by: Victor Hugo
I finally finished Les Miserables! This is a cause for celebration! (I also barely squeaked by my deadline of finishing it before I had a chance to see the movie, but, hey, I did it!)
If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s the story of Jean Valjean, a French convict sentenced to 5 years for the crime of stealing bread to feed his starving family. Well, it’s generally his story. Jean Valjean’s life intertwines closely with Fantine, a woman impregnated and abandoned by her lover; Cossette, Fantine’s child, taken in by the treacherous Thenardier family; Javert, a police inspector who knew Jean Valjean in his galley days; and finally, Marius, a revolutionary young man who falls in love with Cossette. All these characters are central to the novel.
Hugo uses the novel to, at its most basic level, explore notions of good and evil in context of French society. He writes about the poor and, somewhat but not entirely consequently, the miserable. He examines poverty in all its variations, from those who are poor by choice, such as Jean Valjean and Marius, to those who are poor by circumstances beyond control, like Eponine and Father Mabeuf. He explores at length moral decisions and the factors influencing such decisions, of the lack of opportunity versus the lack of character. Anyway, there’s much more to this book than I could possibly understand in one reading or dissect in one blog post. Rest assured, though, after reading it, I understand why it’s such a highly regarded classic. The themes and morals are highly relevant to our time, and, I surmise, most, if not all, societies in the world today.
I really enjoyed the translation I read – the Everyman’s Library version with the translation by Charles E. Wilbour. It was a more formal translation, close to the language of the time – I dislike modern translations. I would recommend reading with a dictionary by your side, as I ran across more than a few words I didn’t know. (This normally doesn’t happen to me; I like to imagine I have a fairly extensive vocabulary!)
This book was definitely a chore to get through. Unless you have a strong background in French history or a deep and abiding interested in French society at the time, save yourself the trouble and find an abridged version. As much as I admire Hugo’s work, I could have lived without the 30 page asides on the French sewer system, French slang, the numerous histories of buildings and street corners, and many, many other topics. Other readers I have talked to have all given me advice on how to self-abridge the novel; everything from “Oh, skip the parts on the history of Paris” to “I just read the parts where I saw the characters’ names.” I tried my best to read every single word, but I’m not going to lie: there were parts, nearly entire sections sometimes, where my eyes glazed over and I fear I retained little.
Annoyingly, there was a fair amount of untranslated French. Between that and the vocabulary used, this may be a good book to read on an E-reader if you have one.
If you, like me, have trouble keeping the characters and plots straight, may I recommend the wonderful website Wikipedia? Sometimes when I’m reading a book for thought provocation rather than plot I look up the plot line beforehand and refer to the Wikipage as necessary in order to keep everything straight in my head. This obviously isn’t for everyone but it can be really helpful. My final recommendation is to spend some time looking for a translation you like and can get absorbed into. If a modern translation is your thing, go for it! This book is too long to suffer through a disliked style.
Les Mis was a lot of work to read but it was worth it. I just finished, so I’ll need more time to process the novel as a whole but I’m really glad I was able to read it. I am already enjoying thinking about the characters and themes presented. If you enjoy classics, have a desire to read it after seeing the movie – which I am incredibly excited about – or want a novel examining social issues than I would highly recommend the abridged version of this book. If you want to read a fiction that examines French society of the early 19th century or have a strong desire to immerse yourself and your thoughts into one book for an extended period of time, the unabridged version is the book for you.
Drop a line in the comments if you’ve read Les Miserables and know a good translation – especially a good modern translation and/or abridged version – or if you’ve got thoughts on the novel or new movie – I’d love to hear from y’all!