Les Miserables (Hugo)

Just to be clear, I read what Signet claims to be “the only complete and unabridged paperback edition.” At 1,463 pages, this was a hefty one to carry around. So what first comes to mind are the digressions, similar to the ones in Moby Dick and kind of akin to the chapters in The Grapes of Wrath. I’m sure there’s a term for these, but I don’t know what it is. These sections were what stopped me in my tracks the first time I tried this book. But this time, I got through them, and even enjoyed a few (Battle of Waterloo, the section on language). Hugo seemed to know to slim them down as the plot progressed, though the aside on getting killed in quicksand and sewer collapses lasts for 4 pages, and the trouble Valjean faces in the sewers itself only lasts for a few paragraphs.

The other challenge is that the plot is now so familiar. I’ve seen the musical twice and the new movie once. (I’ve been told to rent the Laughton version.) Despite my familiarity, I found Hugo’s development of character, history, and social commentary to be incredibly compelling. This book is an epic, not only in terms of its scale, but also its ambition. Hugo needed a big canvas to tell his story. Were there a few moments that the plot bogged down? Sure. Marius and Cosette seemed to take forever to connect. That was the hardest section to get through. But Valjean’s death scene, as much as it was expected, still brought out the tears.

I was struck by how Cosette is the face of the musical, but really is one of the more shallow characters. She just comes across as silly. I know the waif-ish thing plays well, but it’s not her story. For me, it’s the story of Valjean and Javert. And there’s much more humanity in Hugo’s Javert than there is in either the stage or screen versions.

So, I will read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Just not right away.

“[T]here is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les miserables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest?”

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