Les Misérables is an Omnibook, a book that contains everything. All of Hugo, everything he knew, and he knew everything, poured into one book. Absurd but admirably ambitious. Every reader of the novel can identify a section or two or ten he would not miss. I myself have doubts about a long chunk describing the history of a Paris convent.
I have seen French abridgements that follow a single character, so we have a Cosette novel and a Gavroche novel and a Jean Valjean novel, with parts that overlap and parts that stand alone. I doubt too many novels could survive this treatment. I can also imagine a version that skips the story and characters completely, or contains only one character, the inescapable one, M. Hugo. Hugo on History, Hugo on War, Hugo on God, Hugo on All Things. A preposterous book, but Hugo was a preposterous figure.
About a fifth of Les Misérables is devoted to a few days in 1832, during the futile July Revolution. Students and workers build a street barricade in a corner of the Marais, prepared to give their lives for liberty, fraternity, and equality. The description of the barricade and its construction is extraordinary, but it is somehow only a warm-up to a long passage about two other barricades, “two frightful masterpieces of civil war,” both from the 1848 revolution – the novel is as much about 1848 (and 1789) as about 1832:
The Saint-Antoine barricade was monstrous; it was three stories high and seven hundred feet long… Of what was this barricade made? Of the ruins of three seven-story houses, torn down for the purpose, said some… It was the collaboration of the pavement, the pebble, the timber, the iron bar, the scrap, the broken windowpane, the stripped chair, the cabbage stump, the tatter, the rag, and the malediction. It was large and it was small. (1171)
Hugo is not finished. He has another two pages to go. He cannot stop describing this beast, even interrupting himself to add more details – “disjointed chimneys, wardrobes, tables” (what it all means) “knuckle bones, coat buttons” (more interpretation) “its crest was thorny with muskets, with swords.”
Hugo has trouble looking away, as did I.* The barrier, like his novel, contains everything. But he has to get to the next one:
This wall was built of paving stones. It was straight, correct, cold, perpendicular, leveled with the square, built on a line, aligned by the plummet…
It was fitted, dovetailed, imbricated, rectilinear, symmetrical, and deathly. There was in it science and darkness. You felt that the chief of that barricade was a geometer or a specter. You beheld it and you spoke softly. (1174)
These fragments may entirely fail to convey the dual nightmare that Hugo conjures in this passage, the creation of these two horrors, objects that should not exist, renegades from Borges or Kafka that somehow escaped into the past, into a work that is mostly thought of, incorrectly, as an old-fashioned and sentimental adventure story, Dumas with a social conscience.
Les Misérables, more than any novel I can think of, except, perhaps Samuel Richardson’s hilariously long Clarissa (1747), begs for abridgement. Not just one, though – many abridgements. A different abridgement for each reader. The reader wanting to Get On With It will want to snip away this interruption of the actual story. I am certainly not that reader.
* C. B. James has provided more of this description of the first barrier, from a different translation, the lightly abridged Penguin Classics version, or the recent Julie Rose version. I'm using the revised Wilbour translation, Signet Classics.