Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More Miserables

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, translated by Julie Rose. 1,376 pages. Modern Library. $28.00.

Ever since its publication in 1862, Victor Hugo's towering tale of injustice has been subject to any number of editions: from just-the-story abridgements to fuller treatments that trimmed and cut at will. In her new translation, Julie Rose is nothing if not devout, restoring not only some 100,000 words left out of recent translations, but an additional hundred pages of excellent footnotes that explain every last obscure reference in full detail.

If you are a truly scholarly reader who can think of nothing more delightful than flipping between front and back, you'll probably hit Nirvana at page 98, when there's a five-page chapter full of nothing more than droll asides about the year 1817. This chapter has either been left out of recent versions or placed in the back as an appendix. Rose not only restores it to its proper place in the narrative, but gives us no less than 87 footnotes, which themselves take up eight pages of text.

It's the full Hugo: an old-fashioned, melodramatic, alternately absorbing, heart-rending and tiresome story of justice, forgiveness and redemption, and an exhaustively personal, cultural and emotional history of 19th Century France, launching at a moment's notice into extended rambles on topics ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to slang, convents, sexual morality, rats and sewers. When you see a chapter with a title like "Paris Studied Down To Its Merest Atom," you know you're in the hands of a real completist. Like so many novelists of the 19th Century, Hugo wanted it all -- a story about the heart of mankind and the soul of the age.

"The book that the reader has before his eyes at this moment," Hugo announces from deep within the belly of the book, "is, from one end to the other, as a whole and in its every detail, whatever its irregularities, its exceptions or shortcomings, a step from bad to good, from the unjust to the just, from the false to the true, from night to day, from appetite to awareness, from rottenness to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Starting point: matter; end point: the soul. A hydra in the beginning, an angel at the end."

Set in post-Revolutionary France and climaxing with the uprising of 1832, the story of Jean Valjean's struggle for redemption still has quite a grip on the attention. An ex-convict who has been shown mercy by a kindly priest, Valjean valiantly tries to redeem himself despite the pursuit of Inspector Javert, a remorseless police captain who wants to send Valjean back to prison.

Bent on reforming himself, Valjean becomes a skilled worker, then a rich businessman, and then a widely loved and respected Mayor known for his charity. He takes particular pity on Fantine, a dying former prostitute who has left her daughter Cosette to the care of the Thenardiers, a trashy and barbaric couple who run a miserable little diner. With Javert nipping at his heels, Valjean rescues Cosette and takes refuge in a convent, where Cosette will be raised to be the very model of chastity and eventually fall in love with the noble Marius, a valiant rebel of the uprising who hears the people sing, singing the song of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again -- oops, sorry. It's hard to read this book without occasionally singing the show tunes.

I first read the book at 17, and one scene after the next came flooding back to memory: Fantine's decline from a naive beauty to a toothless, broken, pitiable wretch; the fascinating horror of those utter sleazebags the Thenardiers; Valjean's escape from Javert and his final confrontation with him, and the very powerful battle scenes, which Hugo witnessed and which very often have the feel of on-the-spot reporting. It's a very easy to follow story, eventhough you tend to sense the writer wheezing under the strain as he tries to weld together the many subplots that make up the book, and how they all interconnect.

Like Moby-Dick, written ten years earlier, and War and Peace, written three years later, Les Miserables combines a rich and extended story with a vast amount of philosophical and theological ruminations. There, however, the resemblance ends, as Hugo's discursive sermons tend to be windy and dull, and his characters lack dimension. Valjean is good, Fantine is a victim, Javert is unforgiving, the Thenardiers are wretched gutter-trash, Marius is heroic and Cosette is just suffocatingly perfect.

Also, Hugo is a relentless cornball. The story is clotted with aphorisms that are both cheesy and stupid, such as "...no one can keep a secret the way a child can" or "Laughter is like sunshine; it chases winter away from the human face" or "Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one that shines brightest -- and blackest, alas!"

His description of Cosette and Marius is particularly syrupy, as the lovers are "two beings, made up of every form of chastity and every form of innocence, overflowing with every kind of heaven-sent felicity, closer to archangels than to human beings..."

In fact, these two are so pure that even nature itself trembles in adoration: "All flowers opened around them and sent them incense; they opened their souls and spread them among the flowers. The lascivious and vigorous vegetation quivered, full of sap and euphoria, around these two innocents and they spoke words of love that made the trees shiver."

Les Miserables may not, in the end, be a great novel, but it is a great, messy story; mawkish, dramatic, moving, and still very much of a hydra to the end.

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