This is how I would describe my relationship with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have been working on this hefty volume since January and to make myself seem slightly less pathetic let me just say that I am usually reading at least 3 books at once. The lack of cable or television will do that to a person (the count is currently 5 books). However, I have been picking it up and putting it down so many times that here I am in August and still only to page 700 of 1400. Granted, when I put a book down I usually read one or two in-between so I am not exactly helping myself and, really, I just sound like a literary snob right now who prides herself in the amount of books she can read (only partially true). However, there is a rhyme and a reason why it’s taking me so long and why I haven’t “shelved” it just yet.
– The prose is beautiful. I am reading the Charles E. Wilbour translation which was published around the same time as the original French novel, as Wilbour was a contemporary of Hugo. I looked though other translations before making my purchase and, believe me, don’t go with any other. There is a difference. I also read unabridged and there are plenty of abridged titles out there of 1000+ page novels. Though they’ve never tried that with Gone With the Wind. I’m sure there would be an uproar if they did.
– Jean Valjean. Can this character get any more human? More flawed? More in need of forgiveness? Every time the story veers away from him I find myself shouting, “Get back to Valjean!” He’s complex and just a pleasure to follow.
– Setting. This seems like a given, but Hugo was not writing about the time period in which he lived per se, but before. So, doubtless he had done an exhaustive amount of research or used what he knew (since he was a genius) to place his characters in a time of conflict, 19th century France, and build a story around them. He blankets the novel with chapters upon chapters of history which is both it’s greatest strength and, story-wise, a great weakness). Too often, novels set in the past fail to totally immerse readers in the historical setting and expect them to be satisfied with only a few vague references.
– Tangents. He has so much knowledge and opinion that he feels the need to share it. He even states at one point that he knows his rant has nothing to do with the story, but he’s going to state it anyway! All right Hugo, time to get off your high horse. Either write a history book, a political manifesto, or a piece of fiction where, ideally, the characters speak for you.
– Female characters. I feel like Fantine and Cossette fall into archetypes. The fallen woman, the innocent and pure child. They are flawless victims of circumstance. Not to say that bad things do not happen to good people, but they’re very one-dimensional in the sense that we don’t see many character flaws. Granted, this is typical of the time period and even Dickens in all his glory was guilty of placing the “good” women in his stories on pedestals untouchable.
Anyway, I have a long ways to go and Hugo will not fail to impress, overall I am sure. Hopefully, I will keep plugging along and finish it before this year is over!