Yes, I’ve made it to the end of the readalong! I spent the entire year with Jean Valjean and co., from the battle of Waterloo to the sewers of Paris and beyond. I appreciated Victor Hugo’s vivid and poetic language, his wide-ranging imagination, and his sense of drama. I truly feel I’ve been living part of my life inside a book, and I’ll miss it now that the journey is over.
This is not a book for sober realists or prudent minimalists — it’s too full of coincidence and over-the-top emotion. But it contains much that is inwardly true, picturing the mysterious weaving of life and destiny in manifold, memorable pictures. Though I rolled my eyes a few times, especially at the absurdly starry-eyed love story, there were many more times that I found words to remember and repeat to myself.
I didn’t mind the digressions or the lengthy descriptions, which have often been edited out and abridged. Reading these at a slower pace helped me to experience them as a meaningful part of the whole narrative, not something to be skipped or rushed through to get to the real story. Waterloo was a bit of a slog, but I was surprised to find the famous barricade scenes were where my attention wandered most. I couldn’t keep all the doomed fighters straight, and all their death-and-glory histrionics seemed ridiculous and pointless, rather than noble and inspiring. This was where a modern sensibility got most in the way, for me anyway.
The story, as I’ve come to see it, is about the conflict between hardened, superficial morality (which is only another face of the crime that it opposes) and a real, living morality based on love and freedom. Jean Valjean’s life was transformed by the Bishop’s gift of love, which turned him from a killer to a giver of life, yet this transformation was never recognized by the crushing power of the state, nor even by his own family. In the very last few chapters the question is whether he can pass on this gift to the next generation before he dies. Will Marius and Cosette perceive him for who he really is? Will they be able to grow beyond the beautiful, entrancing, but limited circle of love that they experience only through each other?
I’m going to leave that question open — as Hugo does until almost the very end. I think it’s the question he means us to take away from the novel into our own lives.
I’d like to read this book again, though I think I’ll take less than a year to do it. The earlier chapters are quite dim to me now and it would be good to have the whole story arc better in my grasp. However, the experience of reading a chapter a day (more or less) was very interesting, and also something I’d like to try again.
Our host, Nick at One Catholic Life, is announcing the 2019 readalong. of four books whose chapters add up to 365: Don Quixote, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lilith, and The Old Curiosity Shop. (War and Peace is the only other book he knows of with just 365 chapters – I’d love to do that at some point, though not this year).
In 2019 I may join in for the second half of Don Quixote, which I need to finish. I’m interested in the others, too, but I think I need a year off from such a big commitment. What about you? Would you do a year-long read of one or more novels?