Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reader's Diary #870- Victor Hugo: Les Misérables

Having started back in March when I went to France, I've finally finished Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. It's a friggin' huge book. Still, I'm sure many others could have gotten through it much faster. However, to keep my sanity, I had to pick at it in small pieces, reading other books all the while.

Victor Hugo, as I'm sure most people who've read Les Misérables would agree, can be rather... wordy. In a very condensed summary that may miss the finer points, Les Misérables is the story of one man's, Jean Valjean's, redemption. However, for hundreds of pages at a time, Hugo sidetracks to other issues: monastic culture, Napolean at Waterloo, architecture, the sewer, you name it. I was greatly amused when at one point, when referring to the then current practice of having a police officer on every corner of Paris, Hugo refers to it as "a benefit of which there is no time to discuss here." To think that Les Misérables is Hugo holding back some of his opinions is almost shocking.

I had several theories as to what these diversions were all about. First, Hugo was a windbag. Yes, yes, the story was going to sell the book, but readers would greatly benefit from his opinions on Everything. Like a rambling uncle, sometimes I felt like telling him just to shut up and get on with it. Second, Hugo lacked an editor. Perhaps on writer's block days, when the plot of the Valjean story seemed elusive, he forced himself to write anyway, about any topic that came to mind, as a sort of practice. The writings on these days were not necessary to add into Les Misérables, but having delusions of grandeur and no editor to cut this baby down to size, it all got shoved in. Third, Hugo was insecure about the Jean Valjean story. What if it came across as too frivolous; an over-the-top and trivial adventure story? The other stuff had to be included in order to give the book substance, to give a facade of philosophy to an otherwise inconsequential novel.

But then I suspect I contracted Stockholm Syndrome. I was held captive by this book for so long I started to defend it. What if, I reasoned, there was a point to all these ramblings? Could it be that the history of France is not only necessary to the point, but maybe even the point itself? Could Jean Valjean simply be a personification of the country? Could the message be that Valjean, like France, must not hide from the past but learn from it and find redemption? This interpretation actually increased my enjoyment even if Hugo himself refuted such an interpretation in the epilogue at the end, suggesting that Valjean's story could belong to any nation. The thing is, I'm not sure Hugo is right. It may have been his point, but in its hindsight I think Les Misérables is more European than North American. Not that we can't or shouldn't learn from and rise above the mistakes of our past, I just think we're more present day focused than that.

In any case, I didn't so much read Les Misérables as I did experience it. It probably could have been whittled down but until I become reintegrated into society, I'm glad it wasn't.

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