It’s just possible that I over-extended myself a bit in trying to read Les Miserables in a month. I decided on this particular reading challenge (12 in 12, read about it here) because of my unenviable propensity to rush through very long books and my decision to, you know, stop doing that.
Oh well. Some people resolve to eat salad every day for a month, some people try to read Les Miserables in a month. We’ve all got a dream, baby. And holy mother, am I loving this book. It’s huge (both physically and conceptually), it takes a bit of concentration (this is not a 2nd glass of wine book) but it’s kind of incessantly drawing me into this vast, sprawling continent of a story.
(And for your basic illumination and edification: Les Miserables has five book divisions: Fantine, Cosette, Marius, The Idyll of the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis, and Jean Valjean. I intend to post at the conclusion of each book, though intentions are always a tricky business.)
And now to Les Miserables: Fantine.
I’ve read this portion of the book several times in earlier attempts to scale the mountain—loved it then and love it now. One of the things which I find so intriguing about Hugo’s writing style is his circuitous approach to the plot. It seems reductive to even use the word “plot” in relation to this book—he paints an extraordinarily detailed picture of a character, fills out his days and his thoughts, his dreams and his reputation; tells anecdotes about events in the character’s life that allow the reader to know him—then one of the anecdotes ends up being the point, the story we’re actually being told. Though that makes it sound like it’s all some sort of subterfuge, that reading this book is kind of a weeding out of the unimportant to find the good stuff. Nope. It’s all good stuff.
Book 1 covers a lot of territory: Hugo minutely describes Father Bienvenu’s world (his beliefs, his works, his family, his sister’s decorating schemes, their servant’s worries, the town’s opinion of him, his family’s political stance, his political stance, how he got his position, that time he met with Napoleon and how much he loves to garden) before introducing the convict who takes refuge in his home for a night and who then is the focus of the novel. There are protagonists of entire series that I don’t know as well as I know Father and Mademoiselle Bienvenu. And I think that’s kind of the point: the book isn’t about actions—he did this, then she did this, then poor Fantine died annnnd Scene!—it’s about who these people are.
Father Bienvenu is good, not because he is strictly moral, but because he loves everybody. (That sounds revolting. It’s not.) He goes to visit a relict of the revolution—not quite a regicide, but still blamed for much of the horror of 1893—because he thinks he should. Not because he wants to, but because he expects it of himself. Personally, he finds the ideas the revolutionary represents, and by extension, the individual, repugnant. And then he and we are told more about this old revolutionary’s ideals—his dream of education for all, his hatred of the conventions that bind such heavy burdens on weak backs and then punish slips, his desire for a better society—and by the end of the conversation, Father Bienvenu sees him clearly and respects him.
Characters are known, not by labels imposed in their weakest moment, but through their motivations and circumstances. And when you know someone’s motivations and circumstances, it’s difficult to hold yourself as an aloof and superior judge. You understand.
I think that’s why Father Bienvenu is given such a lot of focus at the beginning of the book: we’re supposed to see the rest of the story through his eyes. The convict isn’t just a hardened criminal, the fallen woman isn’t just a fallen woman, the waif scrubbing floors isn’t just a piece of society’s detritus. They all have a story.
We can’t comprehend misery in numbers: 15 million children in America live in homes below the Federal Poverty Level, 22.9 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are living with HIV. That’s horrifying, but hard to grasp. But tell me the story—make it personal. Tell me about the family deciding between electricity and food, or the village where everyone is sick, and then I’ll understand. I can be horrified by numbers, but I am moved by stories.
I went to Japan knowing the atomic bomb statistics. So many people died. So many people were injured. So many people became sick from the radiation. I knew. But talking to people who had survived the bombings—hearing stories about a brother who died from cancer after surviving his burns, or humiliations suffered at the hands of the American medical community tracking the effects of radiation—that is what made it real to me. Not the numbers or the charts. Maybe it’s just the way my brain works—I’m good with stories, not so good with numbers.
That’s what Hugo does—he puts a face and a story on the statistics and labels. “Convict” becomes Jean Valjean—honorable and brave. “Whore” becomes Fantine—loving and innocent.
And that’s the point, I think. That every person has a story. And that’s rather revolutionary.
(BTW: I highly recommend this translation by Julie Rose. When I first decided to read this book–er, three years ago now?–I went to Barnes and Noble and barricaded myself into the “H” aisle with massive tomes of Hugo. I read the first chapters of all the editions they had, I looked at footnotes, I compared vocabulary and type settings. Get this one. It’s huge and weighs a ton, (I kind of want my old violin stand every time I open it, I think it’d be easier) but the translation is great. Well, I don’t know French. I guess it’s great. But it flows and I like it. You can do loads more research on this topic online–other people, who actually read French!, have weighed in, but this is my personal and humble. Because it’s my blog. And if you’re going to climb the mountain that is Les Miserables, better do it with comfortable boots.)