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Book Review: Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo's epic saga of plot puppets acting out philosophical and moral arguments. (No, it's not about the French Revolution!)


Les Misérables

Originally published in 1862, approximately 565,500 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.




Cosette

Les Miserables is big. Really, really big. Weighing in at about 1400 pages, it's now the single longest book I've ever read. (A Dance to the Music of Time was longer, but while a single work, it's technically twelve books.)

It took me about six months because damn, is Victor Hugo wordy. And the satire and the fantastical flavor that I found so entertaining when I read Notre-Dame de Paris, enough that I was able to overlook the fifty-page digressions on historical architecture, seemed to be missing here. Les Miserables is a much more serious book. There is some humor, though mostly dark, but Hugo's purpose in writing it is right there in the title, "The Miserables":


"So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century - the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labour, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this."

— Victor Hugo, Introduction


Les Miserables shares much in common with Charles Dickens' Bleak House or other novels of social commentary. Like Dickens, Hugo had obvious compassion for the poor and the downtrodden, which he expressed volubly. He also got up on his political soapbox, venting about monarchical and Napoleonic issues that were of great importance in his day, but are now merely cement over the novel's archaic voice. But Hugo also loved to show you his historical research, hence multiple chapters devoted to the history of Parisian convents, the battle of Waterloo, and the urban geography of Paris.

An abridged version can be forgiven for cutting all those digressions and leaving only the actual plot, but in doing so you'd strip away Hugo's voice, for better or for worse. Rarely will you find a book that better exemplifies the difference between 19th century publishers and today. Even Hugo's critics allow that "the digressions of a genius must be forgiven," but I'd like to see the modern publisher who lets an author, even a best-selling genius, drop an entire historical novella of only tangential relevance into a novel today.


My name is Jean Valjean

And I am Javert
Do not forget my name!
Do not forget me,
24601.


The main plot running through the entire length of the book, from start to finish, is the relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert. These two antagonists symbolize the law as a scourge on the poor; Valjean is sentenced to five years for stealing a loaf of bread, and his repeated attempts to escape end up stretching his sentence to nineteen years. When he is finally released on parole, he ends up never reporting to the police station where he was due, thus making him a permanent felon destined to go back to the galleys for life if he's ever caught.

Inspector Javert

Police Inspector Javert is the man who never forgets the convict Jean Valjean. It's said that Milton gave all the best lines to Satan. So does Hugo make his protagonist's nemesis far more interesting than the main character: Javert is the living embodiment of pitiless, amoral law enforcement.


This man was composed of two very simple and two very good sentiments, comparatively; but he rendered them almost bad, by dint of exaggerating them,—respect for authority, hatred of rebellion; and in his eyes, murder, robbery, all crimes, are only forms of rebellion. He enveloped in a blind and profound faith every one who had a function in the state, from the prime minister to the rural policeman. He covered with scorn, aversion, and disgust every one who had once crossed the legal threshold of evil. He was absolute, and admitted no exceptions. On the one hand, he said, "The functionary can make no mistake; the magistrate is never the wrong." On the other hand, he said, "These men are irremediably lost. Nothing good can come from them." He fully shared the opinion of those extreme minds which attribute to human law I know not what power of making, or, if the reader will have it so, of authenticating, demons, and who place a Styx at the base of society. He was stoical, serious, austere; a melancholy dreamer, humble and haughty, like fanatics. His glance was like a gimlet, cold and piercing. His whole life hung on these two words: watchfulness and supervision. He had introduced a straight line into what is the most crooked thing in the world; he possessed the conscience of his usefulness, the religion of his functions, and he was a spy as other men are priests. Woe to the man who fell into his hands! He would have arrested his own father, if the latter had escaped from the galleys, and would have denounced his mother, if she had broken her ban. And he would have done it with that sort of inward satisfaction which is conferred by virtue. And, withal, a life of privation, isolation, abnegation, chastity, with never a diversion. It was implacable duty; the police understood, as the Spartans understood Sparta, a pitiless lying in wait, a ferocious honesty, a marble informer, Brutus in Vidocq.

Javert's whole person was expressive of the man who spies and who withdraws himself from observation. The mystical school of Joseph de Maistre, which at that epoch seasoned with lofty cosmogony those things which were called the ultra newspapers, would not have failed to declare that Javert was a symbol. His brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.

In his leisure moments, which were far from frequent, he read, although he hated books; this caused him to be not wholly illiterate. This could be recognized by some emphasis in his speech.

As we have said, he had no vices. When he was pleased with himself, he permitted himself a pinch of snuff. Therein lay his connection with humanity.


I would rank this as one of the best character descriptions ever.

The chase goes on for years. Inspector Javert finds Jean Valjean, and Valjean escapes to assume a new name and a new life elsewhere in France, only for Javert to catch up to him again. Javert's relentless pursuit is probably the most memorable element of Les Miserables, more memorable than the plight of the grisettes and les miserables in the Cour des Miracles. While in the book Javert's pursuit of Jean Valjean is a bit more complicated than a demonic obsession with an unfortunate who stole a loaf of bread, his uncompromising, unceasing hunt for the escaped convict has made him an iconic figure in Western literature, and Hugo develops and sharpens him like a tool, to make the denouement of his character arc as inevitable as it is abrupt. It is why we can now refer to someone who is relentlessly obsessive in their pursuit of something, or their desire to punish someone for a trivial crime, as a "Javert" and even people who haven't actually read the book will get the reference.

However, while Javert illustrates one of Hugo's themes — the brutality of law without justice — and Valjean's arc is the moral fable, as he is repeatedly forced to choose between self-interest and what's right — Hugo also tells a tale of the poor, the dispossessed, les miserables.


What to do? What to say?
Shall you carry our treasure away?
What a gem! What a pearl!
Beyond rubies is our little girl!
How can we speak of debt?
Let's not haggle for darling Cosette!


Thus is introduced Cosette, the child of poor grisette-turned-prostitute, Fantine. And once again, it's the villains I find more interesting than the sympathetic protagonists. Jean Valjean is a mildly interesting plot puppet who's the most fully-developed of all the "good guys." Fantine is meant to wring tears out of the reader, serving as a stand-in for the uncountable women just like her, pumped and dumped by footloose lovers throughout history. Jean Valjean's rescue of her is what puts Inspector Javert back on his trail and ends his life as the prosperous M. Madeleine. Cosette, of course, the adorable moppet singing about castles in the clouds who grows up to be a Disney princess, is without flaw or blemish. They all serve their purposes, but they are no different than any similar characters in literature of the time.

The Thenardiers, though, they're some of the sleaziest villains ever written.


Who were these Thenardiers?

Let us say a word or two of them now. We will complete the sketch later on.

These beings belonged to that bastard class composed of coarse people who have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended in the scale, which is between the class called "middle" and the class denominated as "inferior," and which combines some of the defects of the second with nearly all the vices of the first, without possessing the generous impulse of the workingman nor the honest order of the bourgeois.

They were of those dwarfed natures which, if a dull fire chances to warm them up, easily become monstrous. There was in the woman a substratum of the brute, and in the man the material for a blackguard. Both were susceptible, in the highest degree, of the sort of hideous progress which is accomplished in the direction of evil. There exist crab-like souls which are continually retreating towards the darkness, retrograding in life rather than advancing, employing experience to augment their deformity, growing incessantly worse, and becoming more and more impregnated with an ever-augmenting blackness. This man and woman possessed such souls.


They've spawned two daughters, Azelma and the ill-fated Eponine, and the scene-stealing star of the musical, Gavroche.





Their role in the book was to be foils and to illustrate what sort of degradation the poor can fall to. Even Dickens created few characters as memorably, banally evil as the Thenardiers.

And so, moving into the second half of the book, is where Les Miserables became considerably less interesting to me, because Marius and his schoolboy revolution was so obviously a doomed, dilettante adventure, and who wants to read about Marius and Cosette making goo-goo eyes at each other? Cosette is pure and perfect, not nearly as interesting as poor Eponine.

And boy howdy, Hugo does go on.

So, I'll be honest. There were parts of Les Miserables that I loved. And I can easily discern that it is the work of a genius. It is an epic romance and a historical epic, and as far removed as the social and political concerns of 1830s Paris may be to us, Hugo's themes and characters still resonate today, proven by the fact that a musical conceived in 1980 based on a book written in 1862 continues to be a huge pop cultural phenomenon in 2013.

That said, it was too friggin' long.

It's also worth noting that as with Notre-Dame de Paris (and indeed, with any translated work) the translation makes a difference. The Gutenberg link above (and the excerpts I copied and pasted) are from the 19th century Isabel F. Hapgood English translation, but the version I actually read was the 2007 Julie Rose translation.


A much filmed book, but better as a musical




Look down, look down
Don't look 'em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You're here until you die


I had never actually seen the musical until I watched last year's Hollywood production. Then, as usual after reading a classic, I went to Netflix to find all the past adaptations available. (Annoyingly, the 1934 version has been a "Very long wait" for... months. I am beginning to suspect Netflix is lying about having it available. Or maybe there is just the one DVD in the entire country, and whoever has it out right now hasn't returned it yet.)

The musical is, of course, the loosest of adaptations, taking the bones of Hugo's novel but adding embellishments and cutting much. But watching the musical before reading the book will probably make you appreciate the book more than the other way around.

Les Miserables (1935)



Les Miserables (1935)

Charles Laughton stars in many of these early literary adaptations. Here, he is the dough-faced Inspector Javert, merciless and pitiless until the abrupt ending. A faithful but abridged adaptation that portrays the horrors of the French penal system, but barely touches the wretchedness of the poor or the reason for Marius and his friends' rebellion; if people complain that the musical doesn't make clear why there was a mini-uprising in the Paris streets, this movie gives the impression that a bunch of rabble-rousers just decided to stage a protest, and got gunned down for no good reason.

It might be hard to sit through this black and white unmusical film after the richer and more colorful musical version, but as a cinematic adaptation, I'd rate it fairly decent.

Les Miserables (1952)



Les Miserables (1952)

Hollywood has always had about a 10-15 year remake cycle. This 1952 film was actually a remake of the 1935 film above. It followed the same scenes and adaptation as the earlier film, rather than spinning a new interpretation of Hugo's novel, and thus is interesting in showing the changes in Hollywood style between the 30s and the 50s.

I liked the 1935 version better. The actors in this film emote dramatically to a squealing violin soundtrack, rather than acting naturally, and few of them really look their roles. And the censorious gloss of 1950s Hollywood is evident in the way Fantine is presented as a rather well-kept woman (in an outrageous striped dress) - it's only by inference that one gathers she is a prostitute. Cosette's miserable childhood is skipped entirely; she first appears already cleaned up and looking like a lady in the new clothes Valjean buys for her. Javert is not so much an insecure obsessive control freak as a spiteful, petty autocrat.

Those were awfully clean sewers, too.

Les Miserables (1978)



Les Miserables (1978)

This was a British made-for-TV movie, lacking the glamor and polish of some of the other productions, but perhaps a little closer to the spirit of Hugo's novel in using actors who aren't particularly pretty. Angela Pleasance as Fantine looks like what she was — a beaten-down street whore, not a pretty fallen angel.

Fantine (1978)

The acting, however, was wooden, and the script departed from Hugo's novel in a couple of minor ways that altered Valjean's character. Anthony Perkins as Javert was the highlight of the film.

Les Miserables (1998)



Les Misérables (1998)

This was the last big Hollywood production of Victor Hugo's book until last year's musical. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes, and Uma Thurman, this 1998 movie was a moody period piece. Geoffrey Rush's Inspector Javert is one of the most brutal and malicious portrayals of any of the versions I watched. Uma Thurman made a decent Fantine, though it stretches suspension of disbelief for anyone to call Uma Thurman "ugly," even after she has fallen to prostitution.

Les Miserables (the Musical)



Les Miserables (25th anniversary)

Of course there are several versions of the Broadway play available on DVD. My favorite was the 25th anniversary edition, with Norm Lewis as Javert, Lea Salonga as Fantine, Samantha Barks as Eponine (she got to reprise her role in the film version as well), and Robert Madge as Gavroche. This was the version that I most would have liked to see live; visually the 2012 version, below, is more spectacular, but a musical production by actual singers makes for much better listening. And Gavroche and the Thenardiers totally stole this show.

Les Misérables (2012)



Les Misérables (2012)

So, of course, there was last year's big movie starring Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway.

For non-singing actors, I really didn't think Crowe or Jackman did too badly. I think it's the booming number "Look Down" that really makes the soundtrack, but if you can't see the musical live, this is a credible performance.



Poll #1930790 Les Miserables

Have you read Les Miserables?

Yes, and I liked it.
9(50.0%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
1(5.6%)
I tried, but I couldn't finish.
2(11.1%)
Yes, and I read it in French.
0(0.0%)
No, and I doubt I ever will.
1(5.6%)
No, but I will...someday.
5(27.8%)

Have you read any other books by Victor Hugo?

Yes
9(50.0%)
No
9(50.0%)

Have you seen the musical?

Yes, I've seen a live performance.
11(73.3%)
Yes, but only the movie version.
2(13.3%)
Yes, but only a DVD and/or the movie version.
2(13.3%)




Verdict: Big, bloated, epic, brilliant, did I mention big and bloated? The characters are memorable, the story is grand, it's definitely a book that belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. But it is not enthralling or a page-turner, and call me a heathen, but I'm glad that modern editors don't let authors, even best-selling ones, ramble on at novella length before getting back to the story. Les Miserables is a book you won't regret reading, and it's worth some serious bragging rights to get through it, but I can't honestly say it's my favorite classic work.

Also by Victor Hugo: My review of Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, literary, movies, netflix, reviews, victor hugo
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  • AQATWW: A Big War and Big Fat Books

    After a bit of slacking, I have been picking up the pace recently. 202,000 words and 36 chapters, with 56 in my outline. Eep. I was determined to…

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    Illustration by Jerlyy. A lovely likeness, though it's probably what Alex sees in her magic mirror. It's been eight years since my last…

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