February 13, 2014

There was a time when men were kind

This week, I met one of my personal milestones: after two and a half years, I finally completed the Victor Hugo novel of 1862, Les Misérables.

In a certain sense, it was actually the second time I'd read the novel. I spent a week in hospital in 1996 with a knee injury, and found an abridged edition in the library. At around 4-500 pages, it was certainly the right length for my stay (and literally the only book in the entire library that I was remotely interested in). And I certainly fell in love with the story.

Les Misérables is the story of several intertwined lives, but primarily the redemption of Jean Valjean, a hardened convict paroled from the galleys. He lodges overnight at the house of a compassionate bishop. When Valjean is caught robbing the bishop of his silverware, the bishop not only forgives him but also gives him two valuable silver candlesticks, redeeming him from slavery to sin and purchasing his soul for God. Valjean, touched by the bishop's mercy, resolves to leave his criminal past behind, although he relapses once, stealing a coin from a street urchin.

Several years later, Valjean is a wealthy factory owner, as well as the mayor and principal employer of his town. One of his employees, a woman named Fantine, is dismissed because she is discovered to have an illegitimate daughter, Cosette, whom she has secretly lodged with the Thénardiers, a family of corrupt innkeepers who abuse Cosette and swindle Fantine out of what little money she has. Out of a job, she turns to selling her hair and teeth, and then to prostitution. Valjean, feeling responsible for her situation, cares for her and promises to retrieve Cosette from the Thénardiers.

However, Valjean's secret life has been uncovered by Javert, a police inspector who pursues him relentlessly for breaking parole when he robbed the urchin. As Fantine dies of an infection, Jean Valjean is arrested and returned to penal servitude. However, he escapes. He keeps his promise to retrieve and care for Cosette, and together they flee to Paris, where they live in hiding against the backdrop of the anti-monarchist June Rebellion of 1832. Eight years later, one of the students in the uprising, Marius Pontmercy, falls in love with Cosette—now a beautiful young woman—after a chance meeting.

When I started reading the complete and unabridged version (in the Isabel Hapgood translation of 1887, courtesy of Project Gutenberg), I discovered just why Les Misérables is such a worthy candidate for abridgement. It's long, and it's ponderous. In fact, it's one of the longest novels ever written, just a few thousand words shorter than the Old Testament. And Hugo frequently digresses along rabbit trails that provide backstory or other background information: spending 19 chapters, for example, describing the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo merely to establish the fact that Thénardier saved the life of Marius' father accidentally while trying to rob his supposed corpse on the battlefield, and so Marius is merciful toward him even though he knows he is a thief and a swindler. Other digressions include histories of religious communities, French slang, street urchins, and, famously, Paris' sewer system, which is so important to the novel's climax. Les Misérables was published serially, and one would suspect Hugo was being paid by the word. On the other hand, any single one of its five volumes is manageable on its own, and the novel was a resounding commercial success (Hugo famously queried his English publisher with a single-character telegram—"?"—and was similarly answered: "!").

Les Misérables is a remarkable story of God's mercy. Doing some research on Victor Hugo while I was reading it, I was surprised to find out that he was a freethinker rather than a Roman Catholic, and held strongly anti-clerical opinions. He refused a priest for his own funeral, and for those of his sons who predeceased him. Nonetheless, he was a lifelong believer in God, paints a gracious picture of the fictitious bishop who helped Valjean (presumably, a more liberal man than many of his fellow clerics of the day), and demonstrates a very Christian understanding of grace, redemption, and the working of divine Providence.

Hugo also sought to create a snapshot of Paris in his day. Les Misérables is not so named by accident. He wrote, in his brief preface: "So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth . . . so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use." In this novel, we see: hunger and human depravity forced by extreme poverty; child slave labour; the hellish conditions of 19th-century French prisons and the cold, harsh application of the law without mercy; child abandonment due to lack of money; and a popular uprising prompted by the unpopular restoration of the monarchy, leading to violent revolution. This novel plays in French literature what Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, published only three years earlier, plays in the English.

Reading Les Misérables is a major investment in time and effort. To date, it's the longest book I've ever read (other than the Bible), taking two and a half years, though of course the actual time taken to read it was considerably less, being broken up into multiple periods. It's well worth it.