{Book Review} Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean – the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread – Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. This Signet Classic edition is a new version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic nineteenth-century Charles E. Wilbour translation.*

You might have wondered how come there are copies of Les Misérables out on the market with only 500 pages while there are others that are a staggering ~1500 pages long. What could possibly be in the unabridged version that only a third of the book remains for abridged consumption? I am not going to lie. I totally understand how a thousand pages could be shaved off and honestly, you could still get the meatiest parts of the plot. Victor Hugo has a knack for relating the histories of the most obscure things in painfully long paragraphs filled with meticulous details that you could live the rest of your life not knowing. There are whole chapters on battles (those were interesting for me), goings-on in secluded convents (slightly interesting), and sewers (not at all). It’s crazy and even the most patient reader could get a tad annoyed. If you are to read Les Misérables, though, I would still insist on reading the unabridged version. All 1463 pages of it, like my paperback version. In all its full glory.

Why?

(WARNING: As E.M. Forster would say: ‘One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.’ So get ready.)

Les Misérables is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, and thorough books I have ever read. I know I use ‘beautiful’ quite a lot in my past reviews, but this is just a whole other level. It transcends beauty. I picked up the book expecting to read about some character’s life journey, because that’s the only way this book could reach that many pages, right? Wrong. I expected to get myself acquainted with the characters and their lives, but in the end I got their entire world. This goes complete with history, geography, politics, with bonus philosophy, and several others things thrown in that I certainly didn’t bargain for, but you know what? For all the difficulties reading those things gave me, I loved it.

Hugo’s (somewhat) helpful supplications of history and explanations gave me the background information I didn’t know I needed, making me appreciate the setting more. I felt like I lived within French society in the early 19th century because of the information I gathered that only a resident could possibly know.

And goodness, the characters. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved them all. Hugo’s detailed descriptions of their personalities, back stories, memories, thoughts, actions, and internal conflicts created a myriad of people with intersecting lives, making the main parts of the story very interesting. I particularly love Jean Valjean, Fantine, Gavroche, Enjolras, and Eponine, but honestly, you could like any character and I wouldn’t be surprised. They all had several facets in their personality that goes beyond your first impression of them. You couldn’t help but understand why they do what they do once you understand their motives. I really felt sorry for all their hardships, even the difficult ones, because you know they all need to survive, but only do them in their own ways.

I was lurking around Goodreads when I stumbled across this quote by Mick Foley:

“A big book is like a serious relationship; it requires a commitment. Not only that, but there’s no guarantee that you will enjoy it, or that it will have a happy ending. Kind of like going out with a girl, having to spend time every day with her – with absolutely no guarantee of nailing her in the end. No thanks.”

When you pick up Les Misérables, don’t expect to read something gripping that’s supposed to make you fly through the pages till the end. There are several books out there for that purpose, and Hugo never meant for it to be like that. Don’t expect happy endings. Sometimes a perfect ending is nothing you expect it to be. Don’t expect instant enlightenment. Like the characters, you would have to journey and think about it for a while. Do expect a commitment. It’s not going to be easy reading this book, but I promise, it will be worth it. Don’t leave it, and it won’t leave you. Do expect change. The two weeks it took me to read through this book turned out to be my own personal journey, because when I finished it, I honestly wanted to be a better human being. Really! I know it sounds preposterous and silly, but it’s true. I feel engulfed in a halo because I swear, the book changed me. I may forget some characters’ names, or some parts of the book, but I will never forget the emotions it got out of me and the way it has touched and inspired me in so many ways.

Les Misérables is a beautiful story of humanity in all its forms, good or bad, in all its beauty and filth, in all its problems and triumphs, as it goes through life in its constant struggle for redemption. Just please, please, please, read it and be inspired.

PS
I feel the need to mention the highly successful musical and film adaptations here. I loved them so, so much. I am pretty much still reeling from watching Les Misérables in the cinema last night. If you loved them, I promise you, you will love the book. It’s all really beautiful.

PPS

Day 6: Or, it’s already been six days since you finished the book. Just get over it already. To which my heart says: No.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

1463 pages
Author: Victor Hugo
Original Language: French
Published: 1862
Genre: Classic, Drama

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{Book Review} Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Cyrano De Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac occupies a unique place in the modern theater. Deliberately disavowing realism and contemporary relevance, Rostand’s masterpiece represents a turning back in time and spirit to an earlier age of high adventure and soaring idealism. Its magnificent hero, Cyrano – noble of soul and grotesque in appearance, gallant Gascon soldier, brilliant wit, and timid lover, alternately comic, heroic, and tragic – represents one of the most challenging of all acting roles in its complexity and mercurial changes of mood. From its original production to the present day, Cyrano de Bergerac has enjoyed a charmed existence on the stage, its unflagging pace of action and eloquence of language enchanting critics and public alike. Here, in a superlative translation, is the ultimate triumph of the great French critic Lemaître, “prolongs, unites, and blends… three centuries of comic fantasy and moral grace.”*

*from my book blurb

I have noticed that my latest reviews are brought about by intense feelings that had to be expressed. This applies to this book VERY MUCH. You know those stories where the guy falls in love with a girl, but the girl likes someone else, and so the guy helps that someone else just for the girl’s happiness? This is like a classic version of that. It is so heartbreaking and at the same time so beautiful that I just can’t help but stop as I drink the words in. This is the kind of plot that transcends time and could be universally understood by just about anyone, but there is something about the language in which it is executed that manages to make you stop and read it all over again.

I love Cyrano de Bergerac for many reasons. He is funny. He is witty. He is intelligent. He is headstrong and courageous. His sensitivity on the topic of his thrice-larger-than-normal nose is sadly amusing. He is in love with Roxane, but because he knows that she is in love with Christian, one of his fellow Cadets, he has taken it upon himself to help Christian in wooing her. It’s a really depressing situation, but Cyrano’s love for Roxane is such that he would be willing to see her happiness at the expense of his own. The events that transpire in this sort of arrangement are such downers indeed for Cyrano, and even though I was screaming to him in my mind to just admit that all those letters Christian wrote for Roxane were really products of his amazing talent, I couldn’t help but see the beauty of it. I doubt that this story would have been half as tragically beautiful as it is with him being the agonizing lover in the shadows.

I also have to give props to Edmond Rostand for his flawless writing. I have the sort of modernized translation of the play by Lowell Bair, but even then, the words that frolic together in the verses pay homage to a timeless romance that is totally unforgettable for me and to several generations of readers and theatre-goers who had the privilege of learning Cyrano’s story. The type of love that Rostand managed to portray through Cyrano is so pure and sincere, the type that makes anyone radiant to the point that even a nose that is not pleasant to look at cannot outshine it.

Please read this play. Its beauty just pierces the heart in a way that contemporary romance doesn’t (at least for me). If ever I do fulfill that part of my bucket list that says “learn the mother tongue of Victor Hugo, Madame de Pompadour, and the Phantom of the Opera,” I am going to find a copy of this in the original French, and I will read it.

And because I am such a sucker for magnificent prose, I am going to share a few of my favorite quotes:

There, now you have an inkling of what you might have said to me if you were witty and a man of letters. Unfortunately you’re totally witless and a man of very few letters: only the four that spell the word “fool.” But even if you had the intelligence to invent remarks like those I have given you as examples, you would not have been able to entertain me with them. You would have spoken no moe than half the first syllable of the first word, because such jesting is a privilege that I grant only to myself.

She’s a mortal danger without meaning to be one; she’s exquisite without giving it a thought; she’s a trap set by nature, a rose in which love lies in ambush! Anyone who has seen her smile has known perfection. She creates grace without movement, and makes all divinity fit into her slightest gesture. And neither Venus in her shell, nor Diana striding in the great, blossoming forest, can compare to her when she goes through the streets of Paris in her sedan chair!

After all, what is a kiss? A vow made closer range, a more precise promise, a confession that contains its own proof, a seal places on a pact that has already been signed; it’s a secret told to the mouth rather than to the ear, a fleeting moment filles with the hush of eternity, a communion that has the fragrance of a flower, a way of living by the beat of another heart, and tasting another soul on one’s lips!

My personal favorite is Cyrano’s last monologue. It is too long to be typed here, and I don’t want to spoil it, but the effect it had on me was such that after reading the last words, I had to put down the book for a bit and think about life… really. It is THAT good. So please. For my sake, for the sake of theatre, for the sake of romance, read this.

PS

No, I haven’t watched Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)nor have I watched the famous Roxanne (1987) with Steve Martin in it, but now that I have read this, they are my topmost priority for film choices at the next available opportunity. I have, however, watched Penelope (2006) with James McAvoy and Christina Ricci. Very cute, without the tragedy of Cyrano’s tale but with the ugly nose in the form of a pig snout, and not as good as the emotions I got from reading this.

PPS

Incidentally, this is the last book that completes my personal reading challenge for this year! 125 books! This personal achievement is made  so much sweeter by that fact that this book is quickly becoming one of my favorites. ❤

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

240 pages
Author: Edmond Rostand
Original Language: French
Published: 1897
Genre: Romance, Drama, Classic, Play