The next book I decided to tackle in my quest to reread long-forgotten (or never-finished) classics was Les Miserables. My first exposure to this book was in high school French class, when I was given a very, very condensed and super-abridged version to read for a sort of optional-enrichment novel. We used to have these extra books to take home and try to read in French and then we were supposed to give the French teacher a precis of the plot. Remember, this was in the old days before Google so I couldn’t just look up the plot of Les Miserables online. I was stuck trying to piece together the story with my Grade 10 French which was quite the challenge even though the book was basically a children’s version of Les Mis. Oddly, I remember exactly where in the school I was standing, next to one of those big stand-up metal radiators in the hall, when I gave my French teacher my plot summary. Probably because the misery of the moment was so etched on my brain. “So, there’s this girl, Fantine … and … I think she dies? Or something? And Cosette is … her daughter? I think. Oh, and there’s this guy, Jean Valjean, and he’s in prison or something….”
Suffice it to say that about 10 years later when I got to see the stage musical, I came to it with a pretty fresh and unprejudiced mind, having no real sense of the plot. Of course, as I’ve related elsewhere, I fell completely in love with the musical, which I saw at least twice, possibly three times. Sometime during this same era, in my 20s, I decided to read the novel in English. I’m pretty sure now that what I read then was still an abridged version, but given that the unabridged version is something like 1400 pages, even the abridged version was pretty hefty. I ploughed through it (again, it’s amazing how location-specific my memories attached to this book are, because I vividly remember reading part of it on a Go-Train heading from Oshawa into Toronto). My main impression was that it was boring and confusing, and while I continued to be a huge fan of the musical I didn’t really like the book based upon that first reading.
However, having just watched the movie, and preparing to see a student stage production put on by a local high school, I decided it would be good to give the novel another try. And to my surprise, this time I loved it. Almost couldn’t put it down. It was the full, unabridged version, with all Hugo’s digressions like 50 pages on the Battle of Waterloo (which takes place years before the story starts, and is significant only because one character was at the battle, but that’s enough for Hugo to give a detailed blow-by-blow description of everything that happens), or entire chapters on the history of the religious order in whose convent Jean Valjean hides out for awhile, or the layout of Parisian streets in 1832. I’ll admit to skimming some of this in order to get to the actual story, with the characters, but I enjoyed even the digressions more than I expected. I liked that there was added depth and richness to some of the characters, especially Valjean, and even Cosette who I’d always thought of as an annoying little twit in the musical. Her lover Marius, on the other hand, and everybody’s favourite musical character Eponine who’s hopelessly in love with Marius, both come off as significantly less admirable in the book than they do in the musical, so I enjoyed seeing those differences.
By far, hands down, my favourite part of the book was the first part, where the good Bishop who gives Valjean his silver candlesticks is fleshed out and fully developed as a character. Lots of people who don’t even know the rest of Les Miserables know the story of the Bishop’s candlesticks because it’s such a wonderful parable of grace — Valjean, an impoverished ex-convict, is taken in and treated kindly, fed and given a bed for the night by the good Bishop. In return, Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver plates, but is caught by the police and dragged back. The Bishop lets Valjean off by claiming he gave him the silver, then insists that he accept the candlesticks as well, with the proviso that he use the money to start living a better life (which he does). But long before this ever happens in the book there are pages and pages of backstory about the Bishop which sketch such a wonderful portrait of a truly Godly and generous life. In fact, although Victor Hugo was considered a bit of a religious radical in his own time (due to not always accepting the authority of the Church), this is one of the most overtly Christian pieces of classic literature I’ve ever read. The fact that the struggle between Jean Valjean and the police inspector Javert is essentially a struggle between Law and Grace is evident in the musical, but there’s even more spiritual depth to be gained from the full novel, which is one reason I enjoyed it so much. OK, so I could have done without the six chapters on sewers and sewage (all to set up a scene where Valjean escapes through a sewer) but it was still well worth the time it took to read, digressions and all.