My history with Les Mis: I was lucky enough to see the musical on Broadway with Colm Wilkinson in the lead role. Once that’s happened, you can’t settle for less. I did see it again more locally years later, and … kind of wished I hadn’t; I also finally watched the Hugh Jackman film a year or so ago, and while I respected it (and was tickled by Colm’s cameo), there is no comparison. I can’t remember last Tuesday clearly, but I clearly recall being bewitched by a segment in March of 1987 on 20/20 (God bless the person who posted in on YouTube), and co-director John Caird saying: “It was Trevor who said to everybody, ‘Well, that’s the prayer. And I told you … this show is all about God.’ And one of the actors said, ‘Yes, but you didn’t tell us you’d engaged Him to sing it!'” I was very susceptible at that age – had there been internet then I would have had the most passionate fan-blogs the world had ever seen – and I still have a visceral reaction to the music. Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard the bell; all the hair on my arms stands up and I become an instant emotional wreck when I hear that overture. I’ll sing paeans to Colm Wilkinson elsewhere, but the fact that Jean Valjean came to mean a lot to me is relevant, I think.
I don’t remember whether it was before or after I saw the show that I read the book. I think it was probably before; I remember reading it on the plane on the way to Newfoundland, and we usually went there in July; I seem to remember that the show was a birthday present, so we went in August. And I’ve always had a tendency to prepare for things; it makes a great deal of sense for me at that age to have decided to read the book prior to seeing the musical.
It’s always been something I wanted to read again, and then one of the Goodreads groups I’m part of chose it for a group read. I found George Guidall’s narration on Audible, and dove in. Since I get to listen at work, sixty and one half hours was a bit more doable than otherwise. It wasn’t the same gut-punch that the musical is, of course, but the depth and breadth and richness of the story is worth every digression, every history lesson, every excess in the writing.
Because Victor Hugo is never happy with one metaphor or example. No, there need to be at least three. And there is no way he’s going to simply introduce Valjean and start the plot rolling. No, first there have to be nearly three audiobook hours about (among other things) the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu. I made a note: it was at 2:59 that Jean Valjean’s name is first mentioned. (At just over an hour, the silver candlesticks enter the story.)
So Valjean is paroled, and makes his way into Digne, where that yellow card he is required to carry – along with his general appearance, and the waves of bitterness emanating from him – keeps him from finding so much as a place to lay his head. It was terrible to read – though I did make myself snicker by making the note “Man, Jean Valjean can’t get arrested in this town. Oh, wait.” And then the bishop changes his life. I love that the change is not instantaneous, but lands like a small, tenacious seed, stubbornly takes root, and slowly flourishes.
At five hours and twenty minutes, Fantine arrives on the scene – a happy Fantine, remarkably, though not for long. (It makes it all even worse that the SOB who fathered Cosette knew about the baby when he up and left. It was one of those “Who gets Humperdinck??” moments. No one. No one gets Humperdinck…) (Note to remember in case of Jeopardy: Cosette’s real name is Euphrasie.) And, a bit later, oh mon dieu the hideous Thénardiers … And at 7:30 comes the miserable (heh) righteous bast …er, bastion of the law Javert.
“The Asturian peasants are convinced that in every litter of wolves there is one pup who is killed by the mother because, otherwise, it would grow up to devour all the other pups.
“Give that male wolf puppy a human face, and you’d have Javert.”
It’s all so inevitable and so necessary. Javert requires justice to be meted out to him as he would mete it – has meted it out to others; to his mind, in the beginning, Monsieur le Maire refused him that, and negated anything good he had ever done. Then of course M’sieu le Maire morphed into Jean Valjean – just as Javert believed until he stopped believing – and of course he snapped.
I find it kind of amazing that Hugo was so deeply anti-Catholic. His description of Monseigneur Bienvenue is lovely. I found a quote, in response to his anti-clerical son’s protests against such a saintly priest character: “this Catholic priest, this pure and lofty figure of true priesthood, offers the most savage satire on the priesthood today.” It’s a point, but at this remove it becomes an indictment of today’s clergy, and the saintly priest is simply a saintly priest. Also, there is a really nice discussion of why nuns practice self–abasement and privation; I think it’s not widely understood nowadays. It was funny to be listening to this whole section about Jean Valjean in the convent – with its digressions on humility and really a very good exploration of why nuns do as they do – during Lent in the 21st century… I wonder if much of anyone now knows why they’re supposed to abstain from meat on Fridays, and why there’s a tradition of giving up something for Lent. If anything, all I hear is that they think it’s punishment of some kind – I’ve never heard any awareness of sacrifice, self–denial, penitence, et cetera… Victor Hugo was a better Catholic as someone who hated Catholicism than most Catholics today – or at least he knew what he was hating, where Catholics today barely know what they’re practicing. (Then again, the ignorance level of, for example, the people I work with is staggering, so I shouldn’t question.)
Marius, when he (finally!) comes on the scene, frustrated me deeply. He’s so … much, and yet so little. Example (and this is something I’ve grumbled under my breath about in many a fictional setting): he is deep in poverty, barely if at all able to keep himself fed – and he pays someone to sweep out his room and bring him breakfast. “To be a wage–earner! To lose his dignity!” Ass. And an ass in love is an ass trebled.
Reading Les Mis is like cracking walnuts … wrestle with the nutcracker to get the shell off, pick out the meat – then, finally, enjoy the nut! And then it’s gone, and you start over again. Several minutes’ work to get at a small kernel of enjoyment … lather, rinse, repeat. As I mentioned above, it’s hours in the audiobook before Jean Valjean’s name even comes up, and after a brief interlude in which the plot is advanced, off Hugo goes into a new digression. Then a little time is spent with the characters, and off again. It is worth it, in retrospect, but while reading (or listening) it’s an exercise in frustration that makes Marius look positively amiable in contrast.
It is a cracking story… and much more, because of the background and setting. One could read an abridgement, excising all the detours and excursions … but it would mean losing color and clarity.
This stern cloister was not so well walled off, however, but that the life of the passions of the outside world, drama, and even romance, did not make their way in. To prove this, we will confine ourselves to recording here and to briefly mentioning a real and incontestable fact, which, however, bears no reference in itself to, and is not connected by any thread whatever with the story which we are relating. We mention the fact for the sake of completing the physiognomy of the convent in the reader’s mind.
It’s such a beautifully constructed story – and part of that construction is what makes the author’s digressions integral to the story. A man almost incidentally saves an officer at Waterloo. The officer’s son, believing the rescue to be what it should have been, is confronted with the man many years later and forced to make a terrible choice. When there are no more kings, there will be no more war … The 20th century will be wonderful, peaceful, idyllic… It was as though the young men at the barricade expected to be remembered forever, to make the difference between then and the future – but … But.
It’s hilarious when Hugo grows coy, averting his – and the reader’s – eyes from displays of affection. “Cosette and Marius saw each other again. How this meeting went, we will refrain from saying. There are things we should not try to depict – among others, the sun.” Avert your eyes, reader.
I took another look at my review of The Count of Monte Cristo, and it’s so interesting to compare Dantès to Valjean… The former is companioned through dark days (literally) by Abbé Faria, who tries very hard across a span of many years to teach the young man to put aside vengeance and hatred and get on with living his life as a better man, but the lessons don’t take. Dantès can’t do it – despite everything his life becomes solely about vengeance, and all the good the Abbé tried to instill seems to wash away.
And then there’s Jean Valjean. In the course of – what, two days? – the Bishop gets a crowbar into the shell that has grown up around his mind and heart and cracks it open, and lets light in. And love.
Something I wondered about was – well, here: “If a solitary person had aided him in any way, perhaps his determination on vengeance would not have been so hard and unyielding.”
Then again, it doesn’t hurt that where Dantès discovers his True Love has been untrue, Valjean is given a young child to care for. To live for.
It’s a shame there wasn’t the time and space to do more with Gavroche in the musical. He’s amazing. He deserves a musical all to himself, does that lad. “Nothing is small, actually”, says the narrator, and indeed, petit Gavroche is lion-hearted, a force to be reckoned with. And it must have been almost physically painful for the original librettists to excise the Elephant. That would be spectacular onstage. And Gavroche is a hero throughout.
The wrap-up is as gradual as the beginning was, and eminently satisfying as every single character (except Gavroche, I think) gets the most perfectly appropriate ending. Javert, a staunch right–winger suddenly discovering his inner bleeding heart liberal, reacts in the only way such a devastating revelation allows. I was completely shocked by where Thenardier went after the events of the book – and then had to say, “Of course he did.”
I’m honestly not sure I would have read this again in the near future without the audiobook option. And George Guidall – with whom I now feel I’m on a first-name basis, after over sixty hours – did a tremendous job. I highly recommend him for a long book; it was a pleasure to spend that much time with him in my ear. One small hitch in listening to the book, though – L’Aigle sounds like Legolas. Just saying.
The translation, by Julie Rose, had a huge impact on the book’s readability (listen-to-ability). It’s very colloquial – in spots almost jarringly colloquial, using current slang and contractions all throughout. For example, “geezer” is used liberally, and feels completely wrong for 1815-1832. Now and then a turn of phrase would pique my interest, and for at least one I checked another source for another translation because I couldn’t quite believe it.
Google Books – “It’s beastly cold in this devil’s garret!”
Julie Rose “It’s as cold as a nun’s nasty in this dump of a place!”
I’d love to know the original French line.
In the end … I want to be more Gavroche, less Jean Valjean. And not at all Javert.
*** *** ***
A quote that should be heeded by ALL writers:
“We have indicated Toussaint’s stutter once and for all – please, permit us not to dwell on it any further. We draw the line at musical notation of a disability.”
A quote I plan to use next time it applies:
“Gavroche: ‘It’s raining again! God almighty, if this continues I’m canceling my subscription!'”
Other necessary quotes:
“Books are remote but reliable friends.”
“Joy is the backward surge of terror.”
“To err is human, to stroll – Parisian.”
“He looked like a caryatid on holiday.”
They have a look in their eyes, and this look is trained on the absolute. The very uppermost among them has the whole sky in his eyes; the lowest, no matter how enigmatic he may be, still has the pale glow of infinity in his sights. So no matter what he does, venerate whoever bears the sign of starry eyes.
Dead eyes – that is the opposite sign.
Evil starts with dead eyes. Faced with someone whose eyes see nothing, think carefully and be afraid. The social order has its starless miners.
There is a point where digging any deeper means being entombed, and where the light is completely extinguished.
Magnificent egoists of the infinite, unruffled onlookers of pain, who don’t see Nero if the weather’s nice
There are people who observe rules of honour the way you and I observe the stars – from afar.