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Les Miserables

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo, Julie Rose, George Guidall Oh. Hugo. Damn you are wordy!

I mean, Charles Dickens can go on, but read Victor Hugo and you will come to appreciate Chuck's brevity.

Such being the case, and a convent having happened to be on our road, it has been our duty to enter it. Why? Because the convent, which is common to the Orient as well as to the Occident, to antiquity as well as to modern times, to paganism, to Buddhism, to Mahometanism, as well as to Christianity, is one of the optical apparatuses applied by man to the Infinite.

This is not the place for enlarging disproportionately on certain ideas; nevertheless, while absolutely maintaining our reserves, our restrictions, and even our indignations, we must say that every time we encounter man in the Infinite, either well or ill understood, we feel ourselves overpowered with respect. There is, in the synagogue, in the mosque, in the pagoda, in the wigwam, a hideous side which we execrate, and a sublime side, which we adore. What a contemplation for the mind, and what endless food for thought, is the reverberation of God upon the human wall!

So that part above where Hugo says "This is not the place for enlarging disproportionately on certain ideas"? He will go on to enlarge disproportionately on certain ideas for several chapters, because a convent happens to be on our road.

I mean, seriously, a disquisition on monasticism, and a history of the Parisian sewers, in the middle of chase scenes.

So, I finally finished this monster. I listened to it on CD. 60 hours, and I think I checked it out about eight times from the library because I just could not keep listening to it day after day. Hence it took me over six months to finish it. I think I need to throw myself a party or something for getting through it.

I know, you are recoiling in horror. Only 3 stars? For one of the greatest works in the history of literature?

Look, I rate things on two factors: how "objectively" good I think they are, and how much I enjoyed them.

Now, I can sink into a big, long, wordy book. And I was actually hoping to like this one more, because I loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which a lot of people also think is wordy and dry. And which also meanders away from the plot for entire chapters for Hugo to show off his research and ramble.

But Les Mis... just did not connect with me for all that it is an epic tale of human pettiness, nobility, compassion, foolishness, spite, bravado, love, tragedy, and every other human emotion, virtuous and base, on display. Possibly because at times I felt like the characters were too much puppets who were there to act out Victor Hugo's themes, not enough actual flesh and blood people. And somehow, the wry, ironic humor I found in Notre Dame de Paris was missing in Les Miserables.

I will not bother to summarize the plot. Surely you've seen at least one of the umpteen film adaptations, if not the musical.

The plot, after all, contrary to what so many people who haven't actually read the book think, is not about the French Revolution (either of them). No, it's about a minor student uprising that was crushed futilely. Marius and his friends were the Occupy protesters of 1830s France, and did about as much good.

Oh, but it's about so much more. It's about the power of the state, and the meaning of family, and whether men can change or are fixed in their natures. You cannot help but be moved by Jean Valjean's arc, and by Inspector Javert, a man so remorselessly, unbendingly straight that he literally cannot conceive of there being more than one correct action in any situation — this inability being ultimately the cause of his death. Forced to choose between justice and the law, which have been one and the same to him his entire life, his mind breaks.

The deaths of Éponine and Gavroche (who provided the only spot of humor in the book) were also genuinely tragic, the denouement of genuinely tragic lives, even more so than tragically disposable Fantine in the first part of the book.

So yes, there were parts that moved me.

And yet. And yet.

Jean Valjean was a plot puppet. Javert more so — he illustrated a moral principle more than a human soul. And dear god did I get tired of Hugo waxing on about beautiful, innocent, pure, perfect, virginal, indefatigable, sunny, delightful, naive, precious blessed little lamb Cosette. I mean, the kid spent the first few years of her life as a house-elf for the Thénardiers. It's gonna take more than a nunnery to undo all that.

Hugo was a genius with a social conscience. Of his own book he said:

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

And from the misery of the Cour de miracles slum to the brave futility of the anti-monarchist uprising to the brutal grinding wheels of justice that turned a man into a lifelong felon for stealing a loaf of bread, Hugo hammers his themes eloquently and grandly.

But. Gads did it grind on. And so... I'm sorry. 3 stars. Definitely a book everyone should read before they die. But for me, once was enough.