I began reading this book with fairly few preconceptions. I knew it was about “a boy who steals candlesticks” – an extremely inaccurate plot summary, now that I think about it – oh yes, and I also knew there was a wildly popular and long-running musical by the same name. I was not prepared for Victor Hugo’s nasty sense of humour. I did not know (to use a few of Hugo’s own words) how astounding, extraodinary, savage, sinister, formidable, gigantic, colossal, monstrous, electrifying, terrifying, shadowy, mysterious and fantastic this book would be. In short, I think I fell in love.
Les Miserables is such a huge book, and I want to spend a lot of time rambling on about it (and honouring it), so I’ve decided to comment on each of the parts separately. If you don’t enjoy ‘spoilers’, I advise you not to read this post. Go read the book instead; it’s worth it, I promise.
Part I: Fantine
Being ignorant of the book’s gargantuan plot, I was rather confused by [what appeared to be] the biography of Monsigneur Bienvenu’s life.”Who is this little old man?” I asked myself, “and where is the boy who steals the candlesticks?” A few chapters in, I had forgotten about the candlesticks. I won’t go so far as to say that I was engrossed in the story at that point in time, but I liked Hugo’s writing (or at least, the translation of it) and I liked Bienvenu, so I was satisfied. Chapter 7, Cravatte, which details Bienvenu’s encounter with ruthless mountain bandits, even amused me. So far, I had been pleasantly surprised at how readable the book was. Yet despite my newfound regard for the Bishop of D-, I found myself wondering whether this book had a plot, and whether this man was really relevant at all. When Bienvenu’s ‘story’ carried on for another few chapters, I warily wondered if Hugo had an odd sense of humour, and this (placing the biography of an extraneous character at the start of his book) was his idea of a joke.
Enter Jean Valjean. To my surprise, Jean Valjean was no impoverished boy, but a convict – and a surly, dangerous one at that. How could one man feel so much hate and loathing for humanity? Geraldine Brooks needs to read Les Miserables,and if she has, shame on her. Victor Hugo, like many authors of the time, narrates in a matter-of-fact way that is neither poetic nor to the point. In fact, I’ve noticed that Hugo likes to engage in wordy page-long discussions/observations on religion and human existence. It’s a philosophical ramble as much as it is a work of fiction. Nevertheless, his characters are alive and breathing, something which many contemporary writers forget, in their haste to write the Ultimate 21st Century Novel with Superb Postmodern Structure and Fabulous Plots. I digress. Where was I? Jean Valjean. Oh yes – it was here that I realised the significance of the Bishop, and I admit that it was wrong of me to make assumptions about Victor Hugo’s smashing sense of humour.
Book Three – In the Year, 1817. Ah, Fantine, the namesake of Volume I Part One. See, here’s a thing I don’t really understand. I always thought ‘mistress’ was a woman with whom a married man would have an affair. But I never got the impression that Tholomyes was married. So was Fantine a prostitute from the beginning, or only after being fired from the factory at M- Sur M-? By mistress, did Hugo mean ‘lover’? I think this is a contextual misunderstanding; actually, it’s probably just my ignorance. Not that it’s of great importance anyway. I quite liked this section of the book. It was so merry and light, after the Jean Valjean experience. I’m not sure if it was an attempt to highlight the ghastliness of Fantine’s fate, or if – once again – it was his wicked sense of humour: “those stupid buggers; they think it’s going to be a happy story after all, but look what I’m going to do to this ho! Hee hee hee!”
The Thenardiers. Oh, they make me mad. When I realised that Fantine had sold her incisorsto provide money for those brutes, I was ready to kill. I’m quite amazed at the range and amount of emotion that I’m experiencing as I read this book. That Fantine could transform from such a lovely, bright young thing into a toothless, hairless wildcat (Hugo is quite cruel and merciless to his characters) was what got me hooked. Although I must say, from what I’ve read so far, there’s been nothing remarkably new or innovative about the plot. After all, Cosette’s life is not far from the ever-popular, archetypal Cinderella story. I suppose Hugo just manages to poke us in that deep place where we react to books. I could have read a similar story, about similar characters in similar circumstances, and written a two word review: “so what?” It’s a strange thing, human sympathy. I haven’ t been this excited about a book since – well, I can’t remember the last time. The books I’ve talked about on this blog have all been rather mediocre.