Les Miserables: The Final Chapters

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?


Words and Pictures: There were no men left

The racket was indescribable; trapped and burning smoke almost blanketed the fight in total darkness. No words can express horror at that pitch. There were no men left in that now infernal struggle. It was no longer a matter of giants versus colossi. It was more like something out of Milton and Dante than Homer. Fiends attacked, specters resisted.

It was the heroism of monsters.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), tr. Julie Rose
Image, Edouard Manet, The Barricade, found here

In my year-long chapter-a-day reading of Hugo’s novel, today’s chapter “Inch by Inch” (from which this quotation is taken) concerns the fall of the barricade defended by several of the novel’s main characters in a doomed 1832 insurrection.

Did Hugo know that this chapter would correspond to the today’s date, November 11, the day of St. Martin, a soldier who put down his arms to follow Christ? He didn’t know, of course, that today would mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, which created so much pointless bloodshed. But the horror of violence was much on his mind — along with the nobility of some who attempted to use it in a good cause.


Les Miserables: Nearly nine months in

I’ve been reading a chapter a day (on average) of Les Miserables for almost nine months now. In this quarter, the big new development has been the love story of Cosette and Marius. A prime example of the Idealized Romance in its most passionately unrealistic form, this reminded me of some psychological texts I’ve been reading lately which argue that the modern, western concept of romantic love is a deflection of what used to be found in religious practice and ritual. The beloved becomes a projection of the divine, an impossibly perfect vessel for all that the lover is longing for but cannot find in earthly life.

This is obviously unsustainable in reality, since we are in fact imperfect human beings, and the supreme spiritual activity of loving needs to fit itself to our fragile, limited natures. Fictional lovers often have a hard time understanding this, though, and tragedy often results.

The novel began with a portrait of a highly developed student of the spirit, the Bishop, whose gift of love to Jean Valjean set this long journey in motion. Now in the pair of young lovers, contrasted with the cruel, duplicitous Thenardiers, a new kind of love is challenged to come to maturity. How will their high ideals play out in a world full of evil, suffering, and death? That’s what I’m looking to find out in the next three months.

In the meantime, Hugo has provided us with some beautiful quotations about love (as translated by Julie Rose), which we can ponder as the story comes to a conclusion.

“God is behind all things, but all things hide God. Things are black, human beings opaque. To love someone is to make them transparent.”
“The future belongs even more to hearts than to minds. Loving is the only thing that can occupy and fill eternity. The infinite requires the inexhaustible.”
“Woe, alas! to whoever has loved only bodies, forms, appearances! Death will take everything from him. Try to love souls, and you will find them again.”

Les Miserables: The first six months

I’ve been reading Les Miserables for half a year now, and it’s been a very interesting experience. I fall behind a few chapters occasionally, but it’s not hard to catch up when the chapters are usually so short. At times it’s hard to stop when the action gets exciting, but I feel it’s a good practice to limit myself to one daily dose. The way Hugo shapes his chapters lends itself to this kind of reading. Each chapter is really a self-contained unit, and though they come in thematic or narrative streams at times, it feels right to give each one a whole day to experience and process it.

Some of the long philosophical or historical sections interrupt the flow of the narrative and stall the forward movement, making me impatient to know what happens next. I get a little weary of this sometimes, but not enough to stop reading.

In the story, after an exciting escape from the horrible Thenardiers, a dramatic chase by the fanatic Inspector Javert, and a brush with being buried alive, the convict Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette have managed to hide themselves away in a Paris convent. The perspective has now shifted with the third part, “Marius,” named after the new character who has just been introduced. He’s bringing in some new elements, and as they start to come together with those we know already, the final conflict is already being prepared.

It occurs to me that the year has now also turned with the summer solstice; after a time of up-building and growth we are moving toward darkness, toward a decisive confrontation with the evil that lurks in the human heart. But this also brings a chance to connect with the light that still shines within, if we have the courage to do so. Hugo’s massive novel mirrors this development, another reason it seems appropriate to read it over an entire year.

If you are reading along, how is it going? Or if you’ve read this book before, what was your experience? How did you feel at the halfway point?

Les Miserables: The first three months

As I proceed through the Chapter-a-day Readalong of Les Miserables, I thought it might be good to check in every quarter or so rather than leaving it all till the end of the year (when I might have forgotten all about what happened in January).

These months took us through the first part, “Fantine,” which spends a long time setting up the main characters and conflict of the novel. First there is a thorough exposition of a character who plays a very brief role in the actual story, but who provides its moral compass: the Bishop of Digne, a saintly man whose goodness Hugo has the difficult task of making both interesting and fully human. To my mind, he succeeds brilliantly, painting a loving portrait from many sides of a truly compassionate soul, who never seeks to beat anyone down with his faith, but fills himself with its warmth so that he can give of its abundance to others. Hugo was criticized by some for creating such a positive image of a churchman, but the Bishop is only incidentally a man of the church; his religion is humanity, and thus a true Christianity.

There were many beautiful quotations in this section; here’s one of my favorites:

“What more could an old man need when he divided whatever spare time his life allowed, he who had so little spare time, between gardening of a day and contemplation of a night? Surely this small enclosure, with the sky as a ceiling, was enough to enable him to worship God by regarding his loveliest works and His most sublime works, one by one? A little garden to amble about in, and infinite space to dream in. At his feet, whatever could be grown and gathered; over his head, whatever could be studied and meditated upon; a few flowers on the ground and all the stars in the sky.”

Then we go to the seeming opposite, a recently released convict who seems completely hardened in his evil and will stop at nothing to get revenge for his perceived wrongs. This is of course Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, who has a life-altering encounter with the Bishop and turns to a new path of helping others. But his past still pursues him in the form of Inspector Javert, who is so hardened in his righteousness that in him good turns to evil. He is the true opposite of the Bishop, rather than Valjean, who represents our human struggle between extremes. Brought together through the fate of the pathetic Fantine, who has been abandoned by her lover and fallen on hard times, the two come to a crisis in which Valjean’s hidden past comes to light and he has to flee again.

There the first part ends — and after this absorbing, dramatic and character-rich tale, we abruptly switch to an extended essay about the battle of Waterloo, the famous “digression” that Hugo completed at the very end of his work on the novel (just in time for part two to be published). I’m struggling with the descriptions of battlefields and military leaders and tactics, which make my eyes cross, though sometimes Hugo’s vision of this event as the turning point of the nineteenth century breaks through and I see something of its significance. Once we get back to the main story, which takes place 50 years later, I’ll be interested to see how Waterloo still continues to play a role.

Until this section, I had no problem reading my chapter a day, and was always eager to find out what happened next, to meet a new character, or to read some of Hugo’s evocative descriptions and rich meditations on human nature and society. Though I’m sorry I can’t read in the original French, I find the Julie Rose translation to be gorgeously written. I may try reading another translation at some point for comparison.

If you’re reading along, how’s it going? Or if you’ve read Les Miserables at some point in your life, what did you think? Any thoughts about different translations?