Monday, 1 August 2011

'Les Miserables' by Victor Hugo (1862)

Synopsis: Les Miserables follows the lives and actions of a number of French characters over a 17 year period, starting in 1815 and finishing in 1832. 

In 1815 an elderly Bishop is introduced. He's an extremely kind and humble man who manages to touch the heart of a hardened, bitter and angry ex-convict called Jean Valjean. Valjean is so moved by the Bishop's grace towards him that he repents, becomes a man of God, and vows to spend the rest of his life doing good and noble deeds. 

In 1823 Valjean has renamed himself Monsieur Madeleine, and is now a factory owner and the mayor of the town Montreuil-sur-Mer. Valjean then meets a woman called Fantine. She's the single, unwed mother of an 8 year old daughter called Cosette; who lives with an innkeeper and his wife (called the Thenardiers) in another town. Cosette's father abandoned Fantine when she was still pregnant with Cosette. Before meeting Valjean, Fantine was sacked from her factory job when it was discovered that she was the mother of an illegitimate child. Fantine tried desperately to find work but no-one would employ her. In desperation Fantine sold her hair, her two front teeth, and even her body in an attempt to raise more money to provide for Cosette. Out of kindness, Valjean is able to rescue Fantine from the terrible life she's living but she then dies of TB and leaves him to raise Cosette as his own child. Valjean takes Cosette away from the Thenardiers but is pursued by Javert, a police inspector, for parole violations which stem from earlier crimes. Valjean then spends the next nine years raising Cosette in Paris whilst simultaneously evading Javert. 

In 1832, Cosette falls in love with a young law student called Marius Pontmercy who is involved with a group of student revolutionaries, led by the charismatic leader Enjolras. Marius is also loved by Eponine, the Thenardier's eldest daughter, who is now living in Paris with her family. Her younger brother Gavroche is in Paris as well but is living separately from the family. The bulk of the second half of the novel is concerned with the students' revolution against the government, which has a huge effect on the lives of all of the main characters. 

Les Miserables happens to be my favourite musical ever. After seeing it live - and the 10th anniversary concert on DVD - and loving the musical to death, I knew I would have to read the novel at some point just to see how it would compare. Saying that though I was slightly apprehensive about reading this book even though most of the reviews that I had read beforehand were very positive. This was because the last time I decided to read a book based on my love of its musical adaptation I really didn't like it (see my review of Wicked). But I needn't have worried. If I ever get round to making a Top 10 list, nay, top five list, of my favourite books then I can safely say that there would be a place for Les Miserables. That should give you an idea of how much I loved this book. It's wonderful!

Yes, this book can pose a bit of a challenge and it's easy to see why some would find it a daunting prospect. It's a very long novel and is well over a thousand pages. Hugo does occasionally go off onto tangents and digressions at times as well and these often have very little to do with the actual plot of the book. There's an entire section on the history of the Parisian sewer system for example, and a 50 page account of the Battle of Waterloo in which only the final chapter is at all relevant to the main story. Less charitable reviews of this book sometimes say that it should be abridged. As it happens I couldn't disagree more! That's not to say that there weren't points in the story where I could feel my attention slipping such as the part that describes the Argot slang. However, to remove these sections from the novel completely would be the equivalent of raping it. Hugo is a fantastic writer and his digressions and tangents, which start off as an unwelcome distraction, become interesting and fascinating in their own right. They end up becoming just as much a part of the story as the main plot.

And as for the main plot, well, it's terrific! It's got action, adventure, war, romance, religion, history, politics, philosophy, humour, social commentary, mercy, redemption... it's epic! But what impresses me most about this book is how it manages to be poignant, tragic and tear-jerkingly sad and yet ultimately be extremely uplifting and inspiring. That and the characters. Jean Valjean, Bishop Myriel, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Eponine, Enjolras, Gavroche, all of the students... I loved these people. Note the use of the word 'people'. Hugo's characters are so believable, likeable and well-developed that you end up caring about them almost as if they're real people. This is one of the most moving books I've ever read and it's a literary masterpiece. I'd especially recommend the Penguin Classics edition by Norman Denny which is the version I read. One of my ambitions in life is to be able to read this novel in French too but that's many years off!

Rating: 5/5


Geneva said...

Again, we agree! I love the book and the stage musical is my favorite!

I've heard that about Wicked- that the play is great but the book is not.

Hannah said...

The book and the musical of 'Wicked' are almost completely different to each other and hardly anyone seems to like them both. I really hate the book but I know it has its fans.