Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables has made an impact on my life since I was in the sixth grade. Its musical counterpart, developed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, and I do mean the original French version, was the door through which I entered into my obsession and career in foreign languages. When I reached the seventh grade, a stand of books tucked in the corner of the classroom had a version of the book that I checked out from the teacher. The book was green and seemed easy to read. I was half way through it when I realized that my teacher’s copy was only an abridged version. I asked my teacher what the word “abridged” meant. She told me the meaning and I felt scandalized. I then asked if I had to finish it. She told me that I didn’t have to. So I gave it back. Sometime later (I do not remember how long), I passed by a newly opened café off main street that sold books to a hip college crowd. The place smelled of burnt coffee and sugar, contained soft chairs and low tables, and had walls lined with bookshelves full of paperback literature. I perused the shelves and found a volume of Les Misérables by Penguin Classics that had a portrait of a pitiful, bearded man with a black hat sitting at a table with meager fare. To my delight, the title page had the word “unabridged” on it. This was my chance to read the real thing. I took out what money I had in my pocket, grabbed the book, and paid the cashier behind the coffee grinder. The thick book in my hands intimidated me; I had only read slim Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries up to that point. Would I quit under the load of reading a long book? I didn’t want to. Could I survive such an undertaking? I had to. I needed to know the whole story and by a miracle I read the whole thing. It took time to do it, and the book’s frayed corners and taped-up cover became vestiges of my diligent effort. I did not understand every word, but I got the gist of it, which was enough for me to complete a suitable book report. The book has now found its resting place in a quiet and secure storage bin, waiting for anyone to discover it again as a lost treasure.

The years following my reading the book lead me to listen to the Broadway version of the musical, sign up for French classes in high school, travel to European countries for the first time, take the French side (as opposed to the German side) on every issue discussed in a European History class, accept a call to serve as a missionary in the Spain-Barcelona Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gain a baccalaureate degree with a major in Spanish and a minor in Political Science at Southern Utah University, compile journals of my own, write a thesis on a Spanish poet traveling through Utah, and earn a master’s degree in Spanish Peninsular Literature at Brigham Young University. I did all this thanks to Victor Hugo. Les Misérables undeniably tops my list of favorite and must-read books.

Last September, I visited a Barnes & Noble store in St. George, Utah. It was time to buy another book to read. I chose to purchase Les Misérables again, but this time it would be an abridged version. It came from the Barnes & Noble Classics series and the cover showed a recognizable painting of Vincent van Gogh’s Still Life: Three Pairs of Shoes. Having more experience in reading under my belt, I knew I would enjoy reading it again as well as scrutinize Laurence M. Porter’s notes, introduction, and summaries. His abridged version still had thickness to its edition, but instead of intimidation I felt eagerness and anticipation. I wanted a story with detail and insight. The book would not disappoint. I bought it and took it to my nephew’s football game in Washington, Utah. My nephew’s team won the game; I learned more about Victor Hugo’s life and work. Mr. Porter’s excellent introduction helped me to recognize themes and elements in the text. One element, among many, he focused on was Hugo’s use of light and darkness to portray a character’s awareness of spiritual strength or standing.

This work divides itself into parts, then books, and then chapters. Each part focuses on a character or an event. What I like about this abridged version is the fact Porter leaves explanations and summaries in places where he has taken portions of the text out from the unabridged version. This method does not leave me feeling out-of-the-loop or wanting, like the other abridged version does. Victor Hugo gives plenty of detail in order for a reader to paint vignettes of the story in his or her mind. Hugo masterfully paces the story in a way that exposits historical backgrounds and theoretical essays relevant to the development at hand. Hugo proves to be an intelligent and apt social commentator of his time. His observations on the children’s condition are especially poignant. Porter leaves out the most pedantic chapters from the abridgment, supposing that academicians who want to research military strategy or linguistic anomalies will be better served by other editions that are complete or exhaustively annotated.

To give a synopsis of the plot of this story would be almost impossible. There are many characters, many plots and subplots, and the complete time line spans decades. The main character, Jean Valjean, passes through affliction, suffering, and persecution throughout his whole life. He becomes a convict out of hunger. He intends to take revenge on the world after he leaves prison, but a compassionate mentor saves him from a life of perdition. He has a change of heart, becomes industrious, and supports the poor and the needy for the rest of his life. His struggles do not stop, of course, but his example shines through with radiance. The important element of Jean Valjean’s personage is the process of repentance and the gaining of forgiveness through charity and good works. He is the kind of man that I look up to, even if he comes from the fictional realm. I recall a scripture that comprises the embodiment of Jean Valjean’s life: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Victor Hugo intentionally uses Jean Valjean as a Christ figure. One passage has Marius seeing Jean Valjean as he truly is after finding out the truth from a meeting with M. Thénardier:

“Marius was amazed. He began to see in this Jean Valjean a strangely lofty and saddened form. An unparalleled virtue appeared before him, supreme and mild, humble in its immensity. The convict was transfigured into Christ. Marius was bewildered by this marvel. He did not know exactly what he saw, but it was grand.” (821)

I cannot emphasize enough how good this book is. Hugo’s style sufficiently creates a world in which I can vividly wander. It feels like I have been in the world of nineteenth century France. The narrator also exerts a knowledge of human psychology and politics that rivals that of today’s experts and pundits. I feel like a better person after I read the last page.

Andrew

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