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 finishedÂ reading it about half an hour ago. I spent almost three months getting through Victor Hugoâ€™s 1222 pages.
Iâ€™m a person who snaps her fingers at Moby-Dick. I recently reread Anna Karenina without breaking a sweat. I donâ€™t mean to brag. Iâ€™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.Â I canâ€™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 heâ€™d be so happy when my constantÂ updates had ended.
The difficulty isnâ€™t the length, per se. Itâ€™s the recurrent essays, apparent digressions that break up the story. Near the beginning, after the heart-rending death of Fantine, a section called â€œCosetteâ€ begins. Not unreasonably, you expect to be reading about Fantineâ€™s little daughter Cosette, butÂ instead you confront 46 pages describing the Battle of Waterloo.Â Nevermind poor Napoleon–it almost broke my spirit, that section. Similarly, near the end, when Jean Valjean famously enters the sewersâ€”just when youâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s the thing, though. Itâ€™s all worth it.
When you get to the good parts, theyâ€™re so very, very good that youâ€™re glad you stuck with it. The relentless policeman Javertâ€™s crisis near the end, for example, is a tour de force. In confronting ambiguity and paradox for the first time,Â 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 â€œbeneficent malefactor.â€ A slave of simplistic rules, Javert canâ€™t handle the complex truth.
But even in the taxing digressions, Hugoâ€™s masterful writing eases the pain. â€œThis madness, this terror, this falling to ruins of the highest bravery,â€ he writes of Waterloo, â€œwhich 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.â€ (From my translation by Charles E. Wilbour.) Hugoâ€™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). IÂ had placed myselfÂ in the hands of a great artist, with no need to second-guess or nit-pick or worry about loose ends. IÂ trustedÂ Victor Hugo’s genius and vision, and he proved me right,Â over and over again, straight to the bittersweet, exalted end.
I just read a masterpiece. Tell me aboutÂ the last one you read (saw or heard)?
I enjoyed that review, Michael! It’s very fair and reasonable. I don’t agree with him about Russell Crowe, though. I thought he was in over his head.
I haven’t read the book or seen the film but I have read the review in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/10/miserables-review
The most fun was spending an hour or so reading the comments, all these really smart people having a go at each other. One comment used lowercase i for I and no punctuation so someone called Kurekamo quipped:
Here, you forgot these –
They all seemed to admire Peter Bradshaw, the film critic, because it was quite clear he didn’t like the book or the musical but he still managed to give an objective review of the film.
You can borrow mine! I won’t be using it for awhile!
I have been thinking about reading Les Mis because I love the story at least as much as I know via the musical. You’ve given me the courage to tackle it… I think I’ll need to get my own copy though, because I think it’ll take me a good while!!