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.