Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Les Miserables

I am very proud to be able to say that I have read the entire, unabridged version of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  In my experience reading "classic" literature, there are some novels that I can read easily and some that require a bit more discipline.  For me, they are more like projects than pleasure reading.  This is not to say that they are not enjoyable, for these novels typically have more depth and I am always grateful to have taken the time to work my way through them.  Yet although I had read lengthy novels like The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, I had never met the likes of Les Miserables.  The edition I used was broken up into two separate volumes, with tiny print and hundreds of pages each.  For my "free time" reading, this would prove to take some time.

I was first inspired to read Les Miserables after watching the play in London.  My immediate reaction at the end of the show was, "I would love this book!"  There is such an incredibly epic feel to the story, and I love the way in which all the characters weave among one another in their subplots.  For me, this characterization was equally evident in the novel as it was on stage.  Hugo builds so many interesting, multidimensional characters, and I can connect strongly with many of them.  For example, I love Jean Valjean.  Of course I would.  He is, after all, another "uncriminalized criminal," and those characters always grab me.  On the other hand, I was fascinated by Javert, which is a bit ironic.  In a way, I should have disliked him because he was Valjean's enemy and pursued his capture until the very end.  Yet in Javert's final chapter, I was absolutely captivated by his train of thought and inner struggle, and I could feel the torment within his soul deeply.  When he committed suicide, I let out a strange combination of a sigh/gasp because I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and pain in the scene.  I also fell in love with M. Myriel at the very beginning.  Although his character may have been a little too good to be true, I believed it in the story.

However, I had a lot of trouble connecting with Marius and Cosette, which is a problem since their love story is designed to tug at my heart strings as the reader.  I don't know if I'm too cynical or too modern, but I wasn't able to appreciate the high romance that Hugo describes.  At times, I snorted at the overly passionate descriptions of tiny, insignificant interactions rather than sighing at the beauty Hugo attempted to create.  I think I was also turned off by their young age, doubting that two people so young could genuinely fall in love with as little interaction as they had.  I also felt some of my feminist defenses kick in as I read Hugo's conception of what makes a woman beautiful.  Cosette was poised to embody beauty, and her shining qualities were her submissiveness, her delicacy, her fragility, and her innocence.  I don't think I would use one of those words to describe myself.

As you can imagine, with a book this big, I have a lot to say, and I would be happy to share more.  However, I will do my best to keep my blog shorter than Hugo's novel and limit myself to just a few more points.    Although some moments made me snort, others truly did make me sigh.  There are times that his descriptions are breathtaking, and I feel like I can see, smell, and hear everything in the scene.  He also makes a lot of philosophical statements and observations, defining what he believes love, happiness, courage, honor, and other ideal virtues are.  Clearly, Hugo took his time with this novel and carefully pieced together every word.  Yes, his tangents can be ridiculously long, like the lengthy history of the Battle of Waterloo and the extremely detailed depiction of the sewers of Paris.  But overall, I enjoyed the novel, and it kept my attention.  It is truly a masterpiece, a work of art - destined to be a "classic."  I am very glad I read the whole thing, but this is one I confess I won't be rereading any time soon.  :)


bekkah said...

I loved reading Les Mis. I agree that it was drawn out at times, but it still managed to make it onto my top 10 list of all time :) Now, Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame...THAT was a chore for me to get through. Very disappointed in that one.

Amy said...

Thanks for the tip! haha, i'll avoid that one for a while :)

Sarah said...

Thank you for sharing your review! I know someday I'll get through it... I know I am destined to read it entirely, but the time will have to be right to finish. I am partway into Book 3: Marius... I should pick up a newer version and compare it to the 1800's translation I am reading and see if there are many outright differences!