Thursday, September 13, 2012

Les Misérables

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
First of all, there are two versions of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables: the complete version and an abridged one. I read the complete version. I don't think reading an abridged version really counts for anything. For me, reading an abridged version of a book is kind of like getting a GED--sure, you can tell people you did it, but how many people do you really think are impressed?

Several years ago I took an Amtrak train about 500 miles to Denver to meet up with my family at my in-law's. Several people tried to convince me beforehand that I'd really enjoy it. They were full of crap. The train departed at about 5:00 AM and didn't pull into Denver until after 10:00 PM. I normally drive that trip in about 7½ hours, so this was tortuous. Periodically throughout the trip, the train would just stop, not at a station, or at a point where passengers were getting on or off, just on the tracks. Sometimes the stop would last for a few minutes, other times the stop would last for over an hour. No explanation was ever given, so each time it'd stop, I would go crazy not knowing how long the stop would take, and knowing that I wasn't making any progress towards my destination. I was reminded of this train trip numerous times while reading Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. But while I hated the train ride with a passion, my feelings about Hugo's book are quite the opposite.

The reason the book reminded me of that train ride was because Victor Hugo repeatedly stopped his story of Valjean, Javert, Cosette, and Marius to give a history lesson, or background on an influential person of the book's time period, and these stops were rarely brief. At one point he used 50 pages to describe the battle of Waterloo before telling you that Thénardier was there after the battle ransacking valuables from the corpses of soldiers and while doing so, had an interaction with Marius's father. That chapter could have been 49½ pages shorter and would have been just fine.
Having said all that about what I could have done without in the book, I'll shift gears now and say how glad I am that I finally got around to reading it. It's truly a fantastic story and ultimately a great book. I think it's a waste of time to summarize the plot, as I believe most people know it, or at least part of it from the musical production. But as good as that is, it pales in comparison to the book. Hugo acts as narrator throughout the story and as someone who lived in Paris at the time, who saw firsthand the struggles of its citizens, and the building of the barricades during the rebellion that took place, he's able to provide incredible depth to the story he tells.

Ironically, I think that Hugo was a master at using the written word. As I said earlier, sometimes it was to excess--and I'm going to attribute that to my hunch that publishing houses in the 1860's didn't employ editors. But there were numerous times that Hugo would write a sentence or two, either as narration or as dialogue spoken by a character, that I thought were brilliant. In those parts of the book, Hugo was able to express an idea that perfectly described a characteristic of mankind, or a universal truth that few would be capable of articulating that well.

This winter a new movie adaptation starring Hugh Jackman will be released. My suggestion is instead of going to the theater and paying $9 and spending probably three hours watching an interpretation of the book, rather go to a bookstore and pay $9 and get to spend a month reading the original. But if you end up reading the abridged version, don't bother telling me about it. I won't be impressed.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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