Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: Multiple Occasions

Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty. A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.

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Javert 2012 by ThreshTheSky
Used With Permission of the Artist
How does one review Victor Hugo's Les Misérables with any measure of justice? Perhaps the better question is can one do the book justice at all. I sincerely doubt I possess the aptitude for such an undertaking though with the impending release of the newest film adaptation, I must admit I find the novel is often on my mind. A staple of my personal library, the story has ranked among my all-time favorite reads for more than a decade.

Before I get too far into this I should probably clarify that I read the abridged version three times before attempting the unabridged version and I really can't say that one is better than the other. The story itself holds a special place in my heart, but I have absolutely nothing against this period of French history and loved every minute I spent with the original. I suppose which version you read depends on personal taste, how far you are willing to deviate from the central story line to explore history and theme, but assuming the question is to read or not to read, the answer is most definitely to read.

Eponine: Happiness I've Never Known by ThreshThe Sky
Used With Permission of the Artist
One of the many reasons I love this book lies in how it has withstood the test of time. I know that sounds pompous but it really is the most accurate way of putting it. First published in 1862 Hugo’s recreation of the human condition has not succumbed to the passing years. Even now, fifteen decades after its initial release we are touched by Valjean's compassionate nature, moved by Fantine's intense maternal devotion and captivated by Javert's ardent dedication and strict sense of duty. Even in their most desperate moments, the reader can recognize something of themselves in Hugo's cast. His characters and story has retained that universal element of truth and relevance and I may be off base when I say this, but it is my belief that this is the very reason his work has endured.

Les Mis is a tragedy but unlike Shakespeare's work, Hugo's epic is both hauntingly beautiful and dismally realistic. Again, I like this. I am sick to death of happily ever afters where the blissful couple reclines together amid the golden brilliance of the setting sun. Real life isn't always pretty, it can't be packaged in a decorated box and given to anyone. I admire writers who attempt to incorporate such ugly thematic material as injustice, class conflict and the violation of human rights into their work and I respect authors who can pull it off. Hugo does both.

Intimidating, yes, but more than worth the effort. Les Misérables is an absolute must read.

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The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories, that it has come to be disbelieved in. Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only.
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