From the library: “Les Misérables”

I suppose one sign of a good book is that you can’t get it out of your head. I recently finished Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and can’t stop thinking about it. Luckily it’s been made into a musical (and, luckily, I’m near London) and movie, so I can keep re-experiencing it in times to come.

A few thoughts on the book:

1) I have never been more convinced of the value of abridged versions. I read an unabridged version of this book, and there were some parts that were just agonizing. The problem was not that some sections were slow but that they were totally irrelevant for today’s audience. For example, chapter one of the third book “The Year 1817” is a chapter of namedropping, but no one (at least outside of France) remembers most of these people:

The year 1817 was the one Louis XVIII, with a certain royal presumption not devoid of stateliness, called the twenty-second year of his reign. It was the year of M. Bruguiére de Sorsum’s fame. All the hairdressers’ shops, hoping for the return of powder and birds of paradise, were bedecked with azure and fleur-de-lis. It was the candid time when Comte Lynch sat every Sunday as churchwarden on the official bench at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés, dressed as a peer of France, with his red ribbon and long nose and that majesty of profile preculiar to a man who has done a brilliant deed. The brilliant deed committed by M. Lynch was that, being mayor of Bordeaux on March 12, 1814, he had surrendered the city a little too soon to the Duke of Angoulême. Hence his peerage. In 1817 it was the fashion to engulf little boys from four to six years old in large morocco caps with earflaps similar to Eskimo stovepipes. The French army was dressed in white in Austrian style; regiments were called legions and wore, instead of numbers, the names of the  Départements. Napolean was at St. Helena and, as England would not give him green material, had had his old coats turned. In 1817, Pellegrini sang, Mademoiselle Brigottini danced, Potier reigned, Odry did not yet exist, Madame Saqui succeeded Forioso. There were still Prussians in France. M. Delalot was a celebrity. Legitimacy had just asserted itself by cutting off the fist and then the head of Pleignier, Carbonneau, and Tolleron.

That is the first page of this chapter (and, actually, only about half a page due to the chapter heading), and it goes on and on. Little of this helps me piece together the time, and almost none of it is relevant for the story. Hugo must have liked the way he strung together words, because these sections were long. They never appear as quick chapters to get you oriented before returning to the story. Instead, they’re sometimes 60 or 70 pages.

2) That being said, this book was excellent. I cried multiple times. I was really wrapped up in it, which is why I got so annoyed when these long digressions about fashion or sewers cropped up. I’m not going to go over the plot (if you don’t know it, you can find it elsewhere), but I was simply heartbroken when my favorite characters died.

I’d definitely recommend Les Misérables, even if you’ve seen the musical or movie. From what Z tells me, a lot of great characters in the book hardly appear in the musical. I might advise an abridged version, though, unless you’re interested in a not-very-useful history of France.

AMENDMENT: Due to the conversation w/ Danny found in the comments section of this post, I retract my recommendation of the abridged version of Les Misérables. If it is only 1/3 the length of the original, then too much was cut out.

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25 Responses to From the library: “Les Misérables”

  1. Danny Sabra says:

    I’m reading the unabridged version as we speak. I was reluctant to start reading it because of it’s heft, but I’ve found some very pure, transcendent truths only within the first hundred pages. Having not finished it I cannot say what is necessary and what isn’t, but I like reading those chapters. I’m wholeheartedly against abridgment. I read an abridged version of a 6 volume multi-thousand page book that still left me chaffing at what it would omit. Half way through a prison break I’d turn the page to see “Chapters 24-26 conclude the story of the prison break”
    and that’d be it. It was horrible. I ended up checking out multiple volumes to finish needed stories that were abridged. I do however admit that I will probably be spending a great deal of time reading Les Miserables since it is of some substance and heft.

    • K Arterburn says:

      Ah! I’m glad you’re reading it and gladder you’re enjoying it! I, like you, picked up the unabridged version thinking it is inherently superior to any abridged version out there, and it probably is. I’m glad I read it because I know I didn’t miss anything and it was as the author intended. That being said, there should be no shame in reading an abridged version. The author has a reason for including what s/he does, but an editor has a reason for her/his changes, too, and they’re not always bad. If you want the story of Les Mis, read abridged. If you want the whole picture, go unabridged.

      I hope you don’t get frustrated as I did, but often Victor’s long digressions interrupted really high-action sequences of the story. Clever of him but annoying. Also, I think some of the political/philosophical problems he ponders as perhaps new and progressive ways of thinking are taken for granted now. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m still glad I read unabridged, but if I ever reread it I’d be curious as to what an abridged version is like–would it be streamlined or hacked or what?

      • danny sabra says:

        One of my buddies recently read the abridged version, and it was so small I was shocked. The copy I held was just a little over 300 pages! Thats like 1/3 of the original! And when I asked him about some of the stuff the Bishop of Digne had said or had done, he didn’t know about any of that. So I kind of have a built in vendetta against it (the abridged) now, because I can’t discuss it with others who’ve supposedly “read” the book. Then I recoil from society and amuse my self in solitude of literature. So all is not lost I suppose.

        I’m currently reading it on my Kindle, and I’m enjoying the great vocabulary used.

        • K Arterburn says:

          What?! That just makes me sick. He may as well have just seen the musical (Z tells me the Bishop plays a miniscule part in it). Alright, I’m back on track w/ unabridged books. I guess I’ve had too little exposure to abridged books to know. I think I read the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo (I assume it was abridged because it was assigned in high school) and thought it was excellent. I’ll add a note onto my post.

          • Sharon Thomsen says:

            Katie and Danny, you have pushed me over the edge, but in a good way! I have been meaning to read Les Mis for years (having fallen in love with the story and the characters after seeing the now-seemingly-too-abridged-musical) but the sheer size of it allowed me to procrastinate. Your words compelled me to finally pick up a copy and just start reading it. It’s an abridged version, but it is still 829 pages… hopefully not TOO abridged. Unfortunately, it sums up the quote you mentioned, Katie, as well as that entire chapter, as: “With dozens of examples from current events and popular culture, Hugo characterizes the mediocrity, frivolity, and superficiality of the early Restoration years. Exhausted by twenty-five years of war, France wishes to relax. The dark side of these attitudes, a callous disregard for the poor and for social justice, will be exemplified by Tholomyes abandoning his lover Fantine without taking any responsibility for supporting their child.” As helpful as such a concise summary may be to putting it into historical context, it definitely loses so much more in original color and flavor. I will definitely want to find the full-length version at some point and bask in the author’s brilliant way with words. But only a few pages into this one, I am so glad to be getting to know the Bishop. It’s like peeling back the layers of a beautiful story and discovering even more beauty, depth and power in its layers. I am so happy to have found encouragement to take this journey. Thank you!

          • Sharon Thomsen says:

            Ok… I am a bit lost. My abridged version of Book 5, Chapter 8 is titled “Madame Victurnien Spends Thirty Francs on Morality,” but makes no mention of any Madame Victurnien, or of any expenditure of thirty francs. I am thinking something was left out. Any help out there?

            • K Arterburn says:

              I don’t remember who Madame Victurnien is. Must not be important. I don’t have my book anymore, so I can’t help you. Sorry.

  2. Heather says:

    Who were your favorites? I like Eponine the best. David hates her because her voice on the soundtrack we have is somewhat annoying.

  3. K Arterburn says:

    @Sharon: That sounds like the right length for an abridged version. Cutting out the chapter I quoted from isn’t a huge loss. Cutting out the Bishop? That would have been a mistake. I hope it doesn’t skip Fantine’s youth and the scene in which Tholomyes leaves, though. Most of all, I hope you enjoy it!

    • Sharon Thomsen says:

      I’ll let you know when I get to that chapter. However, it may take awhile. I’ve read books before that made me want to reread them as soon as I’d finished, but this is the first book that I’ve ever wanted to immediately reread single paragraphs or pages so often, simply because they were so loftily beautiful that I can’t help but want to stay in them and savor them a bit longer. So good!

    • Sharon Thomsen says:

      It didn’t skip the scene in which Tholomyes leaves… but not much was included about Fantine’s youth, other than her involvement with Tholomyes, and the subsequent consequences (no longer her youth, I suppose). Bah. What a jerk he was.

      • danny sabra says:

        nothing is included about Fantine’s youth in the non abridged version either. Her story essentially starts with Tholomyes. I however find their “surprise” very non convincing. that would never happen in real life. Or maybe I just don’t understand french culture.

        • Sharon Thomsen says:

          Hmmm… maybe you are just too decent of a human being to do something like that yourself, so you can’t imagine someone else doing it… but for some reason, perhaps due to my age and cynicism towards these things, I found it totally believable. I suppose the french culture does enter in, too, but haven’t there always been rich men who use women merely to entertain themselves, without any intention of valuing them in any way?

          They were wealthy young men with nothing better to do with their time than what they felt they were entitled to do at that age… use women, sow wild and lazy oats, and then at some point in their lives, grow up, move on, and take their places in society as respectable adults, with respectable wives. I feel like that culture still exists today in many circles in America, with or without the wealth.

          And the “fun” they had, of planning out the “surprise” slap in the face to end it all and move on, seems to fit, to me. It’s really no different than someone using facebook to end a relationship. And it was kind of a last hurrah. Maybe someone with more money in today’s culture would hire an airplane to pull a banner through the sky with the news or something, but this gave them an easy, non-confrontational way to end their youthful triflings, and something to laugh about later and congratulate themselves for their cleverness.

          I think there really are people like that in the world, then and now. Unfortunately.

          But maybe I am just a cynic.

          And I am very happy to know I did not miss anything about poor Fantine’s earlier life – thank you!

  4. K Arterburn says:

    @Sharon & @Danny: I thought the whole surprise debacle was outrageous. They had a child! Men are supposed to get scared and run away when their girlfriend gets pregnant, not after they’ve had a kid for 2 (?) years. He didn’t even leave Fantine any money to help them get along! I wasn’t upset with Hugo’s choices here, I was just appalled! Completely outraged.

    • danny sabra says:

      Now i’m starting to doubt my version of the book, since I got it on kindle. It’s definitely the length of the non abridged, but in my version, Tholomyes leaves before we really find out that Fantine is pregs and so I don’t really see him leaving as being scared of the bebe, as much as just being a jerk wad french style! But also I felt that them just straight chillin with their girls all day long only to leave them, en masse just seemed really ridiculous to me. Like you might want to leave your girlfriend, but you’re probably not gonna convince your four bros to do the same. I dunno.

      • danny sabra says:

        Don’t you just love my college educated cerebral repartee?

        • Sharon Thomsen says:

          Actually, your version set in the ‘hood made it seem even more believable, Danny. I could totally picture it all going down that way, fo sho’. And it’s really fun repartee-ing with someone who’s read this recently. Especially with college graduates like you two who have such faith in mankind. I am rather surprised that I am the only cynic here who will believe the worst about my fellow man! Is there something terribly wrong with me??

          I mean, I feel like the Bishop is much less believable of a character. I feel like there are lots of real-life examples of jerks in the world, but I am not sure I have ever met someone as genuine and full of integrity as the Bishop. I want him to be for real, but have I ever met him? Not sure I have, sadly…

          • K Arterburn says:

            It’s weird thinking about these types, Tholomye and the Bishop. I haven’t met a person like the Bishop either. I don’t know whether I’ve met someone like Tholomye. Probably, I guess. Have you met M. Thenardier, Sharon? I definitely have not met a person like him. I can believe people like him exist, hopefully only a couple, though.

          • Sharon Thomsen says:

            @Katie- I don’t think M. Thenardier (or Mdme.) are in my circle of direct acquaintances. I have met people in real life that I suspected were capable of being those types… I see them out and about at times, being abusive of young children in public (usually late at night at the grocery store), and it’s easy to judge and maybe let your imagination get a little wild. But certainly we do read in the news (way too often) of despicable folks who literally do use children for their own gain, but hide behind a facade of “caring”. It happens. It’s sickening, but it happens in this very fallen world.

            I’ve been thinking more about the Bishop. I do believe he could exist, because I have met people who portray his faith and kindness in certain circumstances. But it is rare to find someone so consistently spiritually minded. I certainly am not fit to stand in his shadow.

      • Sharon Thomsen says:

        No, Danny, you wouldn’t because you’re a nice guy … but all four of them were aristocratic jerks. Think “Social Network” maybe. Sort of a group entitlement thing. They were all in it for the short term to begin with… and just biding their time till they figured a way out.

        I doubt your version is suspect. My edition didn’t mention la bebe earlier, either. I think Hugo didn’t tell us until after the jerk left, on purpose, for shock affect, and because the child didn’t factor into Tholomyes’ decision, anyway. He may not have known about her, but even if he did, she would have been a bastard in his eyes. Not a real heir. Not a person worth being concerned about. Such were the self absorbed signs of the times.

        Does this sound like one of your friends? No. Or I hope not. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t exist… especially in that day and time. But anytime, I think.

      • K Arterburn says:

        I don’t know that your version was wrong. Mine didn’t mention the kid until after T left. Then I was surprised because I expected Fantine to be pregnant, and instead I learned she’d already had the kid.

    • Sharon Thomsen says:

      I think “girlfriend” (as we understand it today) is not what Fantine was to him. She was a trifling, a pastime. They were not of the same class, and he never intended for it to be more. She was naive and obviously had no one to guide her otherwise. Men of his class had no obligation, really. The reactions of the other 3 “girlfriends” support that. They knew they were nothing more than a good time to the men, and that’s all they were out for too, for as long as it lasted. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t outrageous and appalling. I totally agree with you on that.

      • Danny Sabra says:

        as for having faith in society, i’d say mine is in the red! I definitely don’t have any faith in society. I don’t really feel like any of the charachters are particularly “believable” in that I feel like real examples of them exist in real life. But when reading about Tholomyes and Fantine (and co) I felt like I was reading repartee between boyfriend and girlfriend that genuinely enjoyed each other. I still feel that way. So the surprise of leaving didn’t seem like such a blow to me (nor do i think it was particularly wrong) as much as I just didn’t think it believable. Most people won’t spend a whole day having fun with their significant other while the entire time planning on dumping them. Not that it’s wrong, but it’s almost a super human ability to detach, which should disallow you to have fun in the first place. You know what i mean? Nor do i feel like anyone was particularly hurt by the surprise except fantine and only because she was shackled with the burden of having a bastard child. Not because she was left alone, because of the societal implications of a fatherless child.

        • Sharon Thomsen says:

          Well, I think there could be very self-centered people who could spend an entire day having witty conversation with a paramour and not really have any emotional connection. I don’t think they are normal people with a conscience, but if there are real people out there who can shoot someone dead just to make themselves look big and important to their peers, there’s got to be people who could dump girlfriends en masse for the same reason.

          I agree with you Danny that no one was hurt except Fantine… the other girls took it in stride just fine because they were using the men as sugar daddies, and could quickly find a replacement, I suppose… but I think Fantine really loved the jerky Tholomyes. My (abridged) version said: “An hour afterwards, when she had returned to her bedroom, she wept. It was her first love, as we have said; she had given herself to this Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child.”

          I think the mention of “her first love” means she really was naive enough to believe he loved her back. He had apparently been keeping her up financially, up until that moment…. and she was not savvy enough to understand what she really was to him. With or without the child, I think she would have been more devastated than the other 3 girls. But maybe that is my sappy female heart coloring my opinion…

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