Blogging Les Miserables

And now for something completely different.

As a high school freshman I was assigned to read a heavily abridged version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. I loved it immediately. Later I resolved to procure a copy of the full, unabridged version, complete in all of its 1200+ page glory. I finally got around to doing that in college. Despite its immense bulk, I found it almost impossible to put down. It was readable on many levels: As a ripping good yarn filled with suspense and plot twists, as a meditation on social justice, or as a study of some of the most interesting and memorable characters in all of fiction. When I finally reached the end I was sorry to have finished it. I wanted it to go on for another thousand pages.

Fast forward to the present. Having grown tired of a steady diet of horror, mysteries, and political thrillers, I decided to have another go at the novel. Would it be as good as I remembered? So I went to my book shelf, pulled out my copy, and started reading. I was hooked anew inside of two pages.

I’ve decided to plow through the whole thing once again. And since I find so many of novel’s themes resonate with my present interests, why not get a few blog entries out of it? This is the first of what I intend to be an occasional series discussing the novel. I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting. But let’s give it a try. It’s my blog after all!

I regard Les Miserables as the finest novel ever written. Granted, I haven’t read them all. But I think it is unlikely I shall ever encounter a better one as long as I live. So here goes…

The novel opens as follows:

In 1815, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D–. He was a man of seventy-five, and had occupied the bishopric of D– since 1806. Although it in no manner concerns, even in the remotest degree, what we have to relate, it may not be useless, were it only for the sake of exactness in all things, to notice here the reports and gossip which had arisen on his account from the time of his arrival in the diocese.

Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do. (pp. 1)

Hugo now goes on for more than fifty pages describing every conceivable detail of the Bishop’s life and thought. And he’s not kidding when he says the Bishop’s life in no manner affects what is to come. Indeed, in terms of the novel’s main plot, the Bishop’s sole purpose is to be the agent of salvation for Jean Valjean, who we will not encounter for some time yet. Clearly Hugo was writing in an era when people had more time to read. Nowadays a writer dare not put off beyond page three the novel’s first explosion. Spending fifty pages developing a minor character is pretty much unheard of.

We also have here the first of many examples of a Hugoism, by which I mean one of those simple statements that perfectly captures an eternal truth of human existence. One of the reasons for reading older literature is for the appreciation it gives you of the constants of human life. That gossip and innuendo can be as important as the truth in deciding a person’s destiny is no less true today than it was a century and a half ago.

On page two we get our second Hugoism:

M. Myriel had to submit to the fate of every new-comer in a small town, where there are many tongues to talk, and but few heads to think. (pp. 2)

Sounds about right.

So what sort of person was M. Myriel, aka Bishop Bienvenu? Well, a saint. He devotes nearly all of his time to the poor. He gives away nearly everything he has, which would be adequate to sustain a very comfortable standard of living, to charitable causes. He is motivated to do this by his simple and humble religious faith. A typical example of his humility is this:

One day he arrived at Senez, formerly the seat of a bishopric, mounted on an ass. HIs purse was very empty at the time, and would not permit any better conveyance. The mayor of the city came to receive him at the gate of the episcopal residence, and saw him dismount from his ass with astonishment and mortification. Several of the citizens stood near by, laughing. “Monsieur Mayor,” said the bishop, “and Messieurs citizens, I see what astonishes you; you think it shows a good deal of pride for a poor priest to use the same conveyance which was used by Jesus Christ. I have done it from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity.” (pp. 10)

You might think that fifty pages of idle development of a character destined to leave the story before much longer would be excruciatingly dull. But you would be wrong. These pages are riveting. How did Hugo pull this off?

I see three main literary devices at work here. First, much of the Bishop’s life is related via anecdotes. As such, there are plenty of “stories within a story,” each with its own little plot, characters and suspense.

For example, Hugo relates the story of the time the Bishop had to cross, on foot, a mountain trail known to house some vicious bandits. Everyone implores the Bishop not to do it, that it is too dangerous. He insists nonetheless, on the grounds that there is a poor village on the other side of the mountains that requires his services. We get dialogue such as this:

“Monseigneur, they will rob you.”
“I have nothing.”
“They will kill you.”
“A simple old priest who passes along muttering his prayer? No, no; what good would it do them?”
“Oh, my good sir, suppose you should meet them!”
“I should ask them for alms for my poor.”

So the bishop makes the journey. And not only does he make it across the mountains, but the bandits are actually moved to return their stolen booty to the villagers. Great stuff!

Second, Hugo frequently has his characters discourse on various political and social issues of the day. Hugo is so eloquent and serious in this regard, that these excerpts are a pleasure to read. More on this in a moment.

Third, Hugo introduces some tension among the characters. Even as we are spending our time following the Bishop on his various adventures, we are introduced to two further characters who live with him: his sister and a servant girl. And the sister is not nearly as in love with the Bishop’s impoverished lifestyle as he is. This tension considerably enhances the itnerest of this part of the story.

Now, regular readers of this blog are aware that I have a pretty low opinion of religion. Given that, you might think I wouldn’t go for all of this hero worship of a religious character. But you would be wrong. You see, I don’t believe Hugo subscribes to some simplistic worldview in which religion is equivalent to goodness and morality, while atheism is equivalent to immorality and debauchery.

There are two incidents where the Bishop has run-ins with atheists. In the first, he encounters a Senator who discourses for a page and a half on what utter nonsense religion is. Here is an excerpt:

“In fact I tell you, Monsieur Bishop, I have my philosophy, and I have my philosophers. I do not allow myself to be entangled with nonsense. But it is necessary there should be something for those who are below us, the bare-foots, knife-grinders, and other wretches. Legends and chimeras are given them to swallow, about the soul, immortality, paradise, and the stars. They munch that; they spread it on their dry bread. He who has nothing bedsides, has the good God — that is the least good he can have. I make no objection to it, but I keep Monsieur Naigeon for myself. The good God is good for the people.”

To which the Bishop replies:

“That is the idea,” he exclaimed. “This materialism is an excellent thing, and truly marvellous; reject it who will. Ah! when one has it, he is a dupe no more; he does not stupidly allow himself to be exiled like Cato, or stoned like Stephen, or burnt alive like Joan of Arc. Those who have succeeded in procuring this admirable materialism have the happiness of feeling that they are irresponsible, and of thinking that they can devour everything in quietness — places, sinecures, honours, power rightly or wrongly acquired, lucrative recantations, useful treasons, savoury capitulations of conscience, and that they will enter their graves with their digestion completed. (pp. 28-29)

This continues for a few sentneces more.

Why would I tolerate this? Because I don’t believe Hugo’s target here is atheism per se. He is instead criticizing nihilism and selfishness. I agree with the Senator’s opinion that religion is nonsense, but beyond that I loathe him as much as does the Bishop. The Bishop’s retort comes at the end of one of the most loathsome defenses of greed and selfishness I have seen in some time. I was cheering the Bishop on as he delivered his statement. I don’t believe Hugo was saying that the Senator is the inevitable end product of atheism, merely one representative of a type that is all too familiar.

I am moved to this view also because of the Bishop’s second run-in with an atheist. The Bishop is discussing the finer points of the French Revolution with an old “conventionist” (perhaps someone could tell me what that means), who is an atheist and a social outcast in the town. The Bishop pompously enters into their conversation with all sorts of preconceived notions about the lack of moral rectitude of the conventionist. But in the course of the conversation, the conventionist gets the better of him, forcing him to confront some of the hypocirsy of the Church:

You have told me that you were the bishop, but that tells me nothing about your moral personality. Now then, I repeat my question — Who are you? You are a bishop, a prince of the church, one of those men who are covered with gold, with insignia, and with wealth, who have fat livings — the see of D–, fifteen thousand francs regular, ten thousand francs contingent, total twenty-five thousand francs — who have kitchens, who have retinues, who have good dinners, who eat moor-hens on Friday, who strut about in your gaudy coach, like peacocks, with lackeys before and lackeys behind, and who have palaces, and who roll in your carriages in the name of Jesus Christ who went bare-footed. (pp. 37)

By the end of the conversation, the Bishop is forced to rethink his prejudices.

Also telling is a chapter in which Hugo describes the religious views of the Bishop. We are told the Bishop had very little interest in dogma and rituals. For example:

He did not attempt to make his robe assume the folds of Elijah’s mantle; he cast no ray of the future upon the dark scroll of event; he sought not to condense into a flame the glimmer of things; he had nothing of the prophet and nothing of the magician. His humble soul loved; that was all. (pp. 50-51)

Overall my impression of Hugo is of one who was more concerned with what people did than with what they believed. The Bishop was moved to charity and poverty by his religious faith. An atheist who behaved in the same way would be no less noble in Hugo’s eyes. It is actions, not thoughts, with which Hugo is concerned.

This tension recurs throughout the novel, of course. Jean Valjean is moved by his religious rebirth to commit himself to justice and good works. But his antagonist, Inspector Javert, is moved by the same faith towards intolerance and cruelty. Clearly this is no simple story of religion good, atheism bad. But we will save such thoughts for when those characters actually appear.

Instead, let us close with another Hugoism. Try to read this and not think of various braying, right-wing hacks, and other species of modern Social Darwinists:

We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. Its counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe — history. Juvenal and Tacitus only reject it. In our days, a philosophy which is almost an official has entered into its service, wears its livery, and wiats in its antechamber. Success; that is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity. Win in the lottery and you are an able man. The victor is venerated. To be born with a caul is everything. Have but luck, and you will have the rest; be fortunate, and you will be thought great. Beyond the five or six great exceptions, which are the wonder of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold. …Let a notary rise to a deputy; let a sham Corneille write Tiridate; let a eunuch come into the possession of a harem; let a military Prudhomme accidentally win the decisive battle of an epoch, let an apothecary invent pasteboard soles for army shoes, and lay-up, by selling this pasteboard instead of leather for the army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, four hundred thousand livres in the funds; let a pack-pedlar espouse usury and bring her to be of seven or eight millions, of which he is the father and she the mother, let a preacher become a bishop by talking through his nose; let the steward of a good house become so rich on leaving service that he is made Minister of Finance; — men call that Genius, just as they call the face of Mousqueton, Beauty, and the bearing of Claude, Majesty. They confound the radiance of the stars of heaven with the radiations which duck’s foot leaves in the mud. (pp. 46)

Zing! I wish Hugo would stop holding back. Maybe later in the novel he’ll tell us what he really thinks…

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    May 18, 2007

    I was fortunate never to have an abridged version. I loved it when I first read it as a teenager. It appears I should also have another go at it now that I am older.

  2. #2 Robert P.
    May 18, 2007

    By “conventionist” Hugo means a member of the National Convention, the third and most radical of the legislative assemblies that were established during the French Revolution. It was the Convention that abolished the Monarchy and executed the King, and from which the Reign of Terror eventually emerged (although that atrocity was primarily due to a single party – the Jacobins – and many conventionists ended up on the guillotine themselves.) Hugo, as a staunch Republican (in the 19th century European context), greatly admired the Convention (in his novel “93” he devotes an entire chapter to it). In the later chapters of _Les Miserables_, the student rebels who are defending the barricade assume that Jean Valjean must be an old Conventionist, come out to fight the good fight against the Monarchy.

  3. #3 Science Avenger
    May 18, 2007

    I had a similar experience with the full unabridged version of the book. I would read until sleep overtook me. I have never attempted to read it again. Perhaps I should.

    I could not imagine reading an abridged version. Every moment Hugo spends developing these minor characters adds that much depth to everything that happens to them. I want to really get into a scene before things start exploding. But then I like the pace of Kubrik films [shrug]. The scene when Jean Valjean takes the candlesticks is that much more powerful for all the pages Hugo spends on the Bishop.

    One problem I had with the book are the numerous contemporary references. Were Hugo writing today he might say “David Hasselhoff, much Greg Brady, with a touch of Shawn Cassidy”. It’s tough to get the meaning if you don’t know who he is referring to.

    But overwhelming all of that is the history. I will never look at Waterloo the same way again because of Hugo’s depiction. The anacronisms are fabulous as well. In one scene Hugo casually references a hemp field the characters are walking past. And one character is described as “believing all the impossible dreams”. And what were the impossible dreams in those days? Steering balloons, the railroad, and surgery.

    The book is full of that sort of depth and perspective. Jason, I for one will look forward to your next post on it.

  4. #4 Soren
    May 19, 2007

    I read it twice in my teens. I can’t remember the first time, but the second time was when I was doing compulsory service in the Danish Army.

    When I think of les Miserables I always remember sitting on the back of a truck in my uniform, rifle held between my legs, and boots resting on my helmet, with the Danish country side whizzing past.

    With its themes of the horrors of war and battle, it seemed to add a new dimension, and suggest the commonality of human experience to be in the army whilst reading this great piece of literature.

    My platoon actually shared some great literary experiences. One guy had picked up a copy of chairman Mao’s little red book, another had a copy of Also sprach Zarathustra, so we would treat each other with fitting quotes on the human experience in the endless periods of waiting that is military life.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    May 19, 2007

    I was actually planning to make Murasaki’s Tale of Genji my next “classic reading”. After all, it comes recommended by both Borges and Larry Gonick, so how can I go wrong?

    I’ve not read Hugo; the biggest books I attempted as a youngster were Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (seventh grade) and then War and Peace (eighth). Your description of the Senator reminds me of M. Homais in Madame Bovary.

  6. #6 Wes
    May 19, 2007

    Nowadays a writer dare not put off beyond page three the novel’s first explosion. Spending fifty pages developing a minor character is pretty much unheard of.

    No kidding.

    I have a friend who reads action novels and comic books a lot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that–I read them too. But it’s not the only thing I read.

    I once tried to get my friend to read War and Peace, one of my favorite novels. He got maybe 50 pages in and never picked it up again. He didn’t like it ’cause “nothing happened”.

    Kinda disheartening that people can be so impatient.

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 19, 2007

    coturnix and Science Avenger-

    Part of me thinks it’s a travesty to present an abridged version of the novel. On the other hand, it would be impractical to read the whole thing in a high shcool English class. And if I hadn’t been introduced to the novel there, I don’t know when I would have been.

    Robert P-

    Thank you for the information. Hugo makes a lot of references I don’t understand to various items from French history, so I hope you stop by again as this series of blog entries progresses.

    Wes-

    I know what you mean. I love both action novels and comic books, but sometimes you want something a bit more thought provoking.

  8. #8 yoshi
    May 20, 2007

    I am 600 pages or so through the book having started it a few weeks ago. I appreciate the level of detail and I like the writing style but personally I can’t handle anything more than an hour at a time sitting down reading it. For me – it comes down to this – is all this detail necessary to advance the story? I argue no frankly – life is too short. I am finishing up the book as more of an exercise in improving my patience and becoming familiar with other writing styles more than anything else.

    A few months ago I saw Spamalot and then Les Misérables the very next day in NYC – both for the first time. If you haven’t seen it – Spamalot is more of a spoof of Broadway shows then a takeoff of ‘The Holy Grail’ and nails parts of the broadway adaptation of Les Misérables dead on.

    This is a refrain from one of the songs from Spamalot:

    I can’t believe there’s more
    It’s far too long, I’m sure
    That’s the trouble with this song
    It goes on and on and on
    For this is our song that is too long!

    I thought it summed several parts of the broadway show and the book nicely.

  9. #9 eye-of-horus
    May 20, 2007

    But, in the moment I am thinking that perhaps M. Hugo wrote in the French language. Is this not so?

    To whose translation, then, do you point with your extensive quotations, none of which it seems to me are in French.

    Goethe says that it is in miniature that the master shines. Does the Bacchae of Euripides not speak volumes about believers and the psychology of belief? And that play runs only some tens of pages.

    Alas, I must read it in English; but, in very good English verse by Paul Roche who carefully explains his principles of translation and his striving for verisimilitude to ancient Greek.

    Who then is speaking for M. Hugo and what principles of translation underlie 1,200 engrossing pages?

    eye-of-horus

  10. #10 Gerry L
    May 20, 2007

    I read Les Miserables — unabridged — in French when I was living in Paris as an au pair. Well, I sort of did. It was in four volumes, which I checked out of the local library in succession. I read all of the first volume and read almost all of the second, skipping some pages long passages with only exposition. Volumes three and four, I scanned pages and pages (for example, eighty pages about some battle) until I found the name of a character and picked up reading again.
    Guess I missed the depth of the novel that you appreciate. But, hey, I was young was not much for literature.
    Wasn’t Les Miserables originally published in sections as a continuing story in the newspaper or weekly magazine? Sort of like a soap opera in print?

  11. #11 Wes
    May 21, 2007

    Wasn’t Les Miserables originally published in sections as a continuing story in the newspaper or weekly magazine? Sort of like a soap opera in print?

    That was a popular way to publish novels in the 1800s, I think. Tolstoy published War and Peace that way, and I think Zola and Balzac published that way too.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 21, 2007

    eye-of-horus:

    I am using the Modern Library edition of the novel, translated by Charles Wilbour. I have to keep reminding myself that the beautiful words I’m reading have as much to do with the fine translation as with the word Hugo actually wrote.

    Gerry L-

    I know what you mean about the long expository and historical passages. Much as I like the novel, those portions do start to grate on you. I suspect that they had more resonance for people closer to the events in both time and place. My usually approach is not to skip them, but merely to take read just a few pages at a time.

    Wes-

    I know Dickens published his novel as well. I don’t about Hugo, however.

  13. #13 Aaishik
    May 26, 2007

    Hi there. I dunno who translated the version of “Les Miserables” that I read (the translator’s name is not given) but it is the Wordsworth Classics editon, which I read way back in 1999. It is EXCELLENT. A whole new universe opened up before me after I read this novel. It is infact hardly a “novel”, it’s actually much more than that. While the most patent theme is that of Justice, I think the actual concept of this novel is the concept of the Conscience. As a force of transformation in the individual. After this, I read all his major novels. Have opened a blog, on which I’ve put up two articles on Hugo. Do check them out. I do hope to bring out – in a non-academic environment – the actual meaning, at least partially so, of Hugo’s novels. Just a rough attempt, and not much material. Have just started. Do visit http://lightintheocean.blogspot.com/ I hope to offer some insights on Hugo’s works.

  14. #14 TheFallibleFiend
    July 24, 2007

    Lots of people say lots of books are “the greatest novel ever written.” Most of them I just can’t agree with, even though I might be able to see that they’re great books, like Moby Dick or Ulysses.

    But some few like War and Peace or Les Mis are at least in the running. I’ve never read the unabridged thing, but I saw the musical some years ago and then later read the book. I also read it to my kids – who loved it. (Of course that was some years ago.)

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