Monday, December 10, 2012

Les Misérables


I read something in a blog the other day that referenced Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and something then compelled me to get and read this book.  Since I have a Kindle, and it was available for free, it was pretty easy to get a hold of and read.  What was not so easy was plowing all the way through the book.  But I finally finished the task the other day, and am glad that I read it.

The main plot of this story follows Jean Valjean, a convicted criminal who is transformed after an encounter with a merciful Bishop.  As a young man he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sisters hungry children, and spent the next 19 years in prison.  Once released, Valjean, as a convicted criminal, is essentially condemned to be an outcast for the remainder of his life.  After his encounter with the bishop, Valjean takes on a new identity and becomes a pillar of his community.  That is until Javert, a police inspector discovers who he is and he finds himself back in prison for breaking his parole.  Valjean escapes, adopts a young orphan girl, and tries to stay out of sight, hiding in Paris.  But of course Javert continues to pursue him; until Valjean saves the life of Javert, who, unable to deal with his mercy, ultimately commits suicide.

At about 1400 pages, this is a pretty long novel by just about any standard.  It is very easy to get lost in many of the sub plots that the story goes through, most of which seem to add little to the story; and some of which I ended up skipping after a while.  Victor Hugo appears to be doing much more than just telling a tale. This story is very much a commentary on the social conditions existing in France, particularly Paris, during the early 1800's when the story is taking place.  And generally, the places where I would skip over where long discourses on some societal issue that I could either not follow, or got bored with.

Compounding the struggle with finishing this book was that it required a dictionary close at hand to understand what he was sometimes saying. Lugubrious, for instance, was one of his favorite words.  I ignored it for a while but finally had to look it up, along with many others.  Sometimes there would be half a dozen words in a sentence that were meaningless to me.  And, for some unknown reason, Hugo insisted on using French names for all the characters and locations: yes, I know he was French and writing to a French audience.  And that would not have been so bad if a map for Paris in 1830 had been included.  As it was, I was pretty lost whenever he would start to describe a location or a route through the city.  Hugo would have also lost points with most of my English teachers in school: some of his run-on sentences were more than a page long.

Ultimately, I am glad that I read the story, and am now looking forward to seeing the movie, even if it is a musical.  And I would recommend it to anyone else who is willing to commit a significant amount of time to a challenging, but rewarding, read.

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