Les Miserables

by Victor Hugo (1862)


I should have read the abridged version.

I know: heresy, right? But the bloat of this really beat me into submission. I was skipping probably one out of every three pages by the end, and really I think that’s about how long it should have been: 1/3 fewer pages, right around 1000. I felt at the beginning that Hugo’s writing was like a cross between Dickens and Tolstoy, but unfortunately he ended up much closer to Dickens’s maudlin melodrama than Tolstoy’s compelling epic. Dickens without the sense of humor (and twice as long) is not a good combination.

The worst part of the bloat, as compared to say War and Peace, was that but for certain stretches (Waterloo, the Convent, the “gamin,” the sewers) it was so enmeshed with the narrative, so unpredictable, that there was really no way around it if you wanted to skip it. Whereas in W&P you would know right away if you were in one of those “philosophy of history” chapters, here you were trotting right along with Jean or Marius until you suddenly trip over a three page essay on despair. It was impossible to build momentum.

The story: sure, why not? It’s not OMG amazing but it was compelling when you could find it. Personally I would prefer a story where Paris seemed to have more than 20 people who keep miraculously running into each other, but I get why Hugo needed it this way. Also, at risk of being a killjoy: wouldn’t it have made a lot more sense for Jean Valjean to just abscond with Cosette to England or Switzerland or any other neighboring country once they had smuggled themselves out of the Convent? I realize that would have probably precluded any further dramatic action in the story, but still — wouldn’t that have pretty much been checkmate on Javert? If Valjean was really that concerned with living in safety with Cosette that’s what he should have done. Joy: killed.

The characters: Jean Valjean is certainly iconic; I dug him, maybe not so much his extended self-torment but at least what he stands for. But he’s not necessarily more impactful for me than say, Sydney from A Tale of Two Cities. Cosette was really underdeveloped — I know I know: the era it’s written in and all that. . . But all the characters became pretty flat by the end, motivated solely by Love. Blech. Gavroche was the main exception — he totally illuminated whatever chapter he happened to grace. And now that I think about it, what ever happened to his brothers? They were one of the only loose ends in the entire book.

Anyway yeah. . . I’m glad I know the story now and can appreciate all the cultural references I’m sure I’ll be seeing. But I could have done the same having read the abridged version, and saved myself probably an entire 24 hours of reading. At least I can finally clear some significant space from my cramped shelf. Vive Gavroche!

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