Les Miserables is a monumental novel with monumental faults. At over twelve hundred pages in a single volume, it is, literally, the biggest book I have read. When I take it out of my bag on the bus, I feel like I’m unfolding a piece of furniture. If I leave it on my desk at work, people stop and ask “what’s that”, as if it’s sheer size makes it unrecognisable as a book. My Arts degree was a smaller commitment (not that that’s saying much).
Luckily, most of it’s really good. The scale of Hugo’s ambition and intellect is dazzling. He attempts to capture the entirety of the social and cultural climate of his age, and in most cases, succeeds. Unfortunately, he’s also a self-indulgent wind-bag who is so eager to display his vast knowledge and research that he is prone to long, trying tangents.
The opening of the novel is like an entry exam on the reader’s dedication level. The first seventy pages are devoted to extolling the virtues of an ancillary character, the Bishop Bienvue. There is no conflict, no plot advancement – just anecdote after anecdote of why the Bishop is the best guy ever. More than any other figure, he embodies Hugo’s values, exemplifying Christian charity and forgiveness, while shunning the hypocritical extravagance of the church.
Present in this prelude are the author’s other major strength and weakness – his beautiful idealism, and his tendency to spell out all possible subtext until it is as discreet as flashing neon signs marked ‘social message’ and ‘character’s motivation’.
The plot picks up when Jean Valjean enters the picture. When he is introduced, he is a much more wretched and barbaric character than that which would be familiar to fans of the musical. His savageness is linked with his ignorance and poverty, two evils that Hugo, thoroughly a romantic and enlightened man, rails against with a directness which is confronting to a modern reader.
Thereafter, the novel proceeds in long stretches in which characters and plots are established in ways that are engaging and insightful, but often overly long. The climaxes of the numerous sections occur in great surges of action that are as gripping as any swashbuckling adventure or tragic romance. Unfortunately, the momentum is frequently arrested by frustrating diversions on largely irrelevant matters, such as the thirty page account of the battle of Waterloo, or the exhaustive description of the daily habits of a small sect of nuns.
Still, if you love being immersed in a fictional world, and are willing to stick it out through some the tangents, Les Miserables rewards with big ideas, insight, and some great writing. Give it a go.
To be continued…