ranging cast of characters
There is a freed convict, Jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the Bishop of Digne, but who will be haunted by his past for the rest of his life; there is Javert, the policeman who is determined to see him rightfully punished according to the law; there is a woman Fantine, whose life has been hard and who will entrust the care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to Jean Valjean; there is Marius, who falls in love with Cosette, and whose friends draw him into the uprising of 1832; there is an amoral and self-serving man named Thénardier, who betrayed Fantine’s trust and who was credited with saving the life of Marius’s father on the field of Waterloo, though he was in fact a scavenging thief who roused him as he looted what he thought was a corpse.
Hugo made these characters, and a great many others who pass through his story, live and breathe; and he wrote with beauty, with authority, with command of his subject, in a way that made me think of the finest of teachers.
It was clear that he loved the city of Paris, and that he understood the importance of home of having a place in the world.
So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavement that you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements.
Hugo had much to say about many things, but I think that this was the most important:
Is there not in every human soul, was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean in particular, a first spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the other, which good can develop, fan, ignite, and make to glow with splendour, and which evil can never wholly extinguish?
The story is compelling, the writing is brilliant, the major themes are profound; and that made it easy for me to forgive lengthy digressions, extraordinary coincidences and the second generation of character being not quite as interesting as the first.
There is much joy to be found in details, and I have marked many and must share this one.
M. Mabeuf’s political opinion consisted in a passionate love for plants, and, above all, for books. Like all the rest of the world, he possessed the termination in ist, without which no one could exist at that time, but he was neither a Royalist, a Bonapartist, a Chartist, an Orleanist, nor an Anarchist; he was a bouquinist, a collector of old books. He did not understand how men could busy themselves with hating each other because of silly stuff like the charter, democracy, legitimacy, monarchy, the republic, etc., when there were in the world all sorts of mosses, grasses, and shrubs which they might be looking at, and heaps of folios, and even of 32mos, which they might turn over.
Much has been written about this book, by people more erudite and articulate than me, and so I will just add that I am very glad I invested in a second copy and that I wouldn’t rule out reading it again one day.