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Les Miserables () Top 100 Books of the Millenium

Our story begins, to my amazement (and consternation), some twenty years ago.  I was a sophomore at Colgate and, if memory serves (which is doubtful), it was a Monday night in February.  I and some fellow fraternity brothers adjourned to the basement for a long night of Television and a few frothy beverages.  To our chagrin, we found an elder Brother seated before the TV and a Hallmark Hall of Fame special about to begin.  None of us had ever heard of that night's special presentation--callow youths that we were, we had hoped for an episode of Solid Gold--but Joe Doggett, the sage who had staked a claim, told us to sit down and shut up.   We sat slack-jawed for the next two hours as Les Miserables, starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins, unfolded before us and claimed our rapt attention.  Suffice it to say, we were all amazed at this great story that we'd never even heard of, a story which by itself justifies the existence of France..  I ran out the next day to get the book, but was put off by its elephantine girth.

Flash forward a few years and the story had been turned into the much ballyhooed Musical--now everyone was reading it.  In fact, we had a beach house at the Jersey shore and Tim Dowling decided it was the perfect beach book.  He'd tote the thousand-plus-page tome down to the beach every day, read two pages and fall fast asleep.  But you see, that's the kind of book it is--the narrative is so long and digresses so often that it must certainly qualify as one of the most put-downable books of all time.  I finally did manage to mule through the whole thing, and buried within it is the great story we saw that night on television, but you've got to dig pretty deep to find it.

So, when it came time to review the book for the site, I admit I resorted to an abridged version.  The translation and abridgment is by James K. Robinson and I highly recommend it.  Gone are the endless pages on farming techniques and the like, along with the lengthy description of Waterloo, by the end of which you simply had no idea what was going on in the battle.  What remains is just the classic story of the convict Jean Valjean: his redemption;  his rise in society; his repeated flights from the relentless Inspector Javert;  his love for Cosette; and his Oedipal rivalry with young Marius for Cosette's affection.

Even if you don't know the story, you've encountered it before; most famously, the TV series The Fugitive borrowed freely from the plot, even down to naming the police pursuer Gerard.  I mentioned in my Man With the Golden Arm review the similarities that book shares with this one.  The one great weakness that they share is the over sympathetic view of the poor in general and criminals specifically.  But more instructive for our purposes are the differences.   Chief among these is that, whereas Algren and Richard Wright in Native Son (see Orrin's review) have the lower class milieu, the oppressive law enforcement and the manhunt down pat, only Hugo includes the element of redemption.  For all his reputation as a writer of the Left, there is something profoundly conservative in the arc of Jean Valjean's life.  First Monseigneur Bienvenu in saving Valjean makes it clear that he is performing, not simply a good deed but, a Christian act:

    Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  It is your soul that I buy from
    you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.

It's hard to imagine authors of the modern Left: writing favorably of a cleric; believing that men have souls; or, acknowledging that criminal behavior is evil.  Then, although his ill-gotten wealth gives him an obvious head start, Valjean is able to start a business and succeed largely on the basis of a new idea and the sweat of his brow.  Finally, Hugo presents a fairly non-materialistic view of the world and of human happiness.  Of course, it helps to have his wealth to fall back on, but Jean Valjean is not made happy by the worldly goods he gains through means both legal and extralegal, his true happiness comes when he experiences human love for the first time, with Cosette.   In fact, the heroic actions of the novel consistently require the actor to give up or endanger wealth and position in order to sacrifice for others.  Bienvenu, Javert and Valjean all have their moments of transcendence when they act completely selflessly.  For me at least, it is these moments that really make the book.  I can still recall the scene in the TV movie, lo those many years ago, when Valjean, risking discovery by Javert, lifts the horse cart off of a man who is being crushed.  Melodramatic sure, but isn't that what you want from a novel?


Grade: (A)


Victor Hugo Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Victor Hugo
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Victor Hugo’s forgotten masterpiece: Toilers of the Sea is exhilaratingly tempestuous (ANDREW DOYLE, 1/16/23, UnHerd)
    -ESSAY: Paul Lafargue on the Spectacle of Victor Hugo’s Funeral: “The most magnificent funeral of the century.” (Paul Lafargue, November 28, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Victor Hugo’s Masterpiece of Impossibility: In Les Misérables, competing vows reveal the paradox of grace. (Caitrin Keiper, AUGUST 30, 2022, Plough)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Victor Hugo (1802-1885)(kirjasto)
    -A Chronology of the Life and Times of Victor Hugo (University of Kentucky)
    -Victor Hugo    French Poet & Novelist    1802-1885 (Lucid Cafe)
    -Victor Hugo in Memorandum
    -Victor Hugo FanSpace
    -Victor-Marie Hugo (1802-1885)(Trevor Wideman)
    -Home of Victor Hugo (Napoleon Guide)
    -Victor Hugo Museum (Napoleon Guide)
    -VICTOR HUGO Writer (Who2)
    -Stuart FernieÕs "Les MisŽrables" web site
    -ESSAY: SUBLIME WINDBAG:  Writer, lover, national hero, Victor Hugo was also a brilliant draftsman of the unconscious (Robert Hughes, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Victor Hugo, Alas! : The nineteenth century's greatest poet. (Thomas M. Disch, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: VICTOR HUGO: THE DANGEROUS MASTER (Renee Winegarten, New Criterion)
    -ETEXT: Les Miserables (trans. Isabel F. Hapgood)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Les Misérables  by Victor Hugo (Daniel Maxwell, Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW: of VICTOR HUGO AND THE VISIONARY NOVEL. By Victor Brombert (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of VICTOR HUGO AND THE VISIONARY NOVEL By Victor Brombert (NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Frederick Brown: Et tu, Hugo, NY Review of Books
       Victor Hugo and the Visionary Novel by Victor Brombert
    -REVIEW: of VICTOR HUGO By Graham Robb (Peter France, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Simon Leys: Giant, NY Review of Books
       Victor Hugo: A Biography by Robb,Graham
       Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo by Ann Philbin and Florian Rodari , et al.

    -BUY IT: Les Miserables (1978) TV Version  VHS (Amazon)
    -INFO: TV Version (Imdb)
    -BUY IT: Les Miserables (1998) DVD (Amazon)
    -Official Site (Sony Films)

    -Official Site
    -REVIEW: Luc Sante: Jean Valjean, Superstar, NY Review of Books
       Les Misérables a musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg
    -ESSAY: Murray Kempton: Les Misérables in New York (NY Review of Books)
   -LYRICS: Les Miserables (Rare Lyrics)