November 21, 2012

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Thoughts

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les miserablesI don’t think my hands will ever be the same. I have shooting pains in them from holding this sucker open. Recovery will be a long process.

I honestly didn’t know much about Les Miserables before I started reading it. I knew it was about poor French people and that everyone was miserable (it’s not called Les Happypants). Les Miserables is Jean Valjean’s story of redemption and his struggles to stay on the righteous path, no matter how difficult that may be. Jean Valjean is a convict, freed from prison after 19 years for stealing bread. Society is not very forgiving and he’s not too fond of society either. He meets a priest, a saint really, who has such faith in Jean Valjean that he changes his whole worldview. Jean becomes a better man but the police officer Javert only sees a convict and spends the whole novel chasing Jean around.

I don’t know if that sums up a 1400+ book but that’s the gist of it. A lot of people die in this book- A LOT. Don’t get too attached. Again, read the title.

What I loved about the book was how Hugo was able to show the inner struggles of all the characters, especially Jean Valjean. If ever there was a guy with a reason to go on a rampage, it was him. I’m not sure if he ever had a happy moment. Life was always kicking him in the balls. Jean Valjean is such a complicated character and I loved him to pieces. He could not be the man he is without Javert, his nemesis, or Cosette, his ward. Would Jean have kept running if not for Cosette? Probably not. (Click the links for my personal feelings on Jean Valjean and Cosette.)

What I didn’t like was how Hugo would build tension and get the plot really cooking only to go on about Waterloo or Paris sewers for 10 chapters. It was as if he had done this research and just had to jam it in there somewhere. Perhaps he could have just saved that for a dinner party. “Howdy stranger, come sit next to me so that I can tell you all I know about French convents.” Anyway I’m sure some troll will come along and tell me what an idiot I am for not appreciating The Ancient History of the Sewer which, I shit you not, was a chapter in this book. Troll along, troll.

However, Les Miserables is a beautiful story with lots of action and emotion. I can see why it became a musical. When people are overcome with emotion, they just gotta siiiiiiiing!

I feel like I should say more about a book that took me 5 months to read. Really, what else is there to say about it? It’s Les Miserables! You just have to read it.

24 comments :

  1. Hm, I'm not sure I'm ready for the book but I was thinking of seeing the movie - now I'm wondering about it.

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    1. I'm sure the movie will be excellent, so many great actors in it.

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  2. I did read it, and I loved it. All of it. Couldn't get enough. Even the stuff about Waterloo and the history of the sewers. It's a wildly over-written book that could easily stand the removal of 100's of pages, but I wouldn't want anyone to take out a single word.

    For me part of the satisfaction of reading Les Miserables was reading 1400 pages. It's almost a physical feat.

    I think one reason why those of us who make it through the entire thing remember the experience so well has to do with the effort that goes into reading it.

    But I don't want anyone to think I found the book an 'effort.' It's really a page turner. As hard as it is to hold such a heavy book, it's just as hard to put it down.

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    1. I do feel that it was an accomplishment!

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  3. Yes, I agree about Hugo's tangents. A good editor could have whittled away about 1000 pages and still left a damn fine read. I sometimes felt that Hugo was insecure with the plot, to distract from the melodrama, he thought he'd balance it out with some educational stuff. Just a theory.

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    1. You might be onto something. It does get rather soapy at times.

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  4. I'm impressed. I took five months read this book as well and started to write a number of posts but just couldn't. I think I probably still have them drafted somewhere and I should just delete them out. I had to laugh about the dinner party--I'm not sure Hugo's listeners would have been too happy to hear about the Sewers either. Ha!

    I can't wait to read this book again...but next time I'll read the abridged copy. It's just such a beautiful story and one that I was constantly so excited about (despite knowing how it unfolds from having seen the musical).

    Congrats on finishing!

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    1. You should write something just to say "I did it!" I didn't have a lot to say about it. It's an overwhelming story.

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  5. Is this the post on which you had a troll comment? I know you said it was on a post about a book with a dead author ;-)

    I think a LOT of books written in the 1700s and 1800s were way too long. My theory is that this is because they were serialized and perhaps had to continually remind people about what happened before, but I also think it's (on a more philosophical level) about the way people just had more time to do random stuff before and were ok with a meandering story whereas now in the age of text and email and clocks, we want people to get to the point a lot faster.

    I feel the pain of your hands, as I did A Suitable Boy this year and it was much the same!

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    1. Ha! No, that was an earlier review. I get them occasionally out of the blue.

      I think we are a lot less patient these days. Any author who'd write chapters on sewers in a novel these days would be laughed at by an editor.

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  6. Ah! One of the things I find most frustrating in some books is the way in which authors do a lot of research and then try and put it all in the book - because they did the research so they might as well. I think Jean M Auel ruined the Earth Children series doing this (as a side note). This is one of those books I have always been too scared to read because of the size and the content. I hope that one day Ill be brave enough, but we'll see :-)

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  7. I think I'll watch the movie. ;) There's a part of me that's like, Hey, if he wants to go on about sewers, more power to him; and then there's another part of me that's like, No.

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    1. Well, I admit to skipping the sewers part. I just didn't need to know about 19th century poop.

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  10. I'm reading it now! I'm taking forever with it, yet I am enjoying it. I'm at the part where Jalvert is just about to realize who Valjean is.....so I have most of the book to go! i'll keep in mind that so many are going to die....what I like best so far is as you say, Hugo has the ability to get into the minds and show how Valjean could be changed by meeting the priest. It's fascinating psychology. Well done, Chris, and I hope some day to write my own "I've finished this book" post!

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    1. Good for you! Keep at it. I know you have a lot ahead of you but you'll get there.

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  12. I just found my copy of Les Miserables, yesterday. I will not read it before I see the movie. But, that's okay. I've seen the musical 3 times. Congrats on finishing!

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  13. I really must read this book at some point...

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  14. I find most extremely large books would be better served if cut down and had more editing. I have this same version of the book waiting to be read. I need to get to it someday, the size is intimidating!

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  15. Perfect timing. I never read this and thought i should since everyone and their mom has red it or seen the broadway show. with a book that large it's hard to write a post. I think you did a great job and summed it up well. Thanks Chris :)

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  16. You did an awesome job with the summary! I read this book in 9th grade. Good thing it was the condensed version (only about 500 pages), or might not have made it through.

    Even after all this time, I remember this book very vividly. The struggles of poverty... Horrid how society grinds down the impoverished even further.

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