Les Miserables--Volume 1: Book 1--5

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Les Miserables--Volume 1: Book 1--5

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Editado: Fev 2, 2011, 11:22 am

O.K., I'm going to start a thread on the second book we chose for this quarter. I'm overlapping with posts on The Way We Live Now but it's necessary since both novels are huge!

I'm reading the Lascelles Wraxall translation (the first English translation in Britain) because I already have it in the Hertiage Press edition and the illustrations by Lynd Ward are totally cool!

Some thoughts on the opening chapters of this novel:

I've not read any Hugo before so my initial impression to his style is mixed. He is a first-rate story teller, but he has a "preachy" side that is sometimes better left unsaid for greater impact with reader. Example: When Cossett is left by her mother with the awful Thernadier family, Hugo has to tell readers that a famous thief of the day was abandoned at age 5 and thus began his depraved life of crime.
Therefore this is a bad thing!

Another unique feature of style is Hugo's tendency to digress into the famous and popular figures (celebrities) of the day, what they are doing, and I suppose, what this says about French popular culture of the early 19th century. Ex. in Book 2, chapter 1 we learn all about France in 1817. It's fine to set the scene, but do we need to know that Chateaubriand "cleans his teeth, which were spelndid while dictating "The Monarchy" to M. Pilorge, his secretary". There a lot more of this sort digression which can be a blessing to a hurried reader when said reader learns to spot the digressions and then skims on to the story.

On the plus side is Hugo's wonderful depiction of moral dilemmas and ethical choices. Ex. Monseigneur Welcome (Myriel) devotes his life to helping the poor to extreme extent, at last has to face his worst temptation: hatred of a revolutionary responsible for the wreckage of Myriel's life. A sensitive reader following this situation might ask herself, "What would I do?" I think these type's of literary set-ups are brilliant and Hugo is masterful (so far) in bringing it off!

The opening chapters introduce many character who will evidently prove to be major characters. Among them Jean Valjean, Fantine and Cossette. Readers who haven't read the novel (me, for example) have heard about Jean Valjean (19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for starving children) and maybe Cossette (pitiful little girl with broom) so their stories are familiar. Let's just say, Hugo hits the ground running with the theme of how badly people treat each other. (Hugo says "society" is to blame) and on the other end of the scale, how self-sacrificing and heroic people can also be! (Myriel) This tension of human nature (heroes and monsters) seems to be the way Hugo is going to tell his story. Will heroes always be heroic? Will monsters always be monstrous? Is there some good and some bad in all of us? Can we change? (Indication that Jean Valjean changes in the opening chapters after his encounter with Myriel is pretty conclusive .)

Another thought. I read that Les Miserables (published in 1862) became a run-away best seller in America with the Confederate Army. (They called the novel Lee's Miserables--in reference to Robert E. Lee, Chief of the Confederate Army). As an American born in the "South", I am greatly curious to discover, if possible, the appeal of Hugo's French men and women to mid-19th century Americans in crisis. Could his writing bridge such different cultures so effectively? Is Hugo that good?

Hope I have some reading partners for this journey. Definitely a good book and worth the time spent on it!

Fev 21, 2011, 2:27 am

Hi s4sando!

Yeah, finally I'll have the time to start with "Les Misérables"! I'll try to hurry up a bit, so that I can contribute something to the discussion!!

Fev 21, 2011, 12:44 pm

Hi PersophonesLibrary
No hurry. Hope you enjoy this novel. My only negative thought about Hugo at this point is his tendency to present almost impossible situations (e.g. Jean Valjean's rescue of the sailor dangling from the yardarm, JeanValjean's spider-climb up a sheer wall). I find myself trying to imagine these feats---usually without success. This is a minor point. Overall Hugo's novel is thought-provoking and worth-while.

Fev 24, 2011, 2:39 pm

I've been a bit slow in getting into this one (digressions, digressions ) but i'm enjoying it so far.

S4sandro, i agree that Hugo's prose can be a bit heavy-handed at times. My favouite chapter was also the most subtle i thought - the bishop's meeting with the reclusive Conventionist.

Editado: Fev 25, 2011, 8:32 am

This section really nailed me!! I keep thinking about it even though the novel has moved on. The thing that got me was that the bishop may have realized that the only thing left in his life that was dragging him down was the hatred he felt (inner, secret, hidden hatred) of the people (those of the Revolution) that caused the suffering, exile and ruin of his life. He faces this hatred. He listens silently to the justifications of the dying Conventionist. He holds his tongue although this must have been excruciating! He makes the SUPREME effort and succeeds in asking forgiveness of his worst enemy. It is an act of expiation---a theme that keeps coming up again and again in this novel. The Convenionist dies before indicating any response either positive or negative of the bishop's request. We don't know the outcome. We do know the bishop was successful in conquering his hatred. Could I have done this? Could anyone ever do this?

I am glad you are reading Les Mis. It is a much better book than I thought it would be. Like you, I was irritated with the digressions at first, but now I'm reading them anyway because Hugo's mind is so interesting! I assume you are reading an unabridged edition with ALL the digressions!

What do you think about Hugo's "take" on "society"? Sometimes he seems to think it glorious e.g. when M. Madeline/Jean Valjean revives the town of M___and life is wonderful! At other times he seems to see it as only workable if we have slave galleys, unchallenged households of abusive character (the Thenardiers), a sadistic Church structure, and a Law system based on unfairness and cruelty. I would be interested in you thoughts on Hugo's portrayal.

Fev 28, 2011, 4:16 pm

Yes, i'm reading an unabridged version. I went for the recent translation by Julie Rose. I don't know how it compares with other translations but i'm happy with it.

I think Hugo is very good at documenting both the good and bad in society and, especially, how these affect the people who experience them. For example, prison turns Jean into a bitter person but the Bishop's kindness influences him to choose a benevolent path in life despite all his previous suffering. These social effects will probably be a prominent motif in the novel - just don't bash us over the head with them please, Victor!

Editado: Mar 4, 2011, 1:12 pm

Here is a little article about the Rose translation, as well as others, by noted francophile Graham Robb:


Can't get too obsessed with translations though. This was such a great read, nice synopses s4sando!

>3 suaby:
Some of the characters are super-hero types. I find Hugo reads like a literary graphic novel, like the ones I would read when I was a kid, not the highbrow ones that are coming out nowadays. Gilliatt does some impossible things in Toilers, yet I wouldn't want Hugo not to be making his characters do those things (it even seems a sort of necessity for his writing ego), and though these acts are not often credible, I get so swept up by the force of Hugo's narrative and ideas, it somehow seems natural and even compliments the prose experience Hugo has created. Quasimodo does some physically impossible things as well, when he launches his attack from the top of the cathedral.

*I do like (or better, admire) Wilbour's translation of the sewer chapters, in part because he uses the word cloaca.

Sometimes the sewer of Paris took it into its head to overflow, as if that unappreciated Nile were suddenly seized with wrath. There were infamous to relate inundations from the sewer. At intervals this stomach of civilization digested badly, the cloaca flowed back into the city's throat and Paris had the aftertaste of its slime. These resemblances of the sewer to remorse had some good in them; they were warnings very badly received, however; the city was indignant that its mire should have so much audacity, and did not countenance the return of the ordure.

Mar 3, 2011, 4:14 pm

Thanks for the note. I appreciate your thoughts on Hugo's tendency to create Superhero-type heroes.

One of the things I hoped to learn from my first reading of Les Mis is why this novel was so popular with the population in the American South during the Civil War---especially with the Confederate Army. So far my only clue has been the "superhero" characters of the story. Have you (or others who may be reading this) come across any possible reasons for the popularity?

P.S. Loved your description of the Paris sewers!! Great metaphors!

Editado: Mar 3, 2011, 4:47 pm

Oh no, those are Hugo's description, forgot to use quotes.

I hadn't heard it was poplular in America during the civil war, that's very interesting! I will try to figure this out for you if I can.

If you get the Hugo bug, I recommend Toilers of the Sea, and The Man Who Laughs. I've only Ninety-Three left now unfortunately. I mean there's lots of other works, but not like these. I do have a copies of Hans of Iceland and Bug-Jargal on ice and am interested to see how they compare to Huchback and his later works.

Check out Hauteville House (most of the furnishings are Hugo's), where VH wrote most of the novels he's best know for, it's quite a beautiful place to be exiled!

http://www.flickr.com/photos/25977589@N07/4370617683/in/photostream/ (these are not my photos)

Mar 4, 2011, 8:41 am

Fantastic! I had no idea Hugo's house was that splendid! Thanks for sending the photos. Also thanks for mentioning some of Hugo's lesser known works. I go on book hunts almost weekly and have added these to my list.

Mar 4, 2011, 4:35 pm

I LOVE YOU!! Thank you so much for the fascinating links you so kindly sent me. This will keep me busy for some time. The first reference to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, I remember from the time I first read the novel. Even then I was mystified as to why Southerners would relate to the story and characters of Les Miserables. The best answer, I think, was in one of your links citing the book The Popular Book which I hope to read. References to popularity of Les Miserables (both in the North and South) seem to center on "escape" literature of great length (similar to Eugene Sue and Charles Dickens), battles and conflicts (Waterloo and the baricades of Paris) and some kind of odd notion that the novel involved "refugees". Then there is the first word in the title: Les, which people evidently associated with Robert E. Lee!

Again, thank you for taking the time to find and send me this wonderful information!

Mar 7, 2011, 9:38 am

My pleasure. There are probably some interesting journal articles, but sadly, I have no more college level access to databases. I almost regret leaving my part-time job at the college library I used to work at, but one twelve, and two fourteen hour days a week, was pretty tedious (I worked a full and part time together). I've made friends with someone who works there and she has kindly offered to get an article or two, if I email her. But I restrain myself quite a bit more. It would be great if jstor had a feasible pricing plan for individual consumers.

Mar 24, 2011, 7:44 pm

I am pretty late here, but I would like to join in on this read. This is my daughter's favorite book. I have only read the abridged version and can't recall any of it. A group read is just what I need.

Maio 2, 2011, 3:15 pm

I am still reading slowly, but not because the book is not good. What a great story! I was wondering when Fantine would come into the picture, and when she did the story moved quickly. There are lots of great characters in this book, too.