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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. Tom Send a noteboard - 06/06/2011 05:22:02 AM
At 1500 pages, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is not a book to be taken up on a whim. I can attest to this because I did essentially just that when I put it on an arbitrary list of ten French classics that I was to read this year in the original language as part of a reading challenge.

The book is fairly uneven in its presentation, with extended philosophical asides and a few serious (50-page) digressions. It is understandable when one considers that the book was written over the course of some 30 years. The odd thing for me is that it is the parts of the book that I suspect others did not like that I enjoyed the most.

I read the first four or five hundred pages fairly quickly. The Bishop of Digne, who later disappears from the story early on, is not a very realistic picture of an ecclesiastic. However, he is a compelling ideal of what a priest should be, if he truly claims to follow the teachings of Christ. As such, I found that there was a certain beauty to his portion of the greater story. The monastery, where Jean Valjean and Cosette end up by happenstance at the end of a harrowing flight through Paris while pursued by Javert, is a miserable Hell that shows the way in which one can completely waste one’s life. However, Hugo relishes this misery and describes the place in extreme detail, and the end result was like watching a car crash. It was painful and sickening in a way, yet I couldn’t stop reading.

A special place of honor can be afforded to the battle scenes. Hugo’s description of the Battle of Waterloo was a masterpiece of writing, and the description of the battle between Enjolras and company in the 1832 uprising is brilliant. To my mind, this was Hugo at his absolute best.

Unfortunately, Hugo introduced a romantic line into his story as well, the love story between Marius Pontmercy and Cosette (Euphrasie). I found this story to be nearly unreadable. The naïveté of Hugo’s prose is astounding. At one point he explains how it would be wrong to describe the bedchamber of Cosette since she is a virgin, and both she and Marius act with the most loathsome shyness imaginable. I understand that Hugo was writing in an age when graphic depictions of passion would be deemed inappropriate and even subject to censorship, but the sheer banality and clumsiness of the prose is such that the fault likely lies at the author’s feet, and solely there. Other writers at the same time (or even earlier) created much more realistic amorous relationships. No, let me take that a step further. Other authors managed to create believable relationships. Hugo’s relationship is anything but credible. It is a full-scale travesty of writing. Unlike Flaubert, Stendhal, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Thackeray, Dumas...this list of contemporaries and near-contemporaries could go on for a full page, actually...Hugo has not shown one ounce of capability in writing a romance that anyone capable of reading would find plausible.

The natural consequence of this serious flaw is that I gritted my teeth through the third and fourth parts of the book, reading 15 pages and then setting the book aside for a week or two, then another 10, then another break, then another 20, and so on. I forced myself to continue, even if the pace of reading was at times glacial. Occasionally, I would sigh heavily as Hugo decided to pontificate on yet another tangential subject for twenty pages (twenty pages about the sewers under Paris? Really?). The monotony of the middle part of the novel was broken by the frequent occurrence of pithy lines that actually made me smile, such as Hugo’s assertion that the tocsin is man’s doing but the chime for the hour is God’s. I also enjoyed the statement about public men being drawn to public women (i.e., prostitutes).

Thankfully, people started killing each other again in Part Five, and I was able to read the last few hundred pages in a few days. I think that, despite the weakness of the love story, I would have finished the book faster had there been fewer extended monologues or if at least some of the characters did not use the same pontificating voice when delivering those monologues, but the pace was a bit better and the end was finally in sight.

The end, like the beginning, was powerful and well done. The last hundred pages or so did actually affect me emotionally, and ultimately that is probably the hallmark of a good novel. I think that a good comparison might be Dickens’ Bleak House, where after hundreds of pages of agonizing tedium the pace picks up and drags the reader up with it, even against his will, and turns his opinion of the book on its head.

At the end of this review, I still can’t figure out whether or not I’m recommending the novel. At a minimum, people interested in the Napoleonic Wars are heartily urged to read the entire extended segment on Waterloo, as I think it is some of the finest writing on military subjects I’ve read. Those who are interested in Parisian uprisings could happily read the 100 or so pages that talk about the fighting associated with the failed 1832 uprising. The love story, however, was awful. Take this admonition as you will, and if you choose to read Les Misérables, a novel that is nominally longer than War and Peace, perhaps the best thing I can say is caveat lector. If I were forced to give the book a simple “yes” or “no”, however, I suppose that I would say that it is a book worth reading and recommend it.
Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

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Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. - 06/06/2011 05:22:02 AM 6773 Views
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I loved it. It took a long time to get into it though. - 07/06/2011 06:15:40 AM 1044 Views
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The same could be said about most of the sci-fi/fantasy people around here read. - 07/06/2011 06:41:58 PM 1020 Views
True. - 08/06/2011 03:30:15 PM 1151 Views
Re: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. - 10/06/2011 11:23:37 AM 992 Views

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