Thursday, 18 February 2016

Les Misérables Read-Through #19: V.i.12 - V.ii.2

Well... this week's section was the one I've been dreading basically since I started reading Les Misérables. Even if you haven't already seen a movie adaptation of a book, quite often you're already slightly aware of some of its more intense moments. So there's an apprehension when you start reading and then finally getting to that moment is both exciting but also a bit sad. I'm now in the final 12% of the book, which still covers about 300 pages! I can't believe I'm so close to finishing another read for my The Classics Club 100 Classics list!

Chapter Summary:
So... everyone's dead. That is really the only way to put it really. Last week I left you with the barricade gearing up to stopping the next attack. To sketch the scene, Jean Valjean and Marius had independently joined the Friends of the ABC at the barricade. Javert had tried to sneak in as well but was found out and is being kept for execution at the last moment. Last week Eponine died, saving Marius in the process, and this week's first victim was Gavroche. It was really sad and from then on the novel becomes quite sad and dejected in tone. The revolutionaries, and especially Enjolras, are very aware of the fact that they will not survive this revolt and it makes every small victory incredibly bittersweet. Jean Valjean claims the honour of executing Javert, but then lets him go when no one is looking. No one is more surprised at that than Javert himself.

And then the new attack is launched and it is officially over. Despite resisting, the barricade is overrun, loads of people die and Marius is wounded. Jean Valjean grabs Marius just in time and disappears with him. Enjolras and the few surviving revolutionaries stage a final stand in the pub but it's all for naught. Just before Enjolras is shot, Grantaire wakes up from his drunk stupor and joins him in a noble death. And then, for some reason, there is a massive digression about the human waste Paris creates and how its clogging up the sewers. It was rather strange, but to a certain extent interesting because that's exactly where Valjean ends up carrying Marius to in an attempt to escape.

Feel of the Chapters:
I guess it should come as no surprise that the mood throughout these chapters is rather grim. Even Hugo seems to not be sure how to actually write about what is going to happen. At times he lingers on descriptions of action and then he very quickly reveals the human cost of those moments by listing the dead. Hugo clearly loves the revolutionaries, even if he has doomed them and doesn't agree with everything he makes them do, and it bleeds through into the narrative that he doesn't want it to end.

There is something very hectic about the final few moments of the barricade, in that the action feels both scattered and chaotic. It might not be to everyone's tastes but it does really put the reader into the situation of his characters. You're never quite sure of what'll happen next and after those long breaks of waiting and moralising there are intense bursts of action, followed by more waiting. But it works.

General Thoughts:
  • The huge digression on manure is probably the strangest digression in the whole book so far. It just feels strangely out of place. On the one hand you can imagine that after the intensity of the end of the barricade he felt the need to distract himself and his reader, but it's still a bit odd.
  • Gavroche became quite a favourite of mine in these last two weeks. He's just such a representation of freedom but also such a hopeless character. There's no way that his story wouldn't end tragically, but it's still so sad.
  • It seems to be quite a big topic for Hugo when revolutions are justified and when they're not, when the good become bad and how the people and government interact. He keeps returning to it throughout the book and although he has ideas about it I'm not quite sure he's come to a final answer even though he tries hard to convince his readership.
  • Now that this major part of the action is over I wonder if Hugo will be able to sustain the tension for the rest of the novel. Of course there is still the storyline between Marius and Cosette and the tension between Jean Valjean and Javert will still need to be resolved, but is that as exciting as what has just gone down?
Something Extra:
As Hugo started describing the end of the barricade he kept making references to The Battle of Thermopylae. Many of you may already know of this battle because of the (in-)famous Gerard Butler film 300. The Battle of Thermopylae happened in 480 BC and was fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, famously led by the Spartan Leonidas, and the army of Xerxes I. Although the film went out of its way to convince the audience that the Greeks were all Spartans and only 300, they numbered about 700o of varied city-states. Ancient sources said that Xerxes' army numbered a million, but it was probably more like 100,000 to 150,000.  They held the Persians off for 7 days due to the perfectly chosen location. At the end, a force led by Leonidas managed to block the only possible road for the Persians for two full days of fighting until they were betrayed.

'Now, no sword is simple. Every blade has two edges; he who wounds with the one is wounded with the other.' p.2080
I loved this line because it's so true. The way it's set in the book Hugo is describing how even the good can turn bad when they reach for weapons and violence.
'The grandeur and beauty of France lies in this, that she takes less from the stomach than other nations: she more easily knots the rope about her loins. She is the first awake, the last asleep. She marches forwards. She is a seeker. This arises from the fact that she is an artist.' p.2084
Although Americans seem to feel they own the copyright on patriotism, it often feels to me that no one is as in love with their country as the French.

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