I first encountered ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, when I was in school. I read an excerpt from the book, which was about how Jean Valjean steals the silverware from Bishop Myriel’s house and when the police catches him, the Bishop bails him out by saying that he gifted them to Jean Valjean. I can’t remember whether I read it in an anthology or whether it was part of my English textbook. I also remember the classic way in which the book is introduced – that it is about Jean Valjean who was sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. I always wanted to read the rest of the story and find out what happened to Jean Valjean after the bishop helped him, but I never got around to that. I also remember, during schooldays, seeing an abridged version of ‘Les Misérables’ at a friend’s place. When I asked my friend about it, he said that it was his favourite book and he read it once every couple of months. I admired his passion for the book when he told me that. I remember wanting to borrow the book from him at that time, but I can’t remember whether I actually borrowed it or not. When I got in touch with this friend again sometime back, after many years, I asked him whether he still read ‘Les Misérables’ once every two months. He smiled and said that he didn’t have the time now. He is one of the leading surgeons in the city now, and so is hard-pressed for time, but behind the face of the famous surgeon I could see that young boy who used to read ‘Les Misérables’ passionately and take an adventurous and heartbreaking roller coaster ride with Jean Valjean.
A couple of weeks back, I had a strong impulse to open some old boxes with books in them. Some of these boxes were ten years old. I have shied away from them because I knew that if I opened one of them it will be like opening Pandora’s box – I will want to take all the books out and read all of them. There was also no room in the house for more books as books were already overflowing from the shelves onto the floor. But I couldn’t resist the temptation this time and opened one of those old boxes. Inside the box, on top, was Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables’. With the film version creating waves right now, I couldn’t resist taking out the book and starting to read it. It is 1260 pages long and so it is a real chunkster. Whenever I finish it, it will be the second longest book that I have ever read, replacing ‘Gone with the Wind’ which currently occupies that position at 1100+ pages. I thought I will ‘test read’ it for a couple of days and see how it went and then decide whether to continue reading it further. Before I knew, I was hooked to it. The book has five parts and I finished reading the first part of the book yesterday. Here is what I think about the first part.
- Victor Hugo published ‘Les Misérables’ when he was nearly sixty. That is really interesting.
- The first fifty pages of the book talk about Bishop Myriel. Jean Valjean makes an appearance in the book only after fifty pages.
- Bishop Myriel is one of the noblest characters that I have ever encountered in a novel. Probably the noblest ever. Someone who gives away everything he has to the poor, sick and the needy, someone who thinks that all human beings have a good heart and who changes the hearts of thieves and robbers with his thinking, someone who doesn’t have the trappings of power but lives a very simple life.
- The popular version of Jean Valjean’s story is that he was sent to prison for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. But while reading the book, I discovered that Jean Valjean was sent to prison for five years for stealing a loaf of bread. It is still bad. His sentence was increased everytime he tried to escape from prison and he ended up being in prison for nineteen years.
- The second name of Jean Valjean is probably a short version of ‘Voilà Jean’.
- The first part of the book, ‘Fantine’, has two plot arcs. The first is the story of Bishop Myriel and how Jean Valjean meets him for the first time after getting released from prison and how that encounter transforms Jean Valjean’s life, how Jean Valjean takes on a new identity and is called Monsieur Madeleine and works hard and becomes a rich man and even becomes the mayor of his city and how a police inspector called Javert suspects the truth about Monsieur Madeleine’s past. The second plot arc is about a young woman called Fantine who is abandoned by her lover when she is pregnant and how she has to leave her child in the care of strangers when her child is three years old to go to work, how her child suffers in her foster home and how Fantine’s life itself takes a downward spiral. The two plot arcs come together when Monsieur Madeleine has to confront Inspector Javert to save Fantine from being imprisoned and things become complicated after that and the situation comes to such a pass that Monsieur Madeleine has to reveal his own past and get arrested to prevent an innocent person from being framed.
- At some point in the story, I felt that Monsieur Madeleine started resembling Bishop Myriel – the noble soul who works for the community and who gives money away to the poor.
- There is a mention of Madame de Staël and Madame de Lafayette in the story J
- While reading the book, I discovered that the pages were moving very slowly. I thought initially that I was reading slowly. But after a while, I thought maybe there was something else in the book. I decided to do something interesting. I counted the number of words on a typical page of the book. Then I took out some books that I read recently and some books which I thought might have a lot of words in a page and carried out the same exercise on them. This is what I discovered :
No. of words in a page :
Les Misérables – 535 words
In Search of Lost Time – 372 words
Le Pere Goriot – 400 words
Unformed Landscape – 282 words
Those numbers told an interesting story. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it first, but it looks like ‘Les Misérables’ probably has the highest word density (number of words per page) out of the books I have. No wonder, the reading was slow going.
- The character of Inspector Javert is quite interesting for a particular reason. There used to be an old Tamil writer and actor called ‘Javer Seetharaman’. He was probably the first writer to write horror novels in Tamil. He also acted as a detective in movies, the most famous of which is ‘Andha Naal’ (‘That Day’). I used to wonder where his name ‘Javer’ came from because it is not a Tamil name. Now after reading about Inspector Javert, I can see the source of the inspiration.
- Victor Hugo’s picture on the cover of the book seems to indicate that he is a serious man who smiles rarely. The book though says otherwise. There are lots of beautiful passages which describe children and insightful passages with gentle prose and beautiful thoughts. Clearly appearances are deceptive.
- I discovered a chronological inconsistency in the story. When Fantine gets pregnant, it is the year 1817. When she leaves her daughter Cossette with the Thénardiers, Cossette is two or three years old. Then she goes to work in Monsieur Madeleine’s factory in another city. This year is indicated to be 1818. A simple calculation reveals that this is not possible. It should be atleast 1820 or 1821, depending on whether Cossette was two or three years old at that time, when Fantine goes to work in the factory. This inconsistency with respect to Fantine’s life continues till the end of part 1. I don’t know whether Victor Hugo missed it out here or whether there is a problem in the edition I have or whether there was a problem in translation. If Victor Hugo got it wrong, I am sure there are papers written by literary critics which describe how and why he got it wrong or even how he is right inspite of being chronologically inconsistent and what he actually meant by getting the years deliberately wrong.
- I also discovered a few typos in the edition of the book I read. For example, there is a chapter called ‘Some Account of the Diaries of Pontarlier’ in which the ‘diaries’ should really be ‘dairies’. In another place, there is this sentence – ‘the services that he rendered to the region where so brilliant’, which should really be ‘…were so brilliant’. It looks like the eagle-eyed editor’s pencil was taking a break for a while. It is always fun to catch the words which escape the editor’s pencil
- I loved the first part of the book, ‘Fantine’. There are interesting anecdotes, noble characters, beautiful passages, sad events and a tragic ending. I can’t wait to find out what happens to Jean Valjean next.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
…they were students, and to say student is to say Parisian; to study in Paris is to be born in Paris.
Table talk and lovers’ talk equally elude the grasp; lovers’ talk is clouds, table talk is smoke.
Let us say by the way, to be blind and to be loved, is in fact, in this earth where nothing is complete, one of the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness…You see nothing, but you feel adored. It is a paradise of darkness.
There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.
It is certain that we talk with ourselves; there is not a thinking being who has not experienced that. We may say even that the word is never a more magnificent mystery than when it goes, in the interior of a man, from his thought to his conscience, and returns from his conscience to his thought. It is in this sense only that the words must be understood, so often employed in this chapter, he said, he exclaimed; we say to ourselves, we speak to ourselves, we exclaim within ourselves, the external silences not being broken. There is a great tumult within; everything within us speaks, except the tongue. The realities of the soul, because they are not visible and palpable, are not the less realities.
Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depth of thought. It seemed to him that after having descended into these depths, after having groped long in the blackest of this darkness, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he held it in his hand; and it blinded him to look at it.
To sum up, events were rare in his life. We relate those we know of; but usually he passed his life in always doing the same things at the same hours. A month of his year was like an hour of his day.
What was more needed by this old man who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the day time, and contemplation at night? Was not this narrow inclosure, with the sky for a background, enough to enable him to adore God in his most beautiful as well as in his most sublime works? Indeed, is not that all, and what more can be desired? A little garden to walk, and immensity to reflect upon. At his feet something to cultivate and gather; above his head something to study and meditate upon; a few flowers on the earth, and all the stars in the sky.
These are true pleasures. These passages in the lives of happy couples are a profound appeal to life and nature, and call forth endearment and light from everything. There was once upon a time a fairy, who created meadows and trees expressly for lovers. Hence comes that eternal school among the groves for lovers, which is always opening, and which will last so long as there are thickets and pupils. Hence comes the popularity of spring among thinkers. The patrician and the knife-grinder, the duke and peer, and the peasant, the men of the court, and the men of the town, as was said in olden times, all are subjects of this fairy. They laugh, they seek each other, the air seems filled with a new brightness; what a transfiguration is it to love! Notary clerks are gods. And the little shrieks, the pursuits among the grass, the waists encircled by stealth, that jargon which is melody, that adoration which breaks forth in a syllable, those cherries snatched from one pair of lips by another – all kindle up, and become transformed into celestial glories. Beautiful girls lavish their charms with sweet prodigality. We fancy that it will never end. Philosophers, poets, painters behold these ecstasies and know not what to make of them. So dazzling are they. The departure for Cythera! Exclaims Watteau; Lancret, the painter of the commonalty, contemplates his bourgeois soaring in the sky; Diderot stretches out his arms to all these loves, and d’Urfé associates them with the Druids.
Have you read ‘Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo? What do you think about it?