I read somewhere online last year that Les Misérables had 365 short chapters, so I decided at the beginning of April 2015 that I would read Hugo’s famous book at the rate of one chapter a day for the next year (though I did speed up a little bit in the last few days, thus why I’m finishing in just under a year).
I know not everybody would drag the reading of this book out that long but I found it a good experience several years back with War and Peace, which I blogged at the rate of a chapter a day for a year.
While reading a novel slowly drags it out, I find it lets you luxuriate in the detail of the writer’s prose. Otherwise, you’re in such a rush to get through to the story’s end that you can find you missed all sorts of jewels along the way.
And if that is the case like that with an author like Tolstoy, it’s even more the case with Victor Hugo. Like many Westerners, I first encountered the story of Les Misérables through the famous musical, which I had always found immensely moving. But I had always assumed, given the size of the Hugo book, that there must have been reams and reams of back story and peripheral characters that were cut.
And, look, there certainly are extended scenes and characters and background details in the novel. But, in many ways the musical has done a pretty good job of keeping the spine of the story. But what fills this book out, more than any peripheral characters (which is the thing that makes War and Peace so massive) is simply Hugo’s long side-tangents on all sorts of topics of interest to him that might only slightly touch upon the plot. For instance, he spends around 20 chapters (and remember, that’s nearly a month when you’re reading one chapter a day!) discussing the battle of Waterloo. From a story perspective, the only reason he’s even talking about Waterloo is because there is a minor subplot with Marius’ dad and Thenardier that features in the story. (And this is one of the subplots that got cut from the musical.) The scene with Marius’ father takes all of two pages to read. From a plot perspective, we really didn’t need a detailed drill-down into every detail of what happened at Waterloo.
So sometimes these side-tangents were really fascinating, but other times I got a bit lost, chiefly because they refer to very particular French characters and historical events, and I simply had no idea what he was talking about – I think I would need an annotated version to get my head around them all.
But that said, by the end I started to understand the tangents. I think it’s because Hugo is trying to touch on two major issues in the book – one of which is a universal theme and the other more particularly French. The universal theme is the idea of replacing hatred and judgmentalism with love and kindness. And that, of course, became the heart of the musical – the journey of Jean Valjean from being an angry convict to being a man with a massive heart and an extraordinary conscience. And that’s the story that grabs the reader. Valjean’s journey and his moral decisions, especially when Hugo is on fire, are majestic, stirring and moving. You read them and they encourage you to be a better person.
But the other theme that he deals with -which has been largely watered down in the musical – is the rift that occurred in French society after the French Revolution. There had been a revolution, the aristocracy had been overthrown, the people had triumphed. But then, when Napoleon turned out to be somewhat of a tyrant and was ultimately defeated, there was now a swing back the other way. So those who had overthrown the Establishment and the re-emerging Establishment are now living side-by-side in the vast sprawling city of Paris and they are still nursing many of their old grudges and hurts. It is this tension that explodes into the barricade sequence towards the end, but I understood it a lot more in light of what the book laid out.
Still, it is that particularly French part of the story that dates it and makes it difficult for non-French readers more than anything else. I’d be interested to know to what degree it becomes a difficult read for French readers nowadays as well as the historical background to the novel moves further and further away from us.
All in all, though, I’m glad I read it. There were passages that had me enthralled, moved me to tears, filled me with anger and spoke directly to my heart. How often do you get that from a book? This is rightly called a classic.