Monday, May 11, 2009

Jim Tome-y: Eat Your Heart Out

#90 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

There's nothing brief about Hugo's massive novel.

I don’t think I properly understood the word “tome” until I read the unabridged version of Les Miserables. Previously adjectives like “humongous” or “gigantic” seemed sufficient in describing books over 800 pages. Now I can recognize the negative connotations that are associated with those terms. “Tome,” on the other hand, provides the correct dignity related to a masterpiece like Les Miserables.

Not surprisingly, Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel was written while the Frenchman vacationed abroad. I thought Tolkien knew imagery: Hugo throws nine kitchen sinks of compound modifiers into every description – clearly, the man had time to kill. Although sometimes a little too detailed, his novel excels because – among many other reasons – it is so comprehensive. After reading Les Miserables I feel as if I could navigate both Paris’ roadways and sewer system, discuss in-depth French history from the revolution through Napoleon to the mid-1800s, and even speak French (sorta).

Ironically, Hugo’s tome was involved in the “shortest correspondence in history” (whatever that means), according to Wikipedia.

"The shortest correspondence in history is between Hugo and his publisher Hurst & Blackett in 1862. It is said Hugo was on vacation when Les Misérables (which is over 1200 pages) was published. He telegraphed the single-character message '?' to his publisher, who replied with a single '!'."

Anyway, the life and crimes and repentances of Jean Valjean and his pals certainly deserves the lengthy time commitment needed to read the 1,200-page book. That does not mean that everything Hugo included was necessary. In high school, I read an abridged version and wondered what I was missing out on. The Kingsway Regional High School addition clocked in at 600 pages, what could the other 600 be about?

The answer to that question: interesting – but ultimately dispensable – background. The novel is divided into six volumes that possessed about 15 books. The books then are further broken down into chapters. Hugo’s flow is sometimes disrupted by the back-and-forth dynamic created by his layout and adherence to rigorous background. Book 5 would be a breathtaking romantic tryst between Marius and Cosette; Book 6 follows with a lengthy 50-page description on the history of a bell tower. The see-saw almost had the feel of a commercial break. The plot developed so seamlessly, you would not dare put the book down. The following exposition would bore you like Sunday afternoon at Aunt Betty’s house.

That complaint is essentially petty in comparison to all the remarkable aspects Hugo’s novel commands. Today, a qualified yet potentially harmful editor might have weeded out the heart and genius while trimming the expository fat.

Hugo’s attention to detail in characters astounds me; I’m certainly envious. Nearly every seemingly insignificant character has a climatic moment in the story – sometimes hundreds of pages or numerous years later. Gardeners, childhood enemies, and irrelevant backgrounders affect the central plot constantly. Every time Hugo reintroduces an esoteric character from page 278 shocks me like defibrillator. If Hugo took the time to give a character a name, then he was going to make sure that he or she was important. Otherwise, the character would be labeled simply as an attendant, innkeeper, or ukulele player (you’ll have to see for yourself if he’s in the book).

And all that is with the minor characters. 600-page essays have been written about each major player in the Les Miserables game. In lieu of that, I will provide an elementary explanation of each character. I am going to attempt to guess what each character symbolizes.

Jean Valjean (The Working Man) – An ex-convict who now lives a life of propriety, he constantly runs from the law. Every step forward he takes and every good deed he does is nearly always countered by a negative event in his life. He dies a beleaguered man frustrated by society yet ultimately pleased with the small but loving family he secures.

Cosette (Goodness) – An orphan girl cared for by Valjean who brings peace to all associated with her. Her love stings Valjean, though, when she succumbs to youthful temptation and falls for Marius. Although devoted to Valjean, she betrays him by neglecting him near his death.

Marius (Youth) – The grandson of a wealthy bourgeois, he rejects his wealthy upbringing upon discovering his father was a hero during the Napoleonic era. He devotes himself entirely to his passions (his deceased father, Cosette) in an almost pathetic manner; he always remains a good person, though.

Javert (Rigidness) – A police inspector who obsessively hunts for Valjean. His lack of a personal life balances with his strict adherence to all authority and regulation. Javert is my favorite character because of his almost entire lack of compassion.

Thenardier (Evil) – A con-man who takes Cosette in as an orphan, he plagues both the girl and Valjean throughout the book. He attempts to extort, murder, and defraud all he encounters.

While my review itself is not nearly as lengthy as Hugo’s work, it should provide at least a basic insight into why Les Miserables is so much more than a successful musical. The proper time needs to be dedicated to savor the 1,200-page masterpiece.
Up next, (#89) Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

No comments: