Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Annual Visit to France

Like everyone, I have traditions. Even in reading.

There are books I like to read at Christmas time. Childhood favorites that I share with my own children.

Then there is my favorite favorite. The one I reread at least once a year.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo.

I love this book.

Nothing discernable to the eye of the spirit is more brilliant or obscure than man; nothing is more formidible, complex, mysterious, and infinite. There is a prospect greater than the sea, and it is the sky; there is a prospect greater than the sky, and it is the human soul.


And because of this book, I went to see the musical. (Where I then fell in love with musicals, but that is an entirely different story.)

The best review I ever read for this book came from Amazon. It is not mine, but it could be.  Paul Lehmann (Dallas) plucked the words right from my brain;

Here's my story about how I came to love this book.

If you're an average schmuck, with a job (not in academia), a life, and some curiosity, this review is for you.

If you're a literary blueblood, this review isnt for you. If your sworn enemy in life used to be your closest friend until they disagreed with you about whether Beowulf was a real person, be offended by my apathy and go away. If you had to turn off the TV newscasts on 9/11 because they were getting in the way of your arguments of whether sonnets devalue prose, just move on down to the next review.

I'm not a Literature buff. I tolerated English in high school and college because I had to, skipping what I could, skimming what I could get away with, and bluffing where needed. The thought picking up a stack of books and being dictated a marathon schedule to read them by still makes me bristle with quiet rebellion.

After school I ended up with a job with lots of down time between bursts of madness. I decided to make use of slow time going back and leisurely reading some of the 'classics' that I probably should have read before. Twain, Tolstoy, Dickens, Stowe and others pulled from the titles of Cliff's Notes (Hey, if Cliff says they're important....) Funny, but classics are much more palatable when they are read on a leisurely timeframe. Some I liked, some I couldn't care less about, but Les Miserables was, literally, a life-changing text.

I fell into Les Mis completely by accident. On day I forgot to pack whatever book I was working on that day and dug around looking for something other than Harlequins and Clancys. I picked up Hugo's Hunchback more by default than choice, liked the book, and in the closing commentary a writer mentioned that Hunchback was merely a prelude to his greatest work, Les Mis.

But starting Les Mis was a trial. French words scattered in the text were stumbling blocks. Hugo's text is a jealous mistress- it demands your full attention while reading. Les Mis is not in the genre of modern novels...grab the reader's attention in the first pages or lose them forever. I got bored reading about a bishop's daily routine. It takes 100 pages for the story to kick in. I stopped reading it twice, only to pick it back up a few months later and start all over.

But, as anyone who was read the novel can tell you, those first chapters are essential to the power of the story that follows.

I pushed my way through, got caught up in the current of the story once it began, and floated out the other side a better human being because of it.

Les Mis is a fantastic, detailed journey through human psychology. With 1400 pages, subplots, a cyclone of characters over decades of history, it can be difficult to distill WHAT the book is about into one word, but here's my try: Redemption.

Les Mis can be trying at times. Hugo is very detailed. He takes the reader though various side trips along the way. More than once he spends 100 pages setting up two pages of storyline. But his detail produces a work that is untouched in its ability to reveal the characters.

We see the difficulty in Valjean weighing wealth and praise from the multitudes against "one voice cursing in the darkness."

We see a character in Fantine pulled from innocence with a slow cruelty found nowhere else in lit: being turned for more misery (in surprising ways)like a pig on a split...with a reader helpless to intervene.

I see the police detective Javert as an embodiment of 'the system,'not necessarily as evil as one reviewer suggests. Hugo's penchant for overly-through descriptions adds multiple dimensions to what would otherwise be a flat character somewhere between a Napoleonic Joe Friday and Robobcop. We see Javert recite all the reasons he is right...and Hugo agrees with Javert... but we see that sometimes there is a larger truth than being 'right.'

Writing this a decade later I still see in my mind one of the most powerful images in the story: a middle-aged man and a small girl, both written off by the society around them, each with little in common with the other,walking down a deserted rural road, both clinging to each other because the other is all they have in the world.

For those who are used to watching all the loose ends coming together at the end of every hour of television, Les Mis will be a rude shift. It ends in a way that can be described as happy in its own sense though everyone doesnt ride off into the sunset or end with a joke and everyone laughing.

Frankly, I think it is impossible to appreciate the nuance of the musical without reading the unabridged text.

I finished reading Les Mis for the first time over 10 years ago. I still remember reading the last page, closing the book, and spending hours reflecting on the immensity of what I had experienced.

Girlfriend read it on my recommendation with similar effect.

Friend decided to stick it in his reading lists on my suggestion. When he started, he came to me frustrated with the slow start. "Is all this about the Bishop necessary to the story?" I said yes and he kept reading. A decade and hundreds of classic novels later still names Les Mis as his favorite book.

Shortly after reading it the first time, he recommended the book to yet another colleague looking for something to read to pass the time. As he handed it over, he issued a challenge: "Give me 100 pages, and your life will change."

He did, it did, and I now offer my friend's challenge to you! 

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