After a bit of a challenge from a friend, I decided to finally take the plunge and reread Les Miserables. I last visited this work some twenty odd years ago and could scarcely remember the basic rudiments of the plot, only knowing that I had to have read an unabridged version because the infamous Waterloo chapter had been included in my version-in all its lengthy glory.
In the event that there are readers unfamiliar with the plot (movie hype does miss some people), Hugo’s iconic novel is said to be the quintessential tale of forgiveness and redemption. The story revolves around Jean Valjean, who begins life as a simple peasant, a young man struggling to help his widow sister care for her family. He steals a loaf of bread and is caught, sentenced, and imprisoned. Due to multiple escape attempts, his original sentence compounds into nineteen years imprisonment, and a bitter man with a crushed soul is the result. After release he finds the world a cruel place to an ex-convict, until he meets one gentle bishop; baffled by his kindness, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver. When Valjean is caught by the police and brought to confront the bishop, the bishop’s response changes the direction of Valjean’s life forever. Valjean goes on to live a successful life, raising an adopted daughter, who loves a young man who becomes involved with the battle at one of the Paris barricades in 1832. As the reader follows Valjean through the novel, you watch a convict turn from hate and bitterness to the deepest kind of love and honor. There really is no greater example in all of literature than Jean Valjean for a broken man made whole through the example of another man’s love and kind example, who then goes on, through the strength of his own character to become a man of honor, and who never falters, no matter how dire the circumstances become.
The novel covers the years from 1815 through 1832; however, Hugo refers often to the barricade insurrection which occurred in 1848, and finally toppled Louis-Philippe, the monarch at the time of the barricade insurrection which is fought by the novel’s characters in June of 1832. Until I understood that this was actually a projection into the future and out of the plot and context of the novel, I found this very confusing, so I mention it here hoping to save others the same issues that I had. This “novel” very often has the feel of two books, one a fiction story with the characters about whom Hugo is writing, and another, in which he extemporizes upon various nonfiction subjects, as an author to his reader, from religious communities to the structure of the Paris sewer system. In addition to complete chapters and sections set aside specifically for this purpose, he often expounds upon his subject matter and thoughts within the text of the “novel” portions as well.
So how do you decide whether the abridged or the unabridged translation is right for you? Ask yourself, “Am I reading this book because I loved the musical or the movie and I want to know a little more about the characters, or do I want to go much, much deeper?” Hugo was given to bouts of philosophizing, lengthy histories, and tangents that at times could get very off topic. That said, if you are willing to follow where he leads, you will experience some of the most beautiful prose, conveying some of the most truly profound sentiments. As a writer, Hugo was able to break down society to its most elemental level and serve that up to his readers, giving us, a century and a half later, a clear picture of the political and social milieu of Paris in the early nineteenth century. I am not saying that taking on the unabridged version doesn’t tax the reader’s patience at times. It most certainly does. There are definitely things that could stand to be edited out, or clarified, or better integrated into the flow of the plot. However, sometimes baring with his eccentricities pays off later on, when the added knowledge the reader has gained helps to clarify and enhance your enjoyment of further sections of the novel. Perhaps the knowledge was not one hundred percent necessary, but it does add in some way to the overall picture.
I do not regret a single one of the 1,232 pages that I read. For this read, I read the Norman Denny translation, which I highly recommend, as the prose is gorgeous, and scholars say that reading Denny is very close in tone to reading Hugo in the original French. It is an unabridged version, but two sections have been moved into appendices in the back of the book; they are clearly marked so that the reader who wishes to may easily flip to them and read them at the place in the novel where Hugo intended them to be read. Interestingly enough, the online classics group in which I am a member is going to do a group read of Les Mis over the coarse of this year. For that read through, I am going to read Julie Rose’s translation, which appears, according to my research, to be a little more “letter of the law” in her translating, so not quite as flowing, but which includes extensive footnotes, which Denny’s version does not contain. Footnotes would be a great benefit in this novel, as Hugo was constantly making references to historical figures and events with which I am not familiar. I will come back here after reading that version and give a comparison of the two translations.
This is definitely not a book for everyone, at least not in the unabridged format. It is a wonderful story, and if you love the movie and musical and want to get to know the characters better, but do not want to get really vested in a great deal of history and philosophy, I strongly urge you to read the abridged version (gasp!...did I really just say that?!!). Hugo offers fabulous rewards, but I just do not know that everyone is willing to put up with what you have to put up with to mine for the diamonds. I loved every minute of the book, even his tangents, because the sheer beauty of the language and my fascination with all the history carried me through when he wandered down the mine shaft. Only you can know if you are willing to strap on a head lamp and go down that shaft as well.
I highlighted like crazy in this book, but here are just a few short passages (These are from Norman Denny’s translation/Penguin Classics):
“Darkness afflicts the soul. Mankind needs light. To be cut off from day is to know a shrinking of the heart. Where the eye sees darkness the spirit sees dismay.” (pg. 350)
“The sceptic clinging to a believer is something as elementary as the law of complementary colours...Grantaire, earthbound in doubt, loved to watch Enjolras soaring in the upper air of faith.” (pg. 565)
“A calm but passionate unknown, who seemed ready to take refuge in death, had sent to his absent beloved the secret of human destiny, the key to life and love. He had written with a foot in the tomb and a finger in the sky. The lines, falling haphazard on the paper, were like raindrops falling from a soul.” (pg. 806)
“Insurrection is a thing of the spirit, revolt is a thing of the stomach.” (pg. 889)
“What a sorry aim and sickly ambition it is merely to enjoy! The animal enjoys. To think, that is the real triumph of the spirit!” (pg. 1210)
“Are the duties of the historians of hearts and souls less exacting than those of the historians of external fact? Has Dante less to say than Machiavelli? Is the under side of civilization less important than the upper side because it is darker and goes deeper? Can one know the mountain without also knowing the cave?” (pg. 1217)