A period of my life has ended.
At the beginning of Christmas break, around the second week of December, I began reading Les Miserables (1862), preparing to see the film (based on the musical, based on the book) over the holidays. I finished reading it about half an hour ago. I spent almost three months getting through Victor Hugo’s 1222 pages.
I’m a person who snaps her fingers at Moby-Dick. I recently reread Anna Karenina without breaking a sweat. I don’t mean to brag. I’m just saying that reading is what I do, and I can do it fast. I read books instead of washing floors, grading papers, and, alas, exercising. I can’t sew or fix things or paint or solve quadratic equations. I can read.
So this three-month interval (notice I did not say slog) has humbled me. I read a couple of other books during this period, but Les Mis was always there, reproaching me from a living room table or crouching in my book bag, taunting me with all those pages, all those words. I counted them down. At one point, I told my husband with great satisfaction I had only five hundred pages to go. Then I realized what I had just said. After awhile, my husband commented he’d be so happy when my constant updates had ended.
The difficulty isn’t the length, per se. It’s the recurrent essays, apparent digressions that break up the story. Near the beginning, after the heart-rending death of Fantine, a section called “Cosette” begins. Not unreasonably, you expect to be reading about Fantine’s little daughter Cosette, but instead you confront 46 pages describing the Battle of Waterloo. Nevermind poor Napoleon–it almost broke my spirit, that section. Similarly, near the end, when Jean Valjean famously enters the sewers—just when you’re beginning to get page 1222 in your sights–there commences a 20-page discourse on the history and geography of the Paris sewers: directions, names of historical figures, windings and turnings, construction, Parisian streets unfamiliar to this American reader. Not to mention fetid rankness and noisome stenches.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s all worth it.
When you get to the good parts, they’re so very, very good that you’re glad you stuck with it. The relentless policeman Javert’s crisis near the end, for example, is a tour de force. In confronting ambiguity and paradox for the first time, Javert provides a parable for our polarized era. What? he says. Things are complicated? Morality is nuanced? His prey Jean Valjean is an impossible contradiction, a “beneficent malefactor.” A slave of simplistic rules, Javert can’t handle the complex truth.
But even in the taxing digressions, Hugo’s masterful writing eases the pain. “This madness, this terror, this falling to ruins of the highest bravery,” he writes of Waterloo, “which ever astonished history, can that be without cause? No. The shadow of an enormous right hand rests on Waterloo. It is the day of Destiny. A power above man controlled that day.” (From my translation by Charles E. Wilbour.) Hugo’s architectural, periodic sentences both flow and thrill.
Along the way, I admit to whining about Waterloo and the sewers. But throughout Les Miserables, I felt just as I was supposed to feel reading a book (or seeing a movie or listening to a symphony). I had placed myself in the hands of a great artist, with no need to second-guess or nit-pick or worry about loose ends. I trusted Victor Hugo’s genius and vision, and he proved me right, over and over again, straight to the bittersweet, exalted end.
I just read a masterpiece. Tell me about the last one you read (saw or heard)?