Last year, I did a little survey whimmajig about the 100 books to read before you die. I decided to keep making a dent in that.
So, I chose to read A Tale of Two Cities, which I happened to do first (only a fortnight ago), then follow it up pretty much immediately with another French Revolution style book. Because I can.
Author: Victor Hugo
1862 (Translation 1887 by Isabelle Florence Hapgood)
Project Gutenberg Link
Sometimes Gutenberg can give you weird crap, so I borrowed this from the library. Gutenberg will give you what you need, though. Except patience, because this looks like a TOME.
You know, the actual story part of this book wasn’t that bad. Sure, there were a lot of nonsense relationship issues – like how Monsieur Thenadiers kept popping up – but as a whole there was a compelling reason to like and root for the main character, Jean Valjean. Javert was a great villain because, in Javert world, he was the ultimate good guy. It’s really hard to do lawful evil in such an expert fashion.
The other big plus in this book’s favor was the use of symbols. They were pretty blatantly obvious in some cases – like the bishop’s candlesticks, the yellow passport, and Cosette’s doll. The only book I’ve read that was more literary and filled (well, more dense) with advanced techniques was Moby Dick.
But, unlike Moby Dick which I thought used its exegeses and folios to a somewhat masterful effect, I just felt like Les Miserables could have been about a third of its size and not really missed out on much. Whereas Moby Dick went into some of its themes, such as anti-racism, Les Miserables could sometimes fall into a repetitive loop that lasted for hours of reading. For example, the very first section of Les Mis is about the good bishop Myriel. It goes into excruciating detail with his goodness which, while important in and of itself, does not require hours of reading to understand. This passage could have served its purpose in about a third of the space it took. Several times the book leaps into exegesis of suffering, and his points are repetitive.
Unlike in Moby Dick, which requires a lot of background knowledge for interpretation’s sake, Victor Hugo provides much of that background for you as you read. Certainly, this could be helpful if you know nothing about the French Revolutionary period, but these explanations severely slowed the pace of the story – somehow moreso than even Moby Dick, in my opinion – by not trusting the reader. Rather than using characterization or typical fiction methods to expand on the story or theme, Les Miserables depends on several political and historical passages to explain the author’s thoughts on the French Revolution, its role in history, and its role in society.
Ultimately, you’d like this book if you’re into the French Revolution or French history. I found the Waterloo section to be my favorite part of the book, but perhaps that’s because I like military history somewhat anyway.
2/5 Discoball Snowcones
The story was pretty good for a 19th century story, but let’s just step back for a moment and think of it as a whole:
Jean Valjean wanted to be nice, but nothing he did would work out. It surprised me that everyone just hated Valjean as soon as they found out he was a convict. Literally employ half a town and give away the majority of your riches to the poor? Rescue people and help children? Sacrifice yourself so that another person won’t get hurt? These are the sorts of things that gain you at least some friends, definitely more than were present for Valjean.
At the end, Marius finds out Valjean is a convict and bans him from seeing Cosette, his adopted daughter. It just seemed so, so out of line, even moreso than some of the other instances where this happened.
The Thenadiers’ constant involvement in every plot point also felt quite contrived. For instance, Thenadiers just so happened to save Marius’s father during the battle of Waterloo, which led to Marius’s indebtedness to him. Then, Marius fell in love with Cosette who – at the time – had no apparent link to Thenadiers. It felt a little contrived.
Ultimately, I just wasn’t a fan. It was readable, but that’s really about it.
Can it be? Will I read Anna Karenina, another tome about sad people – but this time Russian!? Stick around to see if I managed to get through yet another enormous book!