Having completed the gargantuan Les Miserables, I feel as though the sun has finally emerged after a week of dreary rain. It’s not so much because I didn’t enjoy the book; more because they was an underlying theme of despair, even throughout Marius and Cosette’s romance. And despite my lavish praise for it, the last few chapters of Volume I dragged on, and I was reluctant to pick up Vol II afterwards. I had an inkling, though, that I would somehow conveniently ‘forget’ Les Miserables if I didn’t return to it soon, and so I told myself that it was okay to read both A Suitable Boy and Les Mis at the same time. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do, although it means that I’ve broken my pledge to read only one book at a time.
Volume II was marvelous – exhausting, but marvelous. In Volume I, Hugo demonstrated his prowess as both storyteller and philosopher. In Volume II, however, he revealed that he was also a poet!
Of all things, I never expected Hugo’s prose to be lyrical. Of course, after Cosette and Jean Valjean escaped the Thenardiers, Hugo began to introduce gentler themes than those explored in the early chapters of the novel. And yet with the introduction of Marius, something else happened. I adored the chapter ‘A heart under a stone’, in which Marius leaves his love ‘letters’ under a stone –
A glimpse of a smile under a white crepe hat with a lilac coronet is enough, for the soul to enter into the palace of dreams
I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat was threadbare – there were holes at his elbows; the water passed through his shoes and the stars through his soul.
And of course, there was before that, a beautiful description of a shrub in Cosette’s garden:
In Floreal, this enormous shrub, free behind its gratings and within its four walls, warmed into the deep labour of universal germination, thrilled at the rising sun almost like a stag which inhales the air of universal love and feels the April sap mounting and boiling in his veins, and shaking its immense green antlers in the wind, scattering over moist ground, over the broken statues, over the sinking staircase of the summer house, and even over the pavement of the deserted street, flowers in stars, dews in pearls, fecundity, beauty, life, joy, perfume. At noon, a thousand white butterflies took refuge in it, and it was a heavenly sight to see this living snow of summer whirling about it in flakes in the shade. At night, a dreamy vapour arose from the garden and wrapped it around; a shroud of mist, a calm and celestial sadness, covered it; intoxicating odour of honeysuckles and bindweed rose on all sides like an exquisite and subtle poison
Towards the end, Hugo rushed to tie all the loose ends together, and since his plot was vast, the rushed feeling was correspondingly more noticeable. Still, I love a happy ending, so I was immensely pleased that Marius discovered the truth about Jean Valjean.
One thing I truly regret about my first Les Miserables reading experience is that I skimmed over the majority of Hugo’s ‘off-tangents’. These sorts of deviations and digressions were all relevent in hindsight, and were perhaps more integral to the plot than what I perceived to be the main storyline. As a consequence, I feel I missed out on the true purpose of this book. Some books exist for a quick read, some (seemingly) for no reason at all; others are meant to be savoured. Les Miserables is clearly the latter.
I failed to savour it. But that’s okay. It gives me yet another excuse to re-read it. For now, though, it’s onto other new, exciting books.