A Book Ian Likes: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Adaptations of art into different mediums most often fall without trace into the collective memory, occasionally dragged out by a teacher trying to show their class that what they taught had some cultural currency once, when they clearly just aren’t engaging their students properly. More often than not, the adaptation is soon forgotten while the original work sails on regardless. Occasionally, though, the adaptation looms as large in a culture’s memory and threatens to surpass the original in terms of recognition. James Michener’s mosaic novel Tales Of The South Pacific and T. S. Eliot’s collection Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats are better known as musicals; Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has had so many adapted forms (movie, television serial, album, stage play, computer game, novel, towel) that some people express surprise that it was a radio serial first; The Phantom Of The Opera by Gaston Leroux was a novel before it was a movie and musical sensation. Frankenstein; Sherlock Holmes; Scarlett O’Hara; James Bond; Bridget Jones; Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’; Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’… all of these have more recent cultural resonances that overshadow their original incarnations.

Such a cultural juggernaut is Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables. It’s been completely overshadowed in the last thirty years by the still-astonishing musical. There’s a book nerd not terribly deep within me that rebels against this cultural substitution, but he frequently gets shouted down by the theatre nerd sitting next to him. However, what they both agree on is that given the length of the book, it is amazing at how much of what’s on the page – to borrow a phrase – makes it onto the stage.

The barebones version of the story is that Jean Valjean is transformed from a bitter former convict into a kind and selfless man by a single act of compassion. He then adopts the daughter of a woman who has died while in his care and devotes the rest of his life to raising her. She meets a boy who becomes involved in the Paris riots of 1832 and Valjean has to save him as well. Throughout the novel, however, Valjean is pursued by Inspector Javert, who searches for Valjean in sporadic bursts of activity when he finds news of his possible whereabouts.

There is, of course, a lot more to the book than this. As well as a great read, it’s a critique of society and how it treats the marginal members of it. Hugo doesn’t pull punches, nor does he sentimentalise his characters, but he does make you feel some sympathy for the downtrodden and the wretched and gives reasons for how they came to be where they were and why they can’t escape – the details of Fantine’s life and why she sinks as low as she does are heartbreaking. The lives of characters who constantly compromise how they live and what they do to survive without falling into despair are full of dignity and sadness: the details of Marius’ threadbare life are interesting to read because he is a fit young man who is poor through choice and is also one of the protagonists while the story of M. Mabeuf who becomes poorer and poorer are awful in the extremes of privation that he finds himself in and adapting to.

And, of course, in a world recovering from the recent Global Financial Crisis, we are still hearing stories such as this, as well as still hearing from pundits who just can’t believe that people like this can’t bootstrap themselves into financial independence and regard poverty as a failure of character rather than a circumstance. So, like many true classics, it gives us an insight into how our world works and how people respond to it.

Of course, it’s a great read. Hugo had a huge love affair with Paris and France that lasted his entire life and it shows here: you could take out the chunks talking about French history and society and what’s wrong with it and be left with a story roughly half the length. But it wouldn’t be the same. It’s a novel that takes its heart from its subject matter and the passion that the author has for it. It shouldn’t work: it’s immense (1 463 pages in my copy), polemical, deeply political and deals sympathetically with characters on the margins of society. But it’s a magnificent book.

My first read of it was in late 1987 during the summer holidays after my first go at Year 12. I’d found it in a shop in Hobart for $9.95. I couldn’t resist it: it was cheap, fat and the basis for a hit stage show. I read it over a couple of weeks (admission: I skipped the Waterloo chapters that first time around) then bought the soundtrack to the musical on a double cassette that didn’t leave my side for years afterwards. I saw the stage show in Sydney in 1989 (Normie Rowe as Valjean, Debbie Byrne as Fantine) and loved it. It was one of the first classics I ever read off my own bat (ie, not for school) and it went a long way towards making me more willing to give them a go and seek them out for myself in the future.

It does have its flaws: like I said, it does get polemical and preachy at times but Hugo makes his screeds against an uncaring society genuinely powerful and he backs them up with examples in the storyline: his characters can be set upon and hurt but some are also mean and thoughtless, reinforcing the concerns of the novel about a heartless society hurting everyone within it. It also relies very heavily on coincidence: the main characters all appear to be linked in some way and their stories all combine in the climax at the barricades. I can deal with Javert cropping up a few times in Valjean’s life, and also with him being the officer whom Marius asks for help, but Thenardier saving Marius’ father’s life at Waterloo stretches the friendship a little, I fear. However, it does make the scenes in the flat where Marius observes Valjean being held captive by Thenardier and his gang a little more excruciating and exciting and it really isn’t any worse than some of the extenuating circumstances devised by Dickens and others to keep their plots moving.

But I really don’t care because this is a story that covers every base of the human experience that combines a love story (poorly handled in the musical, IMNSHO) with a political thriller, a caper with escapes and philosophical dilemmas based around unlikely, but possible, thought experiments. It’s funny, tragic, dark and uplifting. It also teaches you more about sewers than any sane person really needs to know. But in the best, most amazing way possible. And you can sing along to it.

You can buy Les Miserables here: https://www.amazon.com/Miserables-Penguin-Classics-Victor-Hugo/dp/0140444300

or download it for free from here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/135

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