EPS Review #197 - Les Misérables

Les Misérables , by Victor Hugo, Penguin 1982 (1862), tr Norman Denny, 1,232 pp.

Having enjoyed Madame Bovary and then read a spot of Balzac, I decided to continue on to some Victor Hugo with Les Misérables. As the weeks passed, I had occasion to laugh at the enormity of this little decision.

The experience was partly like filling in a hole. In the 1980s, alone in my tiny flat in Tokyo, I would listen to the military Far East Network, the only English language radio station. They serialized Les Mis, although all I remember was Jean Valjean's theft of the loaf of bread, and the infuriating Javert, who kept popping up everywhere to catch Valjean. Many years later my family has often enjoyed camping at Montreuil-sur-mer, where Jean Valjean was a fictional mayor. Occasionally we would see people there in period clothing, perhaps part of the son et lumiere event. Now at last I know the meaning of vaguely familiar names, like Fantine and Gavroche. I must say that Montreuil does not come off particularly well in the novel, but the town makes the best of it.

What makes the novel so long are the digressions. I liked them. There is a lot about nuns, and many chapters on the battle of Waterloo, with only the very last one having any connection with the story. But you can feel the strong pull of the plot like a steel cable, even over many pages. I am not much of a warfare fan, but I rented Waterloo the movie which has rave reviews on Amazon. I found Hugo's writing more exciting than the film.

When finally only a handful of men was left, the heaped dead more numerous than the living, the flag in tatters, the ammunitionless muskets become no more than cudgels, a kind of superstitious awe assailed the victors and the English guns held their fire. There was a momentary pause. Those last defenders saw as though it were a gathering of spectres the dark figures of their enemy closing in on them, men on horseback and guns outlined against the fading pallor of the sky, and over all the giant death's-head which is the ghost that haunts all battlefields. They could hear the sound of the guns being reloaded and see the lighted fuses gleaming like the eyes of tigers in the dusk. In this final moment, when all was in suspense, one of the English generals, Colville or Maitland, called out to them, 'Brave Frenchmen, will you not surrender?' Cambronne answered, 'Merde!'

The slowness of the plot exerted a magic of its own. One night years ago when I had worked hard, and then gone out drinking, I was beyond sleep, but fell into a sort of trance on the sofa in the unlit living room, listening to Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The long chords rippled over me, and I was in an exalted lethargy. Thénardier robbing the ring off Georges Pontmercy's finger at Waterloo portended a collision between Pontmercy and Jean Valjean many pages later. Only, as the pages passed, it was not Georges Pontmercy, but his son Marius, and a whole new cast of characters, including the excellent grandfather M. Gillenormand! I think one reason I wept when I read "the wench was a grave" (Marius falling in love with his dead father) and wept again when I tried to read his first love scene with Cosette aloud to Patricia, was that I felt I had got to know Marius over such a long period.

It was a warm day, and the Luxembourg was bathed in sunshine and shadow. The sky was clear as though the angels had scrubbed it that morning, sparrows twittered in the chestnut trees and Marius, living and breathing but thinking of nothing in particular, wholly absorbed in being alive, went by their bench. The girl looked up at him and their eyes met.

What message was to be read in her eyes? Marius could not have said. Nothing and yet everything. A spark had passed between them.

She looked down and he continued on his way. What he had encountered was not the frank innocent gaze of a child. It was as though a door had suddenly opened and then had been as swiftly closed. There comes a day when every girl has this look in her eyes, and woe to him who encounters it!

That first gaze of a spirit that does not yet know itself is like the first glow of sunrise, the awakening of something radiant but still veiled. Nothing can convey the perilous charm of that unexpected gleam, shedding of a sudden, hesitant light on present innocence and future passion. It is a kind of unresolved tenderness, chance-disclosed and expectant, a snare laid unwittingly by innocence, which captures a heart without intending or knowing what it does, a maid with the sudden gaze of a woman.

Rarely does it happen that a gaze such as this does not profoundly affect its victim. All purity and ardour is concentrated in that magical but fateful gleam which, more than the most calculated oglings of a coquette, has the power to implant in another heart the ominous flower, so loaded with fragrance and with poison, that it is called love.

I found the moral tone uplifting. Victor Hugo was a grown-up. So few people are, whatever their age. He was concerned with society's wretched, and writes of the goal of universal compulsory education. But the Thénardiers, for example, are still realistically evil. For a novel that is 150 years old, the emotions are thoroughly modern, and far fresher than any gimmicky contemporary novel that I can think of. And speaking of modern, there's a bit of finance, investing, and perils of the market, that will sound familiar. I was reminded of Stephenson's Quicksilver trilogy, which while great, is alas gimmicky.

I like all the really foreign words: Tholomyès, Picpus and so on (there were better, but I did not keep a list). As much as people make fun of France, the French have a lot to be proud of in culture and science.

Victor Hugo clearly loved Paris (a city about which I have mixed feelings). He had a strong sense of place in general. This is one of my favorite senses, and I found myself wanting to visit everywhere mentioned. I googled for maps, but found only this interesting fan site.

I was not quite so keen on whole barricade scene, although I of course liked Éponine's death. (She got so little stage-time, really.) Part of the problem is that I do not completely understand all that went on after the French revolution and Napoleon, despite reading Patrick O'Brian. One could also argue that Jean Valjean's great strength and hidden wealth are too convenient. And the very final part of Valjean's self-torture seemed odd. Still, the only big question in my mind is whether to reread the book soon, or try something like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or The Toilers Of The Sea .

Norman Denny's translation is very good. I admit that I bought the Penguin edition because it was mostly unabridged and lacked the image from the musical on the cover (which turns out to be of Cosette). I had occasion to compare other translations when I read: "Cosette spent the evening alone in the salon, and to relieve the monotony she sat down at her piano-organ and played and sang the chorus, 'Huntsmen Astray in the Woods!" from Weber's opera Euryanthe, which is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever composed. " Well, that of course set me to googling. To my surprise, not even the opera-omniscient Giovanni could quite identify which specific chorus is meant. But I came across other translations of this passage and found them much weaker: "That evening, Cosette was alone in the drawing-room. In order to get rid of her ennui, she had opened her piano-organ, and had begun to sing, accompanying herself the while, the chorus from Euryanthe: 'Hunters astray in the wood!' which is probably the most beautiful thing in all the sphere of music."

That brings us to the musical. I have not seen it. P has, and disliked it, but she dislikes all musicals, as far as I know. She only accompanies me to Gilbert and Sullivan out of devotion. I cannot think of any non-silly musicals that I have liked, except West Side Story. A picture on the website makes me think of Pirates of Penzance ... I will probably take the kids to Shaftesbury Ave, but I hope the story is not trivialised.

I'll leave you with a few more quotes that I enjoyed:

Without knowing it, Javert in his awful happiness was deserving of pity, like every ignorant man who triumphs.

All have yellow teeth. No tooth-brush has ever entered the convent. The act of brushing the teeth is the topmost rung of a ladder of which the lowest rung is perdition.

Puns are the droppings of the spirit in its flight.

It was the morning intoxication of life, the unforgettable years, the trembling of the dragonfly's wing. Can you not remember it? Have you never walked through the undergrowth thrusting the branches aside to protect the delightful head behind you, or slid down a damp slope with a girl clinging to your hand and protesting, 'Heavens, my new boots!'

Nothing is more dangerous than to stop working. It is a habit that can soon be lost, one that is easily neglected and hard to resume.

"Now she's a banker's doxy. It seems it happened last night, and when I met her this morning she was jubilant. And what's so disgusting is that she is just as pretty as ever. No sign of high finance on her face."

Scott wrote: [This] has also convinced me to give this Everest of a book a fair try.

David wrote: I think that this is the first unstintingly positive review of yours that I have read.

I lucked out and saw Les Miz back in 1996 with a terrific cast and what I think was very good direction. I saw it a second time some years later and although I still generally enjoyed much of it, it was somewhat disappointing.

I do think it's a particularly good musical in that it has a lot of strong songs sung by different people, so with a good cast it can be really enjoyable. It's "through-sung", with several numbers that include people singing different words at the same time, so a lot depends on the cast and the direction lest those ensemble numbers turn into a cacaphony. The second time I saw the play, Valjean had a delicate, beautiful voice that was perfect for "God on High", his song where he remonstrates with God to spare Marius. It was lovely, but I think it showed poor understanding of the musical to choose a Valjean on the basis of that song. He has to carry the base line in "One Day More", and he has a to sing a duet with Valjean when he escapes from him after the death of Fantine, and the poor actor just couldn't handle those -- his voice was not powerful enough.

I have sensed in the past that you are not a fan of musicals, really, and you will come to this having read the book and liked it a lot. That's never good -- I speak from experience, being the only person on earth who really didn't like the LOTR movies. I also think you're a bit less sentimental than I, and this is a sentimental musical. So you better go in with low expectations.

And the songs with the kids are tedious, even irritating. Even I won't defend them.

Giovanni wrote: Les Mis is one of the worst shows ever written..........

Tom said: Does Cabaret count as a serious musical?

Jay wrote: Those are remarkable quotes. How faithful is the translation? The translator must have contributed to the English prose in some way.

I replied: Here is the Project Gutenberg English translation of the Luxembourg garden scene. Quite inferior, I think:

One day, the air was warm, the Luxembourg was inundated with light and shade, the sky was as pure as though the angels had washed it that morning, the sparrows were giving vent to little twitters in the depths of the chestnut-trees. Marius had thrown open his whole soul to nature, he was not thinking of anything, he simply lived and breathed, he passed near the bench, the young girl raised her eyes to him, the two glances met.

What was there in the young girl's glance on this occasion? Marius could not have told. There was nothing and there was everything. It was a strange flash.

She dropped her eyes, and he pursued his way.

What he had just seen was no longer the ingenuous and simple eye of a child; it was a mysterious gulf which had half opened, then abruptly closed again.

There comes a day when the young girl glances in this manner. Woe to him who chances to be there!

That first gaze of a soul which does not, as yet, know itself, is like the dawn in the sky. It is the awakening of something radiant and strange. Nothing can give any idea of the dangerous charm of that unexpected gleam, which flashes suddenly and vaguely forth from adorable shadows, and which is composed of all the innocence of the present, and of all the passion of the future. It is a sort of undecided tenderness which reveals itself by chance, and which waits. It is a snare which the innocent maiden sets unknown to herself, and in which she captures hearts without either wishing or knowing it. It is a virgin looking like a woman.

It is rare that a profound revery does not spring from that glance, where it falls. All purities and all candors meet in that celestial and fatal gleam which, more than all the best-planned tender glances of coquettes, possesses the magic power of causing the sudden blossoming, in the depths of the soul, of that sombre flower, impregnated with perfume and with poison, which is called love.

and here is the original:

Un jour, l'air était tiède, le Luxembourg était inondé d'ombre et de soleil, le ciel était pur comme si les anges l'eussent lavé le matin, les passereaux poussaient de petits cris dans les profondeurs des marronniers, Marius avait ouvert toute son âme à la nature, il ne pensait à rien, il vivait et il respirait, il passa près de ce banc, la jeune fille leva les yeux sur lui, leurs deux regards se rencontrèrent.

Qu'y avait-il cette fois dans le regard de la jeune fille? Marius n'eût pu le dire. Il n'y avait rien et il y avait tout. Ce fut un étrange éclair.

Elle baissa les yeux, et il continua son chemin.

Ce qu'il venait de voir, ce n'était pas l'œil ingénu et simple d'un enfant, c'était un gouffre mystérieux qui s'était entr'ouvert, puis brusquement refermé.

Il y a un jour où toute jeune fille regarde ainsi. Malheur à qui se trouve là!

Ce premier regard d'une âme qui ne se connaît pas encore est comme l'aube dans le ciel. C'est l'éveil de quelque chose de rayonnant et d'inconnu. Rien ne saurait rendre le charme dangereux de cette lueur inattendue qui éclaire vaguement tout-à-coup d'adorables ténèbres et qui se compose de toute l'innocence du présent et de toute la passion de l'avenir. C'est une sorte de tendresse indécise qui se révèle au hasard et qui attend. C'est un piège que l'innocence tend à son insu et où elle prend des cœurs sans le vouloir et sans le savoir. C'est une vierge qui regarde comme une femme.

Il est rare qu'une rêverie profonde ne naisse pas de ce regard là où il tombe. Toutes les puretés et toutes les candeurs se concentrent dans ce rayon céleste et fatal qui, plus que les œillades les mieux travaillées des coquettes, a le pouvoir magique de faire subitement éclore au fond d'une âme cette fleur sombre, pleine de parfums et de poisons, qu'on appelle l'amour.

Jay replied: Yuch! I don't understand French, so can't make any judgment. I do, however, think the translated prose is outstanding.

Tom wrote: "Nothing is more dangerous than to stop working." Ouch. Reminds me of Po Bronson's observation that those who spend more than ten years outside the workplace rarely reenter it.

I'm glad you derived so much pleasure from this lengthy tome. I have heard it said the Hugo was France's greatest mind ever. Have you tried Don Quixote ? I've been told it's another lengthy winner.