I put off tackling this novel for more years than I can remember. This was mostly because I wanted to read it in French and the length of the book daunted me somewhat. That, and the fact that every time I was in the local foreign language bookstore they didn’t seem to have all of the volumes. The fact that I was relying on a local bookstore rather than the Internet to obtain a book in French indicates how many years it’s been since I gave reading the novel any serious thought.
The last two months have been a Les Misérables immersion experience as I listened to the audiobook downloaded for free from this site. The narrator, who goes by the name of “Pomme”, is superb. Although she doesn’t use different accents or create obviously different voices for the characters, she renders emotions quite beautifully and is a pleasure to listen to.
I can now understand why so many people consider Les Misérables to be the great French novel and, for that matter, one of the greatest novels of all time. The plot is well known to anyone who has seen the musical. However, the novel is so much more than the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption, than his pursuit by the determined Inspector Javert, than the love story of Marius and Cosette, than the world of the villainous Thénardiers. Rather, it is the recreation of the world of Victor Hugo’s youth, with vivid and detailed descriptions of Paris in the 1820s and 1830s, with digressions on topics as varied as the Battle of Waterloo, the manufacture of jet jewellery, French politics, the difference between a riot and a revolution and the Parisian sewerage system. For some readers, Hugo’s essays on these and other topics get in the way of the story. For me, they are the story. Or at least they make the story so much more than the elements of the plot which form the basis for the stage adaptation.
This is a vast, sprawling, hugely digressive, powerful, sentimental monster of a novel. It is by no means flawless. Hugo suffers from the failing of so many male writers of the 19th century, that is, an unhealthy preoccupation with the virginity and purity of nice young women. This means that he makes the adult Cosette not only dull in her perfection, but stupid as well. She is infinitely less interesting than the brave Eponine, the frightening Madame Thénardier or the tragic Fantine. However, Cosette’s blandness is easy enough to deal with in a novel otherwise populated with such wonderful characters. Of them, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert are of course the standouts. Hugo creates intensely detailed psychological portraits of these two fascinating men, who have such different philosophies of life.
I sorely regret not reading the novel sooner, because the number of times I will be able to re-read it is so much more limited than it would have been otherwise. Listening to the novel over the past few weeks has been a fabulous literary experience. I appreciate that not all readers will appreciate its length, its language or its digressive nature, but for total immersion in a different world there can be nothing more satisfying.
For anyone interested in the geographical locations described in the novel and planning a trip to France, a blogger has written a great account of travelling through France while reading the novel. He has also created a fabulous interactive map which shows the locations of various events in the novel. The blog can be found here and the map can be found here.