Victor Hugo gives us fair warning with Les Misérables, letting us know right there in the title this is a sad tale. At times I had difficulty reading it; I had to keep a box of tissues beside me. But it was overwhelmingly worth it.
Jean Valjean is freed after serving nineteen years as a galley slave. He finds life on the outside tough, as people are unwilling to deal with an ex-convict. Sorry, I think I might have given the wrong impression back there. When I said I needed a box of tissues while reading, it was because I had a cold and was sneezing a lot, not because I was crying. Just wanted to clear that up. Valjean is soon rearrested, caught stealing from an old priest, but the priest forgives him and saves him from a return to prison. After committing one more minor crime Valjean plunges into a crisis of conscience, and must choose to henceforth take the path of all-out wickedness or the path of goodness. He chooses the latter. Not that there is anything wrong with crying; I just wasn’t crying, that’s all. Valjean achieves success under a new name, and puts his fortune to charitable use. After some peaceful years his life is disturbed on two fronts: a poor wretch named Fantine (the most misérable of all les misérables) dies and leaves a behind a child in need of rescue, while Police Inspector Javert tracks Valjean and endeavours to bring him to justice. Valjean escapes from Javert and rescues the orphaned girl, Cosette, from the con artists to whom she is practically enslaved. By the way, I’ve cried watching movies, you know, so I’m not trying to sound tough. Anyway, Valjean adopts Cosette and she becomes the joy of his life. Years pass, and then, once again, Valjean’s peace is disrupted: romance for Cosette, the return of Javert, and a bloody uprising in the streets of Paris. Valjean must once again choose: run and hide, or make a sacrifice of love.
Injustice, sorrow, love, and the nineteenth century Paris sewer system are all themes in Les Misérables, but the one that struck me most was that of mercy. Javert is the embodiment of the law: just, ruthless and unrelenting. Valjean, in contrast, while sharing Javert’s love of what is right, is governed by benevolence and forgiveness. The two clash throughout the book, and it is clear only one of them can prevail. Valjean is an example to all; his sympathy and selflessness make him a hero to match any mighty warrior.
Hugo has weaved an epic tale here, nine hundred pages. A couple of times he tested my patience, digressing into a lengthy history lesson on the Battle of Waterloo, and getting a little long-winded with Cosette’s courtship, but both times he reigned it back in and got on with the story. The writing is superb, seasoned with wisdom and coloured with simile. Yes, the events are often heartbreaking, but unlike some stories, which seem to pile on maximum sorrow merely to enhance the happiness of the ending (I’m looking at you, Oliver Twist), the misery here points the reader to something greater: to hope, to love, even to the divine.
I learned this novel was made into a musical, and quite a successful one apparently. I thought I’d give the whole book-to-Broadway thing a go myself, and adapted Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to the stage. Check out this chorus from the song “Axe Murderer”:
Oh little Raski, what did you do?
Killed a lady and her sister, thought no one would miss her.
And now the guilt is tormenting you,
You’re getting paranoid, what’s happening boy?
Who’s to say where it went wrong? Casting myself in the lead role, with no acting or singing experience? Starting the performances at one-thirty in the morning when there was more parking available? Using a bluegrass quartet in lieu of an orchestra? It kept us under budget. Perhaps I’ll never know why success eluded my work. Oh well, no one said show business was easy.
Les Misérables is a story people may shed tears over, but not me. Okay, just a few, near the end. That’s all. This book is unforgettable, and thankfully so. 10/10
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