Well, I did it. I finished Les Misérables! I finished it six days past my self-imposed deadline of the end of 2012 (which was actually the second deadline–I really wanted to finish it before I saw the movie right after Christmas), but I’m just happy, so happy, that I stuck with it. Reading this book was personally very rewarding to me, especially because at this phase of my life I have a problem with being over-committed and not finishing what I start. It helps, of course, that this is a fabulous story that begs to be read to completion, if one can manage to slog through some of the long, descriptive passages and get back to the central plot. Of course, I am in no way qualified or capable of giving this novel the attention it deserves, so I’m just going to share a few observations that I noticed while on this month-long (plus!) journey. If you’re interested in lengthier thoughts, I have shared before my thoughts on the “Fantine” section and the “Cosette” section during my previous, failed attempts to read this novel through to completion.
On the “boring” parts:
Well, this has to be said, doesn’t it? One of the things that makes the novel so very intimidating is its length, which is bulked up considerably by long sections of historical background and description. But do you know what? I actually didn’t mind those (too much), except the long passages on revolution and political philosophy. (As I’ve mentioned before, my interest in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Period peaked way back in undergraduate school when I took an entire, semester-long course taught by a young professor who specialized in the time period. He even lived in Paris while he wrote his dissertation! Would that I had read this book way back then, when it would’ve made a lot more sense to me.) It even got to be a bit humorous to me when I knew Hugo was about to go off on a tangent, or in his words, “And here a brief digression becomes necessary” (1180). 🙂 I actually enjoyed most of his tangents and found them enlightening to the interconnectedness of the characters. (And this is what makes the novel, always and forever, much better than the movie–we get the connections in the novel which the movie–or Broadway production–must be necessity leave out.) Even Waterloo and the Parisian sewers didn’t slow me down too much, which brings me to my next observation:
This is a topic I know absolutely nothing about, other than what I’ve learned through personal experience: the translation matters. I attempted a different, unabridged translation the first two times I tried to read this novel, and each time, I quit. This time, though, I sought advice on The Well-Trained Mind message board (where I know lots of smart, literate folks hang out) and picked up the Norman Denny translation. For reasons which will probably always remain a mystery to me, this translation just reads easier. It’s abridged only in that a few sections (the one on the convent, which I had read already before in the other translation, and one other very short section) are pulled out into an appendix, but otherwise, if you read the Denny translation, you get the whole thing. I recommend it. (It should be the one linked above. Don’t mind the movie tie-in cover.)
Look closely and you will see all the dog-eared pages in my book. (Yes, I dog-ear my books. Please don’t revoke my librarian’s badge! 😉 ) Each one of those pages represents at least one sentence, line, or passage I particularly like. I wish I had taken the time to write up Reflections in Progress posts as I read this book, but I’m afraid that would’ve slowed down my progress even more. I suppose some things are best experienced and not shared by necessity. I have written before about how my blog’s title comes from this very novel, though I didn’t know it at the time I started my blog. Instead of sharing quotes myself this time (which is a far more daunting task than I’m willing to undertake now), I’ll share this link to Magistra Mater’s favorite quotes from “Fantine.” Also, the previous two posts I wrote about the novel (the first two links in this post) contain quotes I shared from the other translation. That will have to do for now.
On the movie:
Yes, I ended up seeing the movie before I finished the book, which I regretted only a little bit. I was a little confused when I picked the book up after watching the movie, but pretty soon I got back into the groove. As I mentioned before, the book is always better than the movie to me, just because I like to know all the connections. Still, I enjoyed the movie a lot. I will say that the sexual scenes, especially those with the Thénardiers, made me extremely uncomfortable. I’m not used to watching television at all, so seeing so many nearly bare-bosomed women was disconcerting, and the extreme bawdiness and vulgarity of the inn scenes was just inappropriate, in my opinion. By inappropriate I mean that I don’t feel that they fit the spirit of Hugo’s story at all. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of these unfortunate scenes when I was reading the part of the novel in which Hugo describes the Mardi gras parades in Paris:
It is sad that the crowds should be amused by what should outrage them, these manifestations of riotous vulgarity; but what is to be done? The insult to the public is exonerated by the public’s laughter. The laughter of everyman is the accomplice of universal degradation. (1132)
For more thoughts about this, check out this CiRCE Institute blog post by Andrew Kern, especially the comments.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I wouldn’t mind seeing the movie again. This time, I’d know when to avert my eyes. 🙂
Aside from reading the Bible through a couple of years ago, I can’t think of any other literary project that has given me quite the feeling of accomplishment that this one has. I’m afraid I haven’t really expressed how wonderful this story really is in these rambling thoughts of mine, but rest assured that this is one novel you really should read if you have half a mind to. After finishing this, I’m less likely to be intimidated by any other novel. I’m really glad I read Les Misérables.