It took more than a month. It was dark, deep, educational. It was fulfilling and I’m glad I did it.
I read — every last word — the unabridged Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. My paperback copy was a little more than 1,460 pages of very small print. Hugo spent hundreds of pages on subjects peripheral to the story, but not necessary. He spent pages and pages and pages describing, in great detail, the Battle of Waterloo, which marked the downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte. That section ended with an event vital to certain motivations and actions of Marius, one of the key characters in the novel. It had a purpose. It could have been stated succinctly, but then it wouldn’t be Les Misérables. He spent about sixty or so pages giving the history of the sewer system that runs beneath Paris, only because towards the end of the novel, Jean Valjean saves his and Marius’ lives by escaping through the sewers, carrying an unconscious Marius all the way.
It was an arduous journey. My friend E introduced me to the musical soundtrack way back in seventh grade and I’ve been in love with it ever since. I’ve never seen the musical. I watched part of the 25th anniversary performance on PBS a few months ago. I watched the 1998 film with Liam Neeson, which was not very good and changed the story way too much for my taste. I bought the book when I was 19 — that’s fifteen whole years ago — and started reading it, but didn’t get very far.
It was finally time to tackle it. The whole thing. The leviathan.
I’m glad I did.
Something that struck me pretty hard reading this book is how little human nature changes. That’s something I’ve always known, but I’ve been reading a lot of classics over the last year and seeing those words and emotions written on paper from a hundred or more years ago strikes home that sentiment. Human beings will always struggle for liberty and there will always be villains trying to keep it from us. There will always be men and women so power-hungry they’re willing to hold others down to get it or keep it. Sometimes people see this villainy where it doesn’t actually exist. Sometimes it really does. But the things that were happening then are happening now, still. There are new faces, different underlying causes, but in the end, it’s all the same. The hippies of the 1960s mirrored the group portrayed by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance. Looking around me in 2012, I see the same people with the same mindset. And that’s only one of many examples I could cite, but I don’t want to get too far off my subject. It’s all a lesson in “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The world is full of patterns and those trapped in them can’t seem to recognize where they are. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I’m ambiguous, I think. I see it. I’m in a way cynical about it because I know it won’t change. But I also feel calm because I know it won’t change. I just live and hope for the best while expecting the worst.
I won’t lie. There’s nothing happy about anything that happens in that book. It’s depressing. The title says it all. Every time it looks like someone might actually find happiness, that happiness eudes whichever character is on the verge. Even the ending isn’t happy. (Warning — spoilers for anyone who doesn’t know anything about this, which obviously means you’ve been living under a rock your entire life.)
The book ends with Cosette and Marius happily married with more money than they know what to do with. That’s happy, sure. But because of a misunderstanding — lack of facts, really — Marius drives Jean Valjean from Cosette’s life and Jean Valjean dies of heartbreak right at the moment when Marius and Cosette realize the truth and come to claim Jean Valjean back into their family. So, they get to spend the rest of their lives with that guilt.
The worst villain in the story, Thénardier, who is so much worse in the book than in the musical, escapes without punishment for any of his crimes. He goes to America and becomes a rich man by trading slaves.
It’s truly, truly awful, while being truly, truly incredible. Hugo was an amazing writer. He got into my head. The book stayed with me for a week after I read the last word, and I wanted to read it again immediately.
I didn’t. I picked up another book. A modern one. A lighter one. One that took fewer than two days to read. I needed to cleanse my soul.