Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Les Miserables – When It’s Good, It’s Very, Very Good - Part 1

SO long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved...books like this cannot be useless.
~Preface to Les Miserables

Les Miserables is a somewhat daunting task. At 959 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read, barring the Bible. (Fans affectionately call it The Brick.) Settling back after the tedious first few chapters, I prepared myself for a long haul. To my shock, I finished it in sixteen days. Honestly, I’m not sure how I did it, though I do know several days I put away a hundred pages.

Another part of the mystery is that Victor Hugo had a severe case of verbal diarrhea, so I did a bit of blah-blah-interesting bit!-blah-blah reading. If there was something to be said of a thing, good old Victor was bound to say it. Large chunks are devoted to the battle of Waterloo, the operation and ideological premise of monasteries, and 19th Century French politics—which have little to do with the story. If you have an encyclopedic knowledge of French history and politics in the 17-1800s, that’s terrific, but if you don’t, this can get tedious. Those are the two extremes: terrific and tedious.
(First - a quick word about spoilers. I've tried to keep them at an absolute minimum. There are none really until you get to the picture of Javert, and very few after that. However, Part 2 of the review will pull out all the stops, so read at your own peril.)

Tedious? The reams and reams of space relegated to random subjects. I brave the fury of Hugo fans and say, great novelist he might have been, but sometimes he wrote like a tone-deaf egomaniac. Readability isn’t a bad thing. While these segments certainly lend a strong sense of place and a wide lens shot on the time, some of the information is so esoteric that skimming is unavoidable. When laid alongside the tightly crafted A Tale of Two Cities, there's no real comparison.

Despite Mr. Chesterton’s opinion, this stuff will send one to sleep. Yes, at times, it works well to build the tension. One character is trapped in a sewer, and Hugo spends several chapters talking about the miles and miles of sewer he’ll have to navigate, so that by the time we get back to him, we’ve got a much better picture of what he’s up against. On the other hand, an extended court-room scene with no emotional connection to the main character saps all the tension from the previous exciting chapters.

The problem is, there are lots of good moments, but they're weighed down by the bulk of superfluous commentary. When I have a chance, I'm planning on self-abridging it for future reference (there are no free abridged versions, as far as I know.) Hugo often has something interesting to say, but he'll say it in one sentence, and then say it again in five more.

So. That's that.

But what's terrific? There's a lot.

The repetitively named Jean Valjean has been a galley slave for nineteen years. When he was twenty-five, he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven children. This is the first of "the three problems of the age" which Hugo mentions: "the degradation of man by poverty." When Valjean gets out, he’s (understandably) mad at the world. He considers his punishment to have been far in excess to the crime, and wants to get a bit of his own back. He hates society for imposing such injustice, and fusing God with the establishment, has come to hate the Divine as well.  These two conflicts form the heart of the story. While Hugo will take the first conflict (person vs. society) as the greater theme of the novel, it is the second (person vs. God) that is far more interesting, and far more satisfying.

It is dealt with early on. As an ex-convict, Jean Valjean bears a yellow passport, which causes him to be turned away at every place he tries to stay…until he comes to the house of a poor bishop, Myriel. The priest, whose back-story consumed the first fifty pages, only has a small cameo in the life of Valjean, but his influence permeates the story.

Margaret Oliphant in 1885: "Bishop Myriel strikes the keynote of the wonderful tale....When Jean Valjean is running all the risks of the sensational drama in his hairbreadth escapes from the law...we follow them with unfailing excitement, and scarcely feel the strain of repetition. But all this is on a much lower level of art than the extraordinary scenes of the opening."
We get to caring for Valjean fairly quickly, and it’s mainly interest in him that kept me pressing on through the dry bits. His path leads him through multiple thriller-esque adventures until he’s finally embroiled in the June Rebellion, a tiny revolution started by some twenty-something students.

The main physical conflict - Valjean on the run - causes major plot-holes, and some suspension of disbelief is necessary. We need a very intrepid antagonist, since the pursuit must last seventeen years, so we have Javert, the rabid policeman with the worldview of Saul of Tarsus - a magnificent character, idealogically, totally unrealistic, literally. Apparently, he has nothing to do but worry about some convict for nearly two decades. He has no social life, and is not a huge fan of reading. Presumably he sits around and broods. Other problems? It takes Valjean nine years to get the bright idea of leaving France. However, the chase is such an important element of the story, that we can put up with a lot.

The other thing is that, in an allegory, where characters are written to represent things, their reaction to events are not only unrealistic, but extreme. In The Jungle, a book I thoroughly despised, the main character has all sorts of horrible things happen to him until he discovers communism. You can guess the moral of that story. (As an aside, Hugo certainly wasn't a commie: "Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.") But Les Mis is like The Jungle gone right. It's not quite The Book of Job (a real-life allegory), but it's certainly something more than arbitrary suffering, and there are more nuances that a strict allegory. Valjean, for instance, while in the greater scheme of things always opting for mercy, has a more balanced view of grace and justice. At one point, he corners a young thief and delivers a sermon on why the law should be kept. Javert would be proud. For a moment, after beating up a guy one third his age Jackie Chan style, Valjean is almost cool:

"Ah! my poor child, you are on the wrong road; idleness is counselling you badly; the hardest of all work is thieving. Believe me, do not undertake that painful profession of an idle man. It is not comfortable to become a rascal. It is less disagreeable to be an honest man. Now go, and ponder on what I have said to you. By the way, what did you want of me? My purse? Here it is."

And because he's Jean Valjean, he automatically does whatever will put him on the wrong end of the deal, even though it's probably the worst thing to do for the young jerk. The characters do suffer from being examples of extreme ideas - either extreme mercy or extreme justice. Valjean is lovable, of course, but rather spineless when it comes to sticking up for himself. Alongside Sydney Carton, who can suffer and love and make snarky remarks, all in one scene, he is pale and one-dimentional.

But there are moments - two in particular - when Valjean comes alive. Hugo puts it best himself:

There is a spectacle more grand than the sea; it is heaven: there is a spectacle more grand than heaven; it is the inmost recesses of the soul. To make the poem of the human conscience, were it only with reference to a single man, were it only in connection with the basest of men, would be to blend all epics into one superior and definitive epic.

When we enter Valjean's soul, he becomes a vital and complex character. Unfortunately, they are few and far between, but they're some of the best bits of the story. These are the parts where one is dragged, against one's will, into the story. Also, they're the parts where Valjean is in the most pain. One thing is conspicuously lacking in Hugo's description of Christianity: the surprising joy that sweeps away all defenses. Even Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, his depiction of grace in a grim world, shows us glimpses of the transcendant glory. But what Valjean really needs is a good belly laugh. For, as Chesterton said, we must "understand...that exhilaration can be infinite, like sorrow; that a joke can be so big that it breaks the roof of the stars." On the other hand, I think the pure joy of beautiful music well sung really provides this element in the musical.

But back to the other characters. They characters come slowly through the first half, introducing Fantine, a naïve girl abandoned by her lover, Felix Tholomyes. She gives her child, Cosette, to the keeping of the corrupt Thenardiers, their children, Eponine, Azelma, Gavroche and two unnamed boys, become major characters.

As a character, Fantine is unmemorable (unlike Anne Hathaway's epic portrayal of the character.) She's written to be a tear-jerker, but her lack of depth allows little real sympathy.

Fantine is the second problem: "the ruin of women by starvation" and Cosette the third: "the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night."

In the second half of the book, the cast balloons, introducing the second main theme: revolution.

Enter Marius Pontmercy, an ex-Monarchist who falls in with a group of college students who want to change the world. He stands as the representative of the faith in revolution. While Valjean's conversion is to Christianity, Marius becomes a convert to Democracy. He joins the Friends of the ABC ("abaisse" is French for "abased"), a group consisting of Enjolras, the fiery idealized revolutionary, and a plethora of slightly disreputable students, including drunken skeptic Grantaire, poet Jean Prouvaire, and idealistic Courfeyrac. Little Gavroche, extremely original, is the French counterpart to the Artful Dodger.

More adventures. Sappy romance - with a real, honest-to-goodness love-at-first-sight experience, because Hugo says: "The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories that it has come to be disbelieved....Yet that is the way love begins, and only that way." This was before internet dating.

Things are building up, and finally, political anger boils over into the short-lived June Rebellion. Inevitably, the Valjean-Javert conflict becomes entangled with the Democracy-Monarchy conflict. The end of the former story arc (the minor story theme) is sublime. The latter is less conclusive, but very exciting. One thing you've got to say for Hugo, his action scenes are terrific, if he'd only make them shorter. Atmosphere is amazing. In his description of a barricade:

"Everything contributed to its tragic majesty at that supreme moment; a thousand mysterious crashes in the air, the breath of armed masses set in movement in the streets which were not visible, the intermittent gallop of cavalry, the heavy shock of artillery on the march, the firing by squads, and the cannonades crossing each other in the labyrinth of Paris, the smokes of battle mountain all gilded above the roofs, indescribable and vaguely terrible cries, lightings of menace everywhere, the tocsin of Saint-Merry, which now had the accents of a sob, the mildness of the weather, the splendor of the sky filled with sun and clouds, the beauty of the day, and the alarming silence of the houses."

The major climax is the June Rebellion, but Hugo being Hugo, we have 100+ pages before the actual ending, consisting mostly of Marius's grandad soliloquizing on unimportant subjects, and the final climax is somewhat anti-climactic as a result.

Les Miserables is a good book, but I'd ultimately say it's not a great one. It's better than most modern books, but not as good as many classics. Its virtues are many, but so are its flaws. When it's good, it's very, very good, but when it's bad, it's horrid. It may seem petty to complain of issues of pacing and length with such a wonderful story, but they are, after all, important. I keep comparing it to A Tale of Two Cities, which is a masterpiece on all levels, though less ambitious than Les Mis. And that must be taken into account. Hugo took on an enormous task, and considering, he does very well, but it does get unwieldy.

The musical does a tremendous job of abridging the story in a way that the plot moves much more swiftly. It fleshes out Javert's character, ennobles Eponine, and cuts Marius's back-story, but otherwise mostly retains the feel of the book, with the notable exception of less emphasis laid on a certain father's love for his daughter (which is corrected quite Suddenly in the movie.)

As for themes, it is these that elevate what’s essentially a detective story in reverse to a great commentary on the intersection of law, grace, and freedom. They're also the real meat of the tale, but they take a long time to wrestle with, so...


  1. I haven't read the book yet, though I did watch the movie with Hugh Jackman shortly after it came out. I have every intention to read it someday, but I know what you mean about Victor Hugo. I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame and found it slightly annoying how he took me away from the story to explain something that I thought was insignificant.
    Still, in spite of all his faults he is a good writer.

    1. Haven't read Notre Dame, but I wondered if it has the same flaws. Of course, I also read that it's much more anti-Christian, though I don't know if it's true. Hugo definitely has his strong points.

    2. Well, the priests definitely acted self-righteous and Claude Frollo (one of the main characters) was the biggest hypocrite of them all. In some ways I suppose it could be anti-Christian in that the clergy seemed more concerned with their rituals than actually saving anyone's souls, but from what I know of that era the Church did begin to decline.
      Even though I like the book I do have some complaints about it because some of the characters don't ring true.

    3. Perhaps I mean anti-clergy, which is a different thing. But you're write, flaws in art are more important than flaws in opinion - if the characters aren't being consistent, who cares what the point of the book is?

  2. Excellent post! Still haven't read the book yet, (shame on me) but hopefully soon. Real good article. ;D


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