Reading Big Books Makes You Look Smart.

The Twirl and Swirl of Letters

Today, I finished reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I opted to read an unabridged translation, my thought being “if I’m going to put in the time and effort to read this damn book, it may as well be the entire thing.” As a result, I picked up a huge book from the library, joking that it would free up a lot of shelf space…any ways, the librarian’s expression was one of surprise that I’d read this over my Christmas break. A trip to the doctor’s office elicited the same response–surprise from all who saw me lugging the massive tome about with me. Along with this typical exchange:

“What’s that?”

Les Miserables.”

(insert confusion)

“There was a musical based off of it. And numerous movies.”

“Why are you reading it?”

“Because I want to.”

I’m rather pleased that I finished the book when I did, so I don’t have to lug it through airport this following week. My back thanks me.

Returning to my impressions of reading this book.

Words…words sometimes fail, but I shall do my best.

At first I was bored. Bishop Bienvenu failed to capture my interest at first, but after a while of getting used to the book’s style, I found him a charming character.

Then, of course, we get to the main story lines. Fantine, Jean Valjean, the Thenardiers, Javert, Marius…ah! I loved how all of the characters’ lives intersected. There would always be someone from someone’s past showing up–be it Marius running to Javert, letting the police inspector know of devious dealings with his neighbors, the intersection of fate with Thenardier and Marius…

The digressions, which to many who attempt to read the book are off-putting I found incredibly interesting. I’ve wanted to visit the Paris sewers for years, but the whole digression was wonderfully informative. And the bit about nuns? Never knew a lot of that stuff. I felt that the digressions were fantastic for providing the context to the world Hugo created. Details about convent life aren’t things you learn regularly; heck, even basics about Waterloo are regularly skipped in history classes (I greatly enjoy the Napoleonic era, so I knew a small amount–still, always ready to learn more). Given my love of footnotes, this enjoyment of the digressions should come as no surprise.

What I loved most of all was how the characters were drawn. No character was completely good or completely evil. There was no perfection. Jean Valjean is haunted by his previous actions, by the theft that changes his life (ultimately for the best, but changes it nonetheless). The Thenardiers, as odious as they are, care for each other (to some extent…poor Gavroche and the younger sons), and are fascinating to read about. Javert, while he hunts Jean Valjean, isn’t a bad person–he sees the Law as Truth, and whatever does not fall within the Law is outside. The most ‘perfect’ character we have–Cosette–is beautiful but a bit of a dip.

The inner lives that the characters have was wonderful to read. Each of the characters thought, breathed of their own accords. Javert’s distress was brilliantly written…and my goodness, depressing to read. Even though I knew what was to come, his fate still stuck with me.

I loved it. I have a feeling that once I get my own place, I’ll be buying this translation, as I feel that each time I read Les Miserables, I’ll pick up new details. This is the sort of book that ought to be read at different points in one’s life. The fervor of youth, the complacency of middle age, the end of life, looking back on what you have done and what you have left undone.

Now, I’m not sure what to read next…

Anyone know of a good translation of War and Peace? Unabridged, of course.

6 thoughts on “Reading Big Books Makes You Look Smart.

  1. Whether a reader can get used to an author’s style is an important factor on whether they decide to finish a book. After reading your post I’m considering checking this book out. I would like all the digressions too. You don’t get those watching the movie.


    1. No you don’t! And the adaptations (at least the one’s I’m familiar with) tend to remove the interconnectedness of everything.

      I hope you enjoy it–it’s a long read, but well worth the time. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!


  2. The Rosemary Edmonds edition has a great ‘voice’ (keeping certain key cultural elements, though making them accessible to people who can’t read the original), but it’s editing is atrocious. If there is a new edition out, then a lot of the – in some cases, very obvious – typos should be fixed, but otherwise you’re going to get enraged reading it.

    I haven’t read the Aylmer Maude translation, but I am aware of other translations which are well-written. It seems the best choice for a lot of people approaching the book for the first time. I found this piece about the Anthony Briggs version of the text, but it sounds like it may be a Marmite edition – you’ll either love it or hate it passionately. There’s also a Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky edition which has been gathering readers.

    Make sure you spend time looking at whichever edition you decide on. Some have footnotes, while others lack any kind of notation whatsoever. There really should be a preface explaining what the translation hoped to accomplish (there is a very nasty paperback edition on sale for a couple of pounds which is a “stripped” text – just the translation, with no context), and look to see if the French phrases and passages are also translated.

    You’ll find that reviews of any translation tend to contain the words “heresy,” “disgraceful,” “masterpiece,” and “beautiful” in roughly equal numbers. Try not to be too put off by the extremely negative reviews of any edition unless the reasons are spelled out. Die-hard fans tend to get a little obsessive about maintaining a close-as-possible relationship to the original.


    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll be sure to read reviews on the translations. I wish that I could read these books in the original languages–alas, I cannot.


  3. You have my admiration for climbing the mountain. I had a similar experience with ‘Moby Dick’. I struggled like hell with it; page after page of boring facts about whales! But the character based parts were completely breathtaking in their brilliance and it was more than worth the investment of time and effort.

    Ditto ‘Crime and Punishment’. Ditto ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. With these ‘classic’ books you have to make a big investment in order to get a massive pay back. That’s not the way of today’s world where immediate gratification is all.

    Brace yourself… I’m thinking of tackling ‘Ulysses’ next!


    1. Oh, let me know how Ulysses goes! I’ve never read anything of Joyce’s, but have wanted to for a while.

      I’ve found that classic books are often worth the effort (I’m still not sold on Sense and Sensibility, though). I always feel an immense sense of “YES” when I’ve finished an important work.

      As for immediate gratification, every once and a while I need it in books. 🙂


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