Well, I am on page 1226 of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. With some effort, I will finish this just over the six month mark. I know I began it in 2023, in the wonderful Penguin Classics paperback translated, unabridged version. On this blog in March, I remarked I was a 1/3rd through.
What to say of this sprawling masterpiece? On one level, that begs the question, what is a masterpiece?
An Intimate Epic:
I feel like I’ve met Victor Hugo while also reading a vivid saga. I’ve lived with Hugo at times, as a house guest. Sometimes it’s been my house, sometimes his mind. I’ve heard his detailed thoughts on living and the French Revolution, on 19th century progress, on what makes him shudder and chuckle, of mistaken customs and some worth not throwing away, and all in a novel that ranges in essence from the French Revolution of 1789 to the publication of this book in 1862. Of course, the story of Les Miserables occurs in medias res of these bookends. At the same time, Hugo himself as the narrator is providing his up-to-date thoughts; he himself is just as palpable as Jean Valjean and the more lucky Cosette, two characters.
Jean Valjean makes his luck, doesn’t he? He does this through strength of will, strength of character, and as Victor Hugo clearly pens it, by doing god’s work on earth. What is that? Well in the middle of the novel, Jean Valjean has a choice to remain a small-town mayor and live out his life to a comfortable old age, or reveal to the police they have mistaken some hobo for him and will condemn that hobo to a life in prison. Valjean paces and paces in his modest grotto, and then speechlessly journeys to the trial and reveals his identity and so saves this unknown decrepit person who does not even understand what’s happening.
As Hugo says on p. 1186 of the Penguin Classics version, “God, always within man and, being the true conscience, defying the false, forbidding the spark to die out, commanding the ray to remember the sun, directing the soul to recognize the real absolute, inalienable humanity, unallowable human feeling, that splendid phenomenon, perhaps the finest of all our inner marvels – did Javert understand this?”
It’s doing the right thing: not easy sometimes to see, not easy sometimes to feel, and not easy sometimes to accept. That detailed scene of pacing alone, such a masterpiece!
Well, I just finished Jean Valjean’s trudge through the sewers after the barricade falls with the wounded Marius, to save Marius, and finished the famous final scene of Inspector Javert who plunges into the river when he cannot reconcile his worldview with this heroic kindness – as he sees it – by a former criminal, Valjean. Of course, to get this far, I have read Hugo’s recounting of the Battle of Waterloo, a history of a convent, Hugo’s revolutionary and political philosophy, and I must admit, skimmed the history of the Paris sewage system. On p. 1219, he pokes fun at the modern marriage ceremony at hotels, and offers a sharp insight on why it’s best as a family affair, in a family home. There’s the novel plot too.
All in all, Les Miserables is not an ordinary novel of a tale told. The 40 or so page Waterloo reenactment is fascinating. After 40 so pages on the extreme yet earnest convent, Jean Valjean enters it to hide. He enters it and its history.
In 1862 when Hugo published this novel from exile, he was absolutely speaking to the French people who had lived through the events of this novel, and whose elders if still alive lived through how it all started; Hugo’s framing, explaining, lamenting, sympathizing, detailing. In the end, he’s against misery and poverty and for humanistic progress and a spiritual basis for living well.
In between, I’ve also read Barbara Kingslover’s wowing Poisonwood Bible, Tara Ison’s macabre and hilarious short stories in Ball, started Philip Levine’s bitter, mind-blowing New Selected Poems (1991), and finished Vermont poet Diana Whitney’s granular, charged Wanting It.
Soon, Hugo will land on a shelf. When that happens, I will miss it, admire it, and will embody and carry some of it onward.
G. H. Mosson