Warning: there are vital plot points at the end of this review. But, as a note, you can't call spoilers on a piece of literature this old or classic....moreWarning: there are vital plot points at the end of this review. But, as a note, you can't call spoilers on a piece of literature this old or classic. So you can either read the whole review and deal with it, or read up to the paragraph beginning with "I won't go into details. . ."
I’ve been trying to write my thoughts on Les Miserables since I finished it a few days ago—nearly a week actually. I feel like everything that could be said about it has been said. Especially since the musical came out recently. My voice would probably get lost in that great voice crying out about that great bastardization: the musical version. I did get quite a few people asking about the musical when they saw what I was reading, but I brought that upon myself for starting it when I did. I started it on February 26th, the anniversary of Hugo’s birth, and had no idea the film was being released on DVD around the same time. (The people I follow on Tumblr let me know rather quickly though, and also ruined some key plot points, so thanks, Tumblr.) I know nothing about the French language—I can say good day and good night and that’s about it—and if you’ve read my other reviews, you know I don’t feel comfortable reviewing the writing style of a translation. It’s so difficult to know which is the author and which is the translator. So I’ll be reserving my opinions for the story as much as possible. The version I read is supposed to be a very good translation though, if everything I’ve read is any indication. It was the first unabridged English translation. A guy at work asked me what the book was about. I don’t know if he was genuinely curious or just making small talk, but I couldn’t help but laugh at it. I simply replied, “It’s about France.” While there might be small stories within it, it is in actuality, Hugo’s love letter to France. He wrote it while in exile in England, and was essentially wanting to remind the French people of how much he cared about them. I also noticed some heavy criticism of Napoleon III, but I think that was secondary. I think his true focus was the French people, and as a result, it is overtly patriotic. This is not a bad thing. His patriotism is more like the Irish patriotism, and less like the American or English patriotism. He can admit their faults. He loves the French, not because they are perfect, but because they are French and he is French and to be French is a glorious thing—in his mind. I disagree, but I laud that kind of patriotism. (It’s the same kind Dickens had for the English, and Hugo is in many ways the Dickens of France—or is Dickens the Hugo of England? Ah, who knows?) So while the story is factually about Jean Valjean, Javart, Cosette, Marius, and the Thenardiers, it is in a more real way, about France. But as for the “factual” story, it is—Well, perhaps the best way to put is is this: when I finished it, I wanted to start it again. I couldn’t imagine reading anything but this story. I had to force myself to read something else. I honestly think that if I let myself, I could be caught in the cycle of reading Les Miserables over and over again for the rest of my life. There’s enough in it to keep me satisfied, and I’ve only felt that about a small number of novels. Probably only this, Don Quixote, David Copperfield, and Growth of the Soil. Even half way through the book I read after this, in the back of my mind, I kept wondering “Where’s Javert? Where’s Jean Valjean?” And that really did not make sense, since I was reading A Wizard of Earthsea. I won’t go into long details about my opinion on the plot, but I will say, Hugo ended the book, like he usually does, in artistic mastery. My wife complained that Thenardier was never punished, but if he had been, he wouldn’t have been the perfect foil to Valjean. Valjean is a good man who makes a mistake and is punished by fate at every turn, despite his best efforts to be a good man. He does succeeds in the end to be a good man; whereas, Thenardier is a bad man through and through and is given every chance to be a good person, if he’d only take. The crowning moment is when Marius sees him for a scoundrel and still gives him the money he was trying to extort. This is, of course, a mirror of when Jean Valjean steals the silver from Father Myriel, who goes further and gives him the silver candlesticks as well. Valjean uses this gift of kindness for his betrayal as a sign to be a better person and becomes that better person. Thenardier, however, sees Marius’s kindness as dumbluck, accepts it, and uses that kindness to become a more cruel person. And that’s not even going into the foils of Thenardier’s acceptance of Cosette as his ward and Valjean’s acceptance of the same responsibility. My complaint was Jean Valjean’s death at the end. It felt forced, but after thinking about it, I realized that, artistically, he had to die. He is the last of “les miserables,” the miserable ones. Marius and Cosette are happy. Jean Valjean, while he deserves happiness, must die for Marius and Cosette to move on and live happy lives. Although, of course, Valjean achieves, finally, happiness in heaven, but for him to remain in their lives would be, artistically, an intermingling of misery and happiness. The only thing I couldn’t accept was Javert’s suicide. It made no sense. I mean, I see how it came about, but it’s not what I would’ve done in Hugo’s place. It’s never too late to grow as a person, and Javert could’ve become a fuller human being. But I can hardly consider myself worthy to criticize someone such as Victor Hugo, so I assume there is something in Javert’s suicide I was missing.(less)
It's interesting to me how a book can be mediocre throughout and then swing about and hit you square between the eyes with such a powerful ending. I'v...moreIt's interesting to me how a book can be mediocre throughout and then swing about and hit you square between the eyes with such a powerful ending. I've had the experience a couple of times, but none as poignant at Moby Dick. I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, but once they got on the boat and the story was broken up so much by explanations about whaling that I began coasting through it. I thought the writing was done well, but I'm not that interested in whales or whaling. I had actually forgotten that this was the same writer who moved me so much with Bartleby, the Scrivener. And then the last forty or so pages came around. All the time spent getting through the middle of the work is completely worth it for the grandiose climax. I realize my complaint is about as original as calling Holden Caulfield whiny, but whale anatomy IS boring and Holden Caulfield IS whiny. Still, there is a reason why Moby Dick is at the center of the American canon. (I won't go more into my views on that distasteful Catcher in the Rye though.) Of course, interpretations of the White Whale vary from reader to reader, but no matter what you believe Moby Dick represents, whether it be God, fate, the sea, or even time, one cannot help but feel the message of futility in the ending. And maybe therein lies the purpose of all Melville's exposition upon whales and whaling. We can understand these things (meaning God, fate, the sea, time, et cetera) to the extent of knowing their insides as well as we do the surface, but at the end of our lives, it will just as easily be said of us as it was of the Pequod: ". . .and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."(less)