Les Misérables is a novel by French author Victor Hugo (1802-1885), first published in 1862. I read it in a unabridged English translation by Charles Wilbour, thoroughly revised by Lee Fahnestock and Norman Mcafee. Wilbour was a contemporary of Hugo and actually released his English edition the same year as original French edition. This translation was later revised by Fahnestock and Mcafee in 1987.
Les Misérables (the title can be translated as The Wretched) is of course the story of Jean Valjean, a poor man condemned to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her children. He is released in the year of the restoration, 1815, full of bitterness for his fate. But he is shown kindness by the saintly Bishop of Digne. This convinces Valjean to live a life of compassion. He becomes a hero, improving and saving the lives of many. Most important to him is the orphan girl Cosette, who he saves from the abusive home of the villainous Thenardier. But Jean Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the police officer Javert, whose Manichean and rigid view of law and justice sees in Valjean only a criminal to be arrested. This is the main, but far from the only plotline in this epic novel, which has its climax in the failed French revolt of 1832.
This is a novel about the evil of poverty and inequality, the degradation of which is depicted in horrific detail. It is an evil that can make good men like Valjean turn to crime and good women like Cosette's mother Fantine turn to prostitution. The legal system, embodied by the narrowminded Javert, harshly condemns such crimes, but condones the greater disaster of poverty.
A solution is glimpsed in the noble, but failed revolution of 1832. It attempted to create a new French republic based on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity by overthrowing the July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe (itself established in response to the revolution of 1830). The 1832 revolt was crushed within days, but the novel depicts the revolutionaries in heroic terms.
It is also a novel about the importance and redemptive power of love and compassion. A single act of compassion is enough to put Jean Valjean on the albeit painful road to a life of selfless kindness. The redemptive power of love was of course a common theme in the romantic era.
The novel takes on real-life social issues and historical events, yet the tone is completely romantic. The emotions expressed by both the prose and the characters are overwhelmingly strong. The plot is a grand adventure story exemplary of romantic era prose, which often relies on coincidence. Characters and situations are delineated with broad and vivid strokes, although not without subtlety.
A considerable part of the book consists of essayistic digressions by Hugo on various topics. The subjects include the battle of Waterloo, revolutions in general, the Paris Sewer system, monasteries, Parisian street urchins and argot (slang) among criminals. In most cases these are pure digressions that don't develop the plot or characters. The wide variety of topics discussed gives the novel almost an encyclopedic nature. Indeed, this novel might be a rare example of the encyclopedic narrative, a genre category proposed by literary theorist Edward Mendelson.
These digressions are major reason for why the novel is so long (1460 pages in my edition). This length is why there are many abridged versions of Les Misérables. The editions I could find in my native language, Swedish, were all abridged, which is why I resorted to reading this novel in English. As mentioned above, the translation I read was by Charles Wilbour, revised by Fahnestock and Mcafee. I found it to be a fine translation, although the language is quite archaic because of the age of the original translation, despite the changes made by Fahnestock/Mcafee.
No matter the minor faults of the translation, it made me understand why Les Misérables is considered one of greatest novels ever written. Hugo's concerns of inequality, poverty, social justice, compassion and revolution are of course still relevant today. The book demonstrated the ability of literary romanticism to take on real life issues in a convincing manner.
The plot relies too much on coincidence to be realistic, but the story told is still suspenseful and moving. Hugo's characterization may not be as subtle as that of the great realist writers like Tolstoy, but still a grand example of the romantic style. The characters are vivid, interesting and memorable. And that is why the story is so moving, despite occasional moments of emotional excess.
The essayistic digressions can also be excessive, at least in length. Yet Hugo was a fine essayist and they often make for interesting reading. There are often moments of brilliant writing to be found in them. That's why my advice is to read an unabridged version of this novel, despite the length and the many abridged versions that exist.
Hugo's preface to Les Misérables may have best explained the reason why the novel is still read today: "...so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be need for books such as this"....Continua
onestamente leggendolo pensavo gli avrei dato 'solo' 4 stelle per la presenza di lunghe digressioni storiche e filosofiche che in alcuni punti ne appesantiscono la lettura.
alla fine, invece, si capisce che la creazione di una figura incommensurabile come Jean Valjean, che riassume in sè il vescovo Bienvenu, la piccola Cosette, la disgraziata Fantine, il furioso Marius, il burbero Gillenormand merita da sola ben più di cinque stelle....Continua