Friday, December 21, 2012

Review: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Reviewed by Christina

Published:  In French, 1862.  In an English translation by C.E. Wilbur later that same year.  I read a 2003 edition, edited and abridged by Laurence M. Porter.  (And if you care to read my musings about abridgments, here's a post.)

It's about:  You probably already know a little about this famous story, so I'm not going to put a ton of effort into summarizing The Brick.  Here's what the back cover says: "... Les Misérables tells the story of the peasant Jean Valjean- unjustly imprisoned, baffled by destiny, and hounded by his nemesis, the magnificently realized, ambiguously malevolent police detective Javert.  As Valjean struggles to redeem his past, we are thrust into the teeming underworld of Paris with all its poverty, ignorance, and suffering.  Just as cruel tyranny threatens to extinguish the last vestiges of hope, rebellion sweeps over the land like wildfire, igniting a vast struggle for the democratic ideal in France."
(A pretty decent summary, though I disagree about Javert's malevolence being ambiguous, and I'm not sure I'd call the June Rebellion vast or wildfire-like.)

I thought:  When Les Misérables was first published it met with a varied, often negative critical reception.  But it was immediately popular, and has been ever since.  Is it possible for me to agree with both the critics and the populace?  Because I think I do.  I agree with all the fans that it is a moving, masterfully plotted piece of high drama.  I love M. Hugo's social sensibility and human sympathy.  His passion for mercy and fairness shine throughout.  I really loved reading this book, and I'm so glad I did.  It's a great story, a vivid portrait of post-Napoleonic France, and an unforgettable piece of literature.
But ugh, the sentimentality! The manipulative melodramatic devices! The pervasively moralistic platitudes on every single page!  I get that these are accepted Romantic things, just like I get that the story's over-reliance on coincidences is supposed to imply God's hand in human life.  Romanticism just doesn't do a whole lot for me, personally, and that's ok.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf

Reading Recommendations:  I'd recommend reading it fairly quickly; you'll lose track of the chronology and characters if you take long pauses away from the story.  So it's a good one for a slow period in your life.  I've loved reading it during the holidays because it makes me appreciate things I usually take for granted, like shoes and democracy and not having the Thénardiers for parents.

Warnings: nothin' but the sadness

Favorite excerpts: "The future belongs still more to the heart than to the mind.  To love is the only thing which can occupy and fill up eternity.  The infinite requires the inexhaustible."

"To love or to have loved, that is enough.  Ask nothing further.  There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.  To love is a consummation."

"Not being heard is no reason for silence."

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

What I'm reading next:  Born to Run by Christopher McDougall