Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
For several months now, I’ve been reading Les Miserables a little bit at a time on my Kindle. I don’t think it was the best translation (a free version), but I was glad to have the chance to read it a bit at a time without carrying a 1400-page book around!
In grad school, I took a class on contemporary novels in which we read Mason & Dixon, Alias Grace, Underworld, and several other books, doorstoppers all. Many of these books described some real historical events, including lots of documents and encyclopedic information that seem irrelevant, sometimes even footnotes. We also discussed the books themselves as monsters to be conquered by their readers, and their ultimate precursor in that way is Moby Dick, of course. Les Miserables belongs in this same category as these American novels. It is a complete education in French history, full of digressions on the battle of Waterloo, monasteries, the sewers of Paris, slang, and several other topics. The encyclopedic digressions give information related to or at least tangential to the plot, and also give Hugo space to voice a few interesting opinions. While in the midst of one of these mini-lectures, I often did long to get back to the characters, but I also was aware that I was learning a lot, so I didn’t mind too much.
I’ve always loved the musical Les Miserables, and one of my favorite things about reading the book was that it always somehow put one of the songs in my head to play on an infinite loop. I’ve seen it three times live, in Cincinnati, New York, and Nashville; each time I cried (in New York I cried twice). The musical does a good job of capturing the mood of the book, especially with songs like “Look Down” and “One Day More,” and it also creates a good Cliff Notes version of the plot. Several important characters are cut, including Marius’s family and backstory. He’s the son of a colonel who died at Waterloo, estranged from his grandfather, a rich man who disdained his daughter’s husband for his politics. When Marius discovers his origins, he leaves his grandfather’s mansion and lives the life of a poor student. He has a strange debt to Thenardier, who saved his father’s life after a battle. There’s an entire episode of Jean Valjean getting a job as a gardener at a convent school through sneaking in inside a coffin. Crazy stuff like that. The kind of stuff that didn’t fit in the musical, but which gives me a fuller understanding of the characters and the world of 19th century Paris.
I’m incredibly excited about the movie adaptation coming out this month. The cast looks great, and the previews blew me away. I get teary just from this clip:
The only point of adapting a show like this for the screen is to do things that you can’t do in the theater, put things on the screen that won’t fit on a stage, and it seems like they have. The scope looks bigger; everything is just surrounding you on all sides and sweeping you away. Also, I’ve heard that they filmed this movie in a way that has never been done before: instead of recording an album in a studio and lip syncing on set, the songs in this movie were recorded on the set, so the acting should be more natural.