The Julie Rose translation of Les Misérables has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, and I picked it up on a whim this Christmas as I wanted something deeply absorbing to read over the holiday period. There’s something about winter and 19th century literature that seems to go hand in hand for me, perhaps because so much of it is a social commentary on despairs that are seeing their resurgence today with the rising number of homeless sleeping on our streets and primary schools opening their own food banks, and when is poverty at its most painful but in winter?
From the first, I was utterly lost in Hugo’s depiction of a France caught between two revolutions. His prose can only be described as sprawling, but to abridge it would be criminal, as even the lengthy digressions serve an important role in bringing the era to life — his discursion on Waterloo was not only more evocative than any of the history books I’ve read, but the sense of its impact reverberated throughout the story even though only a minor point had direct plot relevance. The only such essay I felt hampered the story rather than enhancing it came towards the end when a rather tense climax was interrupted by chapters on the history of Parisian sewers, which weren’t entirely necessary to appreciate a character’s difficult progress through them.
Out of the vast dramatis personae, my favourite character by far was Paris itself. I wanted to load up my bookshelf with histories and start learning French, and to wander its streets looking for all the traces left behind by this time. This is what true love of country looks like — not empty rituals carried out before flags, but to show such compassion for its people, even in exile, that it carries across the centuries.
Les Misérables is Hugo’s paean to the transformative power of love, and living here now in this era of growing hate, I think it remains of resounding relevance. I’m probably not quite as powerful a believer in redemption as Hugo was — we are told to forgive even Thénardier, but if he hadn’t been shown such forgiveness after kindness failed to redeem him, then he couldn’t have gone on to adopt the slaving trade and contribute so much more harm to the world. When kindness fails, hate must be stopped, but we break so many souls by never extending charity (whether material or of spirit) in the first place.
Sometimes books that are so broad in scope — and this felt like five books in one, not only for its length — lack depth of characterisation, but then few of them have such an epic page count to work with. Jean Valjean, Marius, Javert, Myriel, the Friends of the ABC, all thrive as memorable and affecting personalities. Cosette suffers a little from being the object of other people’s desires more often than the subject of her own, but there is still some insight into her dreams and frustrations.
I have an issue with the very last part of the book, in which so many problems could be avoided if people simply communicated. It’s partly just personal preference, as stories based on miscommunication of easily communicated facts are a pet peeve, and the decisions made here to withhold information are certainly consistent with the characters as established. Marius and Cosette’s reactions are harder to swallow, however, particularly from Marius, who wallows in hypocrisy given his own recent brush with the law.
Endings get harder to deliver the more you have to end, and its bittersweetness at least hits the mark. The book is at its best when it is bittersweet, whether it’s Éponine and Gavroche showing how resilient children can come up through the cracks with souls intact but then get crushed underfoot, or how easily the same spark can either light a revolution or be snuffed out and forgotten based on the shifting of the wind. And here in the 21st century, two world wars later, from amidst our fight against fascism and Balkanisation and oppression by a class created by obscene amounts of inheritable wealth instead of notions of divine right, there comes the bittersweetness of this speech:
Citizens, the nineteenth century is great, but the twentieth century will be happy. Then there will be nothing left of the old history; there will be no more fear, like there is today, of conquest, invasion, usurpation, rivalry between nations by force of arms, civilization interrupted by some marriage of kings, a birth in the hereditary tyrannies, the division of nations by congress, dismemberment through the downfall of some dynasty, some battle between two religions going head to head, like two billy goats in the shadows, on the bridge of the infinite; they will not have to fear any more famine, exploitation, prostitution caused by distress, misery caused by unemployment, and the scaffold, and the blade, and battles and all the armed robberies caused by chance in the forest of events. You could almost say: There will be no more events. People will be happy. The human race will live up to its law, just as the terrestrial globe lives up to its law; harmony will be reestablished between the soul and the star. The soul will gravitate around the truth, just as the star does around the light. Friends, the moment we have reached, this moment in which I am speaking to you, is a sombre moment; but this is the terrible price the future exacts. A revolution is a tollgate. Oh, the human race will be delivered, lifted up and consoled! We swear to it on this barricade.