Monday, 7 March 2016

Review: 'Les Misérables' by Victor Hugo

Les MisérablesAs you may know, I've been reading Les Misérables for the last few months. Since September to be exact. I quite enjoyed reading it at a "slow" pace, slow even though I was reading a good 20 chapters for each post, because it really allowed me to savour the story a lot more. In the end it took me 21 posts to finish it all. So now join me one last time as I get into what I think of Les Misérables.

Pub. Date: 1862

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean - the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. In Les Misérables Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832.
Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope - an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. 
I went into Les Misérables with a lot of prejudice. It's something that every classic novel has to learn how to cope with as the years, decades and centuries that follow the original publication adapt a book to fit their own purposes. There are musicals, films, TV shows and manga adaptations of this story, each finding a new audience for Hugo's classic tale. It was the musical I first encountered, but through the most recent film adaptation and it didn't sit well with me. It all felt overly dramatic but I kept asking myself, to quote Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, 'Where is the gravitas?'. So I decided that it was time for me to tackle this giant of a literary classic and build my own opinion of it. So I went in disliking Valjean, already slightly annoyed at Cosette and too interested in the revolution to care about much else. But after the first few weeks of reading Hugo had completely changed my interest in the novel.

So how do I feel about the novel and its characters now? I have completely and utterly accepted its position as one of the literary masterpieces of European literature. The variety of characters and issues discussed go very deep and Hugo's attitude to them is, at times, incredibly modern and socialist. His attitude to women was one I found very interesting. On the one hand he is aware of how different the position of women in society is from men, and that poverty can force a woman's hand. Fantine is a tragic case of a good person corrupted by cruel fate without it being their own fault. And the narrator never lets the reader blame her either. However, Cosette is in the strange position of being everything that's good and being, seemingly, a bit pointless in the narrative except for being everything that's good. And my personal interpretation of that is that Cosette is not a character in the way that the others are. Throughout the narrative Cosette is a little saviour and sufferer, she represents redemption and goodness through hardship, and thereby lacks a bit of the realism that the other characters have. She is the good thing for which Fantine suffers, she is the good thing that endures the Thenardiers' cruelty, she is the good thing which redeems Valjean and she is the good thing that gives Marius something to live for. She is the character for whom everything is sacrificed and for whom many of the characters live. As such, the typical 'marriage plot'-ending of the novel is actually something more. The miserable is married to hope, the dark is married to the good, and Hugo rewards the hard work of his characters by ending with this union and the hope for offspring and the continuation of hope.

Hugo is a singular author. He is constantly present throughout the novel as the Narrator, interjecting with personal memories or comments, both guiding the reader and letting them find their own way. One can't help but feel you slightly know Hugo after having read this novel. His narrative is, when stripped down to the bones, a relatively simple story which moves, as Hugo put it himself, from 'bad to good'. Mostly everyone who starts miserably is redeemed and happy in their end. However, Hugo moves beyond his own story frequently with enormous digressions which can go on for chapters. These can take whatever subject, whether it's detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo or of the sewers in Paris, and somehow Hugo manages to make each and every digression a part of the story he is telling. His language is incredibly poetic and at times soars a little bit too close to the sun, where seemingly he loses himself a little bit in the details of his own mind. On the one hand these digressions are what makes the story so rich, but for some readers it could also simply be distracting.

So what is Les Misérables and for whom is it? Hugo sums it up himself in a letter to his Italian translator:
'You are right, sir, when you tell me that Les Miserables is written for all nations. ... This is, moreover, the tendency of our age, and the law of radiance of the French Revolution; books must cease tobe exclusively French, Italian, German, Spanish, or English, and become European, I saw more, human, if they are to correspond to the enlargement of civilization.'
Les Misérables is not a novel about love or "just" about a few characters. Rather it is a novel meant to bring attention to social misery and injustice, to the inequalities that exist in our world and to the constant internal struggle most of us face. Interestingly, if not surprisingly, many established writers and politicians weren't a big fan of the novel initially but it was immensely popular with readers to such an extent that some of the social issues it highlighted were discussed by the National Assembly of France. As such, Les Misérables is a brilliant example of how literature can affect not just its readers but also a country. When an author takes on the state of society it becomes a part of the way that society sees itself. When your literature reflects the abysmal state in which some of your people live, society has to respond. Other novels who have achieved that kind of status are, in my eyes, rare, although To Kill a Mockingbird might qualify due to the awareness it triggers in readers.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed reading Les Misérables and it kept my attention throughout its many, many pages. On the one hand it's a fascinating read that I'd recommend to everyone but its sheer size and density forms a serious obstacle to some readers, hence why I've given it 4 rather than 5 Universes. Were it more accessible, it would be 5.  I would recommend it, but I'd also recommend to reading it the way I did, slowly but surely over an extended period of times.

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