‘Les Miserables’ is great but full of sh*t
Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ is of such gigantic proportions that it requires real commitment to get it finished before you forget what happened at the start Or a tardis. I was fortunate that my reading of it coincided with a week’s holiday in Cyprus, and I could totally immerse myself in it, emerging only occasionally for meals, monosyllabic conversation with my family and light swimming.
Sitting here staring at the screen, I find myself at a loss to know where to begin talking about such a monumental work. We’ve all encountered those mammoth rambling novels that are long because they failed to get the brutal edit they desperately needed, but ‘Les Miserables’ is not one of them. The pace is swift, the plot deftly interwoven with characters who spring from the page in vivid incarnation creating a breath-taking multidimensional vista of 19th Century Paris. There’s no flab in this novel, those 1230 pages are all muscle. That’s not to say that Hugo doesn’t like to head off the beaten track every now and then. Believe me, he has digression down to a fine art!
Occasionally Hugo interrupts the narrative to wax lyrical on a topic that he clearly feels strongly about. Pages can be devoted to a seemingly extraneous detail, and most of the time these departures enhance the novel, adding richness to the landscape in which Hugo’s tale is spun. I did find these diversions exasperating at times, though. Towards the end of the novel, the fates of both Jean Valjean and Marius hang in the balance. The tension is unbearable, and you’d happily put in an all-nighter to find out what happens next. It is at this juncture that Hugo decides to grace us with a comprehensive history of the Parisian sewer system and the pros and cons of its engineering (nearly 20 pages on that – seriously!). He then rails against the waste (!) that this system creates – how foolhardy of the French to allow such bounty to pollute the rivers instead of enriching the soil. Indeed, how much more beneficial would it be if the cities donated their rich and multitudinous excrement to the surrounding countryside to manure the crops! *strokes chin and imaginary beard, then tears hair out at the root* ‘Yes Victor, you’ve raised some interesting points about the challenges posed to civil engineering by early 19th century Parisian sanitation, but please, I beg you, nay I demand you tell me, DO THEY SURVIVE?’
Despite the diversions, I remained gripped to the very end, even though sometimes it was like having to sit through a public information broadcast while waiting for the next installment of the story. The size of the novel was daunting before I started reading, but from the first paragraph I was hooked and could hardly tear myself away. At 1230 pages, that’s quite some feat! Best of all, there’s so much to write about, it’ll provide me with material for posts for the rest of my life. Hey – I heard that groan!