Thursday, 4 September 2014

Bolingblog Book Review - Les Misérables

Today I finished reading Les Misérables. It's a long book and it has taken me quite some time. My view is that it's a random collection of long and boring essays interspersed thought the best book I've ever read. The plot is brilliant, far reaching and spans decades. The myriad threads and characters weave themselves together in both unexpected and painfully inevitable ways. This process is spoiled however by countless plotless detours into, for example, the history of the battle of Waterloo, the architecture of a monastery, the history of the Paris sewers and language of criminal gangs.

The characters are compelling and tragic. Their transformations are both enormous (in some cases) and believable.

I read an English translation, but even so the writing was beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, and expressive. I give you as an example "Everybody has seen how cleverly a piece of money, dropped on the floor, runs and hides, and how artfully it makes itself undiscoverable. There are thoughts that play us the same trick."

The foreshadowing that takes place is subtle and brilliant. The amount of planning and preparation that sets all the characters and attitudes in place for the centrepieces would put a chess master to shame. When one of the main female characters is introduced we are told how beautiful her hair is. It is mentioned again a couple more times over the next several chapters. We all know that she is proud of her long and beautiful hair, but we would never expect that she would have to cut it off and sell it, or that that would be the turning point in her tragic downfall and death.

Apart from the huge swathes of storyless and characterless prose I have one other criticism. Victor Hugo peppers his writing with phrases like "As is so often the case" "It always happens that" "There is no denying". I think it is supposed to lend authority. Unfortunately to me it made him sound like a proud know-it-all. Sir, I simply refuse to believe that you are the unquestioned expert on the temperament of beaten children, pneumonia, the Bastille, civil unrest, every language known to man, those bloody sewers, Napoleon, disguises, criminality, and the dozens of other subjects that you hold forth on.

One of the most tragic acts revolves around woman (the one who sold her hair) sickening and dying just before her mistreated daughter could be restored to her. The last few pages of the book are genuinely touching when you realise the complex and deep symmetry with that plot.

What the English speaking world needs is a good modern translation and a sympathetic abridgement. They should start with the title. I can't be the only one to notice that "Les Misérables" is still in French. Kurt Vonnegut offers us "The Miserable Ones" and while that's a start but I don't think it's right. "Misérables" is obviously a noun in its own right and a class of person. My best suggestion is "Poor Unfortunates".

Richard "apparently there's a musical" B

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