Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Les Misérables

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2019

by Victor Hugo (Classiques abrégés, abrégé par Marie-Hélène Sabard 1996; original published in 1862)

I had several reasons to reread Les Misérables. First, my cousin Brigitte, who lives outside of Paris, had recently sent me a double CD with the original French version of the musical. I’ve been listening to it like crazy and copying out the lyrics from the impossibly small print on the booklet included with the CDs (this requires a very large magnifying glass and natural light). Also, PBS is broadcasting a new six-part adaptation of the novel on Masterpiece beginning in April. Then Brigitte sent me this abridged French version which she had on her bookshelf (“Schools no longer require that students read original unabridged literature,” she complained.) So I started reading it, tentatively at first, but then with relative ease. There were a lot of words that were new to me, as you would expect, but I used Google Translate on my phone, which worked for most of them. There were a few that made no sense (G.T. provides only one translation; if there are several meanings, that’s too bad!) and a few which supplied English words I wasn’t familiar with either (like borne, which was translated as bollard; I had to look it up in in a French online dictionary to discover that it meant a short, thick post).

Anyway, it answered a lot of questions I had while listening to the musical (and some that hadn’t occurred to me). For example, why didn’t Cosette object to her beloved father’s disappearance from her life after she married Marius? The answer is complicated. He didn’t just disappear; he used to come and visit her every evening at first, then less frequently; she was involved in her life as a newlywed and mistress of a large household; she was following Marius’ lead… Hugo goes into some detail (probably even more so in the original version) to explain this.

Something else I wondered about was whether the Thénardier family recognized their familiar relationships, and whether they recognized Cosette as the little girl they had enslaved at their inn in Montfermeil, once they had moved to Paris. Azelma, the second daughter, plays an insignificant role in the novel and has no role in the musical. But Eponine and Gavroche knew that they were brother and sister. In the novel, there are two younger boys whom Gavroche helps when they find themselves, at the ages of five and seven, alone on the streets of Paris, but he does not realize that they are related to him; the reader never finds out what happened to them after the night he hosts them in the belly of the Elephant of the Bastille, a damaged statue where he sleeps at night. The Thénardiers did recognize Cosette as the girl that lived with them at the inn, and Jean Valjean as the man who had paid off her debts and taken her away. In this abridged version at least, Hugo does not delve into the resentment Eponine must have felt when the man she loved fell in love with Cosette. In the musical (in the French version, anyway–I haven’t listened to the English version in a while), Ponine bemoans her fate but accepts that some people are born to happiness, while others are not.

The character of Jean Valjean is the most interesting for me. He begins his life’s journey as a kind of unthinking brute, goes through the horror of incarceration and the incessant pursuit by Javert, but rescues Cosette and manages to raise and educate her despite having no papers (which must have been tricky). He pretends to be someone he is not for her sake. Given the opportunity to shoot Inspector Javert, he sets him free (inadvertently killing him with kindness). He saves Marius despite his hatred and jealousy of the one whom Cosette loves more than she loves him and does what he can to ensure Marius and Cosette’s marriage. He is totally selfless–not really a believable character, but one you have to admire.

My biggest problem with the book is how unrealistic it is for the same people (Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, the Thénardiers and Marius) to keep accidentally running into each other in different parts of France. (Javert just happens to be assigned to Montreuil-sur-Maire, where Jean Valjean has started a new life as M. Madeleine, owner of a factory and mayor of the town; later he just happens to be reassigned to Paris, just as Valjean and Cosette arrive there to hide in plain sight. Thénardier just happens to inadvertently save the life of Marius’ father after the Battle of Waterloo. Marius just happens to rent a room next to the Thénardiers’ room in Paris; Javert just happens to be at the police station where Marius goes to report the Thénardiers’ plot to murder Valjean. Thénardier just happens to be in the sewer when Jean Valjean is there with the moribund Marius on his back. . . .)

But hey, it’s a good story.

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