Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Salon: On reading Les Miserables

If you have been taking note of the books that I have listed as Currently Reading at the bottom of every Sunday Salon post, you may have noticed that I have had the same book listed there for a couple of months. My intention was to finish Victor Hugo's Les Miserables before I went to see the movie. In the end, I went to see the movie a couple of weeks ago, so today I am going to post about my experience of reading the book because I finished it this week (yay!) as well as about how seeing the movie when I did affected my reading experience. Bree from All the Books I Can Read started the book around the same time as I did but finished it much earlier. It seemed like a good chance to have a discussion about the book.

This is the first part of the discussion post. You can read the second part of the discussion at Bree's blog.

Marg: In a way I am often a little bit concerned about trying to review a classic like this book. While I felt a profound sense of achievement when I closed the book for the last time a few days ago, the reality is that I am not the first one to do so! Having said that, I often find when I do read such well known stories that I assume that everyone knows what the book is about, and often it isn't the case. I haven't seen the musical of Les Miserables, but I knew that the main characters were Jean Valjean and Fantine, and and so I expected the novel to focus on them I was therefore somewhat surprised when Fantine played a pivotal but short role. Other than that, I didn’t really know a lot about the story. Did you know much about the story before you started it?

Bree: To be honest - absolutely nothing! Some classics I have a vague idea of the plot and the characters but Les Miserables is one of the ones where I really didn’t know anything at all about it before beginning. I picked it up on a whim really - after you’d mentioned a read-a-long you were going to participate in, my original reaction was 1200p over 4 weeks? No way! But the more I thought about it, the more it interested me. I’ve made it a resolution to read more classics (don’t ask me how I’m going with that) and this one is iconic. So I decided to tackle it. Like you, I felt a huge sense of achievement when I finished the novel. It’s a long book, it’s quite involved and quite honestly, after the first 60-odd pages, I wasn’t even sure I was going to continue. Victor Hugo never met a tangent he didn’t love to embrace and at times I struggled with some of these. But there’s a great core story weaving through the book, isn’t there?

Marg: Definitely, the story itself is great, but oh, those tangents. The book begins on a tangent, with many pages talking about the bishop in a small town, about his habits, his background. Now, he was important in terms of his impact on the former galley slave Jean Valjean and he certainly shaped the man that Jean was to become, but that was a lot of background! Those kinds of tangents continued with pages and pages about Waterloo, and even towards the end lots of pages about the Paris sewer system.

I couldn’t help but wonder what this book would have looked like had it been published today. It would probably have been at least halved in size! There would not have been the slow build up at the beginning and a lot of the other extra information, like an extended discussion about the difference between a riot and a revolution, would most likely have not been included!

In terms of the core story, Jean Valjean is a man who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Originally imprisoned for 4 years, his sentence was extended several times because he kept on trying to escape before finally being released after 19 years. The rules for released prisoners are very strict, so when Valjean breaks the rules, he is in effect once again a fugitive.

Bree: I totally agree about what would’ve happened to the novel, should it have been published today. Chunksters of the 1200p variety aren’t too common these days and it seems like most stories get a pretty ruthless edit and anything not immediately useful to the story gets the chop. For me, the novel started when Jean Valjean appeared, that’s when I became interested and every time it deviated from that, I lost a little bit of interest until he reappeared again. He reinvents himself so many times during this novel, he’s such a fascinating character. He loses 25 years in a prison, so he’s already middle aged when he’s released the first time and really ‘begins’ his life on the outside. Then he chooses to devote himself to raising Cosette and he’s more than just a guardian to her. He’s a father, a grandfather, a friend - for a long time he’s all she ever really had. Their relationship is a real triumph in the novel, I think. Hugo says a lot about them with the glimpses he gives the reader into some of their time together at various stages of Cosette’s life. I think the two of them might have been my favourite part.

Marg: That is definitely the strongest relationship in the book by far, especially seeing as the thread that connects them was rather obscure in the beginning, although I did enjoy Marius’ story a lot as well.

One of the things I found myself pondering when I finished the book was the links between the characters, the way that they were all connected and were drawn back together even after years apart. Jean Valjean, Fantine and her daughter Cosette, Marius and his father, the Thenardiers, and even Inspector Javert seemed to be locked into a connection that just would not let them go.

Bree: There are a lot of.... coincidences in this novel! I’m not entirely sure how large a city Paris was at this time, but I’m assuming it was big enough for all of these to be extraordinarily unlikely, but they do make the book quite fun, puzzling out all of the different ways in which characters are related to one another, or how they have crossed paths in their past.

Marg: When I saw the movie, I did lean over to my friend and wonder if Javert was the only policeman in France at the time!

I know that you haven’t seen the movie (you really should!), but I did find it helped me get through the last half of the book, because I had a fair idea what was coming. Given that we talked before about all the tangents, I actually missed some of the details that were in the book. For example, when we first meet Fantine in the movie, she is working in the workshop and her baby is already being looked after by the Thenardiers, with Fantine sending money to them regularly. What we didn’t see is anything about the relationship, about how she came to leave Cosette at the inn. We also didn’t get the background on Marius and his family and their complicated relationships.

Getting back to the plot, Valjean reinvents himself once he gets out of prison and becomes a gentleman of independent means. When he decides that he is going to rescue Cosette from her living hell with the Thenardiers, they come to Paris. Having narrowly escaped from being arrested by Javert again, the two of them settle into a quiet, contented life. One day, at a park in Paris, a young man named Marius notices the beautiful Cosette and so begins a period of unrequited passion between the two.

How did you find this section?

You will need to go and read the second part of the post to find out the answer to this question, plus a discussion about translations, footnotes and more!

Rating 4/5


Sensational, dramatic, packed with rich excitement and the sweep and violence of human passions, Les Miserables is one of the greatest adventure stories ever told. It is a novel peopled by colourful characters from the nineteenth-century Parisian underworld; the street children, the prostitutes and the criminals. In telling the story of escaped convict Jean Valjean, and his efforts to reform his ways and care for the little girl he rescues from a life a cruelty, Victor Hugo drew attention to the plight of the poor and oppressed. Les Miserables is a masterful detective thriller, a comic and tragic story of romance and revolution, and ultimately, a tale of redemption and hope.
This counts for the 'Book with an emotion in the title' category of the What's in a Name 6 challenge, and I read this for the Historical Tapestry readalong

Currently Reading

The Captive Sun by Irena Karafilly

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The Wedding Shroud by Elisabeth Storrs


  1. Marius' grandfather also got a hefty slice of tangent, but he only gets a line or two in the movie.

    I'm working on a review of Les Mis too, but it's so huge and resists being put in a tidy package!

    1. I did spend quite a lot of time thinking about what needed to be talked about because otherwise it could be overwhelming trying to work out what to say.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about reviewing well known books. I always feel, (a) what can there be left to say and (b) what if I make a mistake, so easy to do in a big book that everyone has studied at school.
    And yet, we shouldn't worry...I read this only a few years ago, and I loved reading your reaction to it. I think that's why every review is worthwhile, because everyone brings different ideas and experiences to it.
    Well done, what's next, War and Peace LOL?

  3. A lovely story, beautifully told and acted with lot of intensity. A perfect cut from the direction. A strong screenplay and powerful dialogues make this movie almost perfect. Not to to be missed. A perfect watch!

  4. Great post, I like the interaction you have with Bree.

  5. Great start to the discussion, Bree and Marg. I too recently picked up a copy of Les Mis, inspired to do so by the movie release. I think i'm about 40 pages in and I really have no idea what's going on. It seems like these 'tangents' will be commonplace in the story!

    It's reassuring to read that Bree had similar reservations early in the story. I will certainly perservere. Perhaps, like Marg I'll watch the movie before finishing it to help me focus a little better.

    1. Lots and lots of tangents! The movie definitely helped me although I wouldn't normally do it.

  6. I love a good classic, and I've been meaning to read Les Miserables. Like you say, if this were to be published today, they'd cut in in half, which is a shame really. I like books that take their time.
    Great discussion/review post!

    1. There is something to be said for books that take their time for sure!

  7. That's a daunting read, congratulations for getting through all the tangents! I dont think I could manage the book ... but I did appreciate the movie. Cheers.

  8. Great post, I really enjoyed it. I didn't know the story at all before seeing the movie a week or two ago (I've seen it twice at the movies now, and seriously tried to get there again today to see it a third time, I think I'm in love with it). I'm now quite desperate to read the book. Which translation did you read? I know that they can have a big impact on how you enjoy it too.

    1. I read the Sarah Rose translation and Bree read Norman Denny. In her half of the discussion there is a comparison of one section between the two translations so I am not sure if that might help your decision.

    2. Thanks so much for suggesting that Marg. I'd forgotten to read part 2 on Bree's blog- it was perfect for me. I'd read a few opinions online and suspected that I wanted to read the Denny- that comparison sealed the deal. And I spied that lovely cover in my local bookshop the other day. I know where I'll be going when I get a day off....

  9. I give you two mad props for reading this classic chunkster. I know for a fact I will never attempt it. just not for me.

    1. I had never really considered reading it until someone suggested doing the readalong!

  10. I haven't read this one but I do plan to soon. Loved reading yours and Bree's posts!



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