Les Misérables. Five sections. Multiple books within those sections. And I don't know how many chapters within those. All amounting to 1,463 pages. And I read every last one of them! Of course it took me about six months, but I did it.
Hugo created a vast panorama of early 19th century France. At the heart of the story is Jean Valjean who at the beginning of the novel is a twice convicted thief, but by the end finds redemption (to put it all very simply). How do I even begin telling you about this story? It's so epic in nature, I'm not sure I am up to the task (certainly not right after turning the last page and needing it to settle a bit).
I think what is going to remain with me longest is the story of Jean Valjean and Cosette, the little orphan who is entrusted to him. Then there is Javert the police inspector who relentlessly pursues him. There are the Thenardier's who represent all that is base and immoral in society. There is Marius who is struggling with demons of his own, who will fall in love with Cosette when she grows up. And an array of others who come into and out of the story as it progresses.
Against the story of Jean Valjean and all those characters major and minor who orbit around him, Hugo tells us about France at this time in great detail. It's fairly to easy to tell his politics and he strongly indicts segments of French society that he sees as failing. He writes of history and society, war, religion and class. And there is the universal theme of good vs. evil running through the story as well. This is not a book that I think you can read once and take in completely. At least I don't think I can or did.
For all my dragging of feet while I was reading (and I did drag my feet at times), this really is a masterpiece. I think I might have appreciated it more had I known a bit more about the history and politics of France at this time. Hugo goes back in history quite often as well, referencing Classical figures and I'm not sure I got all the significant meaning. I admit I was lazy about looking up names and events to learn more about them. Probably a criticism often offered by readers of this novel is his tendency to veer off the main plot and write in great detail about a subject that only seems peripherally important to the action of the story. Even Lee Fahnestock, the translator, said in his introduction,
"Reading Les Misérables today, nobody would deny that Victor Hugo's prodigious flow of words occasionally produces moments of excess, when we might wish he had shown more restraint."
Oh, yeah, restraint. There were moments I had wished that. He goes into great detail about the Battle of Waterloo, about Parisian slang, about the history of sewers (yes, Jean Valjean did escape through the sewers of Paris--something I was looking forward to and thought I had mixed up books and wasn't going to get to read about!), about French Convents and a multitude of other subjects. There were moments when it felt just the tiniest bit excruciating (and the narrator of the story would at times admit he was going to digress). Of course now that I am finished I can see where those digressions are necessary for the broader themes Hugo was writing about.
So this is all very brief and I've not really told you much, have I? It's deserving of a proper, thoughtful post, and I may eventually write one. I wouldn't mind looking for some criticism now that I've finished. I will share something that I found interesting that I read in the introduction. Hugo published this in 1862. He had been living in exile from the empire of Napoleon III on the Island of Guernsey.
"When he began writing it in 1845, the Romantic traditions of intense sentiment and crusading idealism were prevalent. Francois-René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac were the literary leaders. By the time Les Misérables appeared almost twenty years later, however, the despair of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and the rich decadence of Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal were already part of the literary climate. A new group, the Realists, objected to what they saw as Hugo's excesses of sentiment and rhetoric, and disparaged the poetic and humanitarian idealism that interfered with the credibility of his scenes."
I am always interested in reading about how a book fits into the literary period that it was written. Despite any literary criticism of the time, it was an instant success with readers, and Hugo has managed to endure and has been cited by many other authors as being an influence.
And despite my occasional whiny posts, I'm glad I read Les Misérables. All 1,463 pages. If I was going to give any advice to someone who wants to read it--expect that it is going to take some time, but perhaps devote a bit more daily reading hours to it than I did. I think dragging it out as I did made it feel even more epic than it was. Some books just deserve more attention than others, and I think this is one of them.
Now I guess I need to see the musical? I'll certainly know all the back story, won't I?!