This book... Would I be able to describe it? Hmm. Imagine eating a full tray of space cakes and sitting down for a David Lynch adaption of Catch-22. Nope, doesn't even come close. An Alice in Wonderland pornography, set in the 40s Europe, shown on a silver screen laced with cocaine, through a miasma of pot smoke? No... Some kind of occult cinema. I struggle to say something other than "magical realism:" I think it's more of a perversion, or a mystification, of reality. It is irreverent, lewd, funny, dense. Slapstick, historical anecdotes, and technical details are woven into racism, scatology, pedophilia, and--worst of all--word play. It is Pynchon standing erect as I kneel in front of him, his face shrouded in darkness as he strokes his cock, my eyes fixed to his movements, my mouth open and hungry for his literary load. This image is not one of abstraction: it's not an act of dominance and submission between two separate forces, no, we are one in an act of pure linguistic hedonism.
A conversation about the last 150 of this book:
v: let me know if you finish it me: but uhh you can spoil if you want, i don't work like that me: with the spoilage thing v: the ending is basically like if you took a vase and dropped it on the floor in slow motion v: i can't really spoil it even if i wanted to v: it's not even things that happen v: i have to reread that part 4 more times i think (many days later) me: oh wait me: is this the stuff you were talking about.. me: i guess it is me: what the hell v: you are lost and gone forever oh my darling clementine me: jesus me: it's undulating v: yeah i was pretty much crosseyed and droolin
Rather than a vase in slow motion, I'd say it was like watching Xavier: Renegade Angel. But then I suppose the whole book is like that.
First, a pro-tip: if reading a translation, make sure you do a comparison of the various editions before starting. They var...more560,000 words of holy fuck.
First, a pro-tip: if reading a translation, make sure you do a comparison of the various editions before starting. They vary wildly. Some are more modern, tidied up a bit, using more current slang, etc. Here's a start, but that doesn't include the most recent and popular Rose translation (more modern than those listed). I read the one by Isabel Hapgood, one of the most flowery and long-winded ones. I loved it, but it's definitely not for everyone.
Now. It took me some three or four months to finish this book. At points I thought it would stay with me much longer than it did. This was a comforting fantasy, because that's really what I wanted; I wanted it to be 10,000 pages, to go on for years. Some nights I lived in this book. Quantitatively, it made me weep (for joy, for sadness) and gasp and shout out "shit shit shit shit!" more than I can remember any other book having done.
Because who did not cry over Fantine in bed, waiting for her daughter? Who can forget Cosette's first meeting with Valjean in that forest? Who did not feel rancor swell in their hearts toward the Thenardiers, and were not awed by the adamant goodness of Bishop Myriel? Who were not mystified by Javert's inflexibility? Who can forget Gavroche's death? Ahh.
If you just want a straight-up story, the heart of the matter, the actual plot line, you'll be sorely frustrated. The book has literally hundreds of pages on historical events (most notably the Battle of Waterloo), French society, politics, and Paris (including several chapters on the history of Paris' sewer system). But I understand there's editions that sport page counts from anywhere between 300 to 800 pages, so you can take a measure of your patience.
The pacing of the prose is fantastic. It got me every single time.
There'll be some twenty pages of beatific prose about revolts, about June 1848 in contrast to June 1832, about the masses rising up against injustice, about men killing his fellow man, about the proletariat eating itself in its voraciousness. On and on, until the narrative finally descends back to the story line like an angel from heaven landing on a tightrope, a return that is still an ascent in the prose, building up to a page long soliloquy by one of the characters, an entreaty to the insurgents of that June 1832 who has mothers, children, or wives still living, to make them leave while they still can, to forsake glorious death for the sake of their family, to not be selfish. No one wants to give up death, until finally the story's heroes has won over vainglory with gloom. Five insurgents step forward; there are only four uniforms to use for a camouflaged escape. One of the protagonists, Marius, must select one to remain, to die for the Republic:
"He advanced towards the five, who smiled upon him, and each, with his eyes full of that grand flame which one beholds in the depths of history hovering over Thermopylae, cried to him:
'Me! Me! Me!'"
The prose has reached its pinnacle, and Hugo releases it with a series of spaced monosentence paragraphs:
"At that moment, a fifth uniform fell, as if from heaven, upon the other four.
The fifth man was saved.
Marius raised his eyes and recognized M. Fauchelevent.
Jean Valjean had just entered the barricade."
Jesus Kristus. Yes, such a stupid, cliched, pretentiously grandiloquent, naively predictable climax... Yet it gets me and I completely lose my shit and shout as I'm reading.
This book is one cliche after the other. It's flowery and romantic to the point of being utterly ludicrous. But I fell for everything. Goddamnit all to hell.
Only at the very end, when I was cheating on this book with the beautifully restrained I Capture the Castle, does Hugo actually go so far with his rampant romanticism (in describing the consummation of a certain marriage) that I suddenly wake up and go "what the fuck is this? How could I have been into this book? This is totally ridiculous." But I was into it. I was, I was, I was.(less)