Monday, April 4, 2011

It would be a mistake to believe that one can walk in this way alone in the uninhabited regions of Paris, and not meet with some adventure - space in Les Misérables

Les Misérables, the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, is built around a series of elaborately constructed, complexly organized scenes.   The book is packed with incident, yet its plot is anything but one-thing-after-another.

Gavroche is twelve years old or so, and is a street urchin:

One evening, little Gavroche had had no dinner; he remembered that he had had no dinner the day before either; this was becoming tiresome.  He decided to try for some supper. (IV.4.ii.)

A note or two.  I am on page 916 of 1,463, in the blocky Signet Classics edition.  I barely know Gavroche at this point – I only met him on page 593, so we’re barely acquainted.  No, sorry, he first appeared on page 377:

When the brat’s insistent racket became too much to bear, “Your boy is squalling,” Thenardiér said.  “Why don’t you go see what he wants?”

“Aah!” the mother answered.  “I’m sick of him.”  And the poor little fellow went on crying in the darkness. (II.3.i.)

Back on page 377, I had not realized that I would need that baby later.  This is one way Les Misérables works.

Another way:  Gavroche “remembered” that he was hungry, which was “tiresome.”  Those are not Gavroche’s words, exactly – this is not stream of consciousness writing – but those are his thoughts.  He’s a funny kid.  Now, he has wandered towards a garden in which he remembers seeing an apple tree:

An apple is supper; an apple is life.  What ruined Adam might save Gavroche.

Those two sentence are pure Hugo.  They are syntactically simple but rhetorically complex.  Les Misérables is a masterpiece of the rhetoric of fiction, which is, admittedly neither the only nor the most important aspect of fiction.  But the novel does other things well, too.

Gavroche, scrunched under a hedge, discovers a penniless old man in the garden.  I had already met the old man, too, although Gavroche had not.  As the street darkens, two more figures come along, one of whom I could identify as Jean Valjean, the novel’s central character, and another Hugo has to identify, although he is not new, either.

Four characters, all known to me, not all known to, or even aware of, each other.  Only Gavroche, and Hugo, and I, see them all.  There is a mugging, and a struggle, and a nearly three page lecture on the wages of crime.  A little purse ends up in – let’s see – four pairs of hands.  Everyone present handles the purse.  The scene is seven pages long.

Understanding the physical space of the scene is crucial to comprehending the mechanics of the scene.  Gavroche, in his hedge, is right here; the old man under the tree is therefore over there, and the mugging  over there, and Gavroche has to move from A to B and then back to A.  Such is the case for every major scene in the book.

In most fiction, characters are disembodied voices, floating through an indistinct landscape.  In a few novels, better ones, they begin to take on some sort of form, and their world, or at least a few spots in it, solidify.  Hugo’s characters can be ghostly, too, but his world, his Paris, his stage sets, are  - not real, that is the exact wrong word - but substantial, existent enough that the imaginary people can occupy them.

Does any of that make any sense?  Regardless - forward!  This week, I make an attempt at How Fiction Works, Les Misérables edition.


  1. Love, love, love Les Mis. It took me a few tries to get past the first 50 pages, but once I did I was stuck. I also read it in the Signet classics edition. I remember that I had a clear plastic cover (like you put on textbooks) to keep it from falling apart in my hands as I read. A book like Les Mis makes me long for serial publications or multiple volumes.

  2. I took out the first part, the bishop's story in one sitting. The history of the convent was a stumbling block for me, but that's buried in the middle.

    I took healthy breaks between "books", too. Honestly, Les Misérables should be published in five volumes (averaging less tan 300 pages each). I'll bet more people would read it. People who would love it.

    The Signet Classics edition was great as a compact, portable reading copy, but is now a huge pain, now that I'm trying to write something. Hard to keep the dang thing open while typing.

  3. I admit the sheer bulk of Les Miserables has kept me from reading it!-

  4. Les Miserables is my favorite novel and the one I have read more times than another other. It never seemed that huge to me perhaps because I loved the story so much - it could have lasted forever and I would have been happy. I agree with Anna that perhaps if it were divided into volumes, it might be more accessible. Good post.

  5. I've noticed that French-language editions of Les Mis and other literary doorstops (Dumas, Beauvoir's Les Mandarins) do tend to be in at least 2 volumes, which I like! Except that it costs twice as much to buy them.

    I still haven't read ANY Hugo. Maybe I'll pick some up in Paris.

  6. mel - Understandable. But, really, when I think of all the readers on earth who have read Tolkien all the way through three times (I've done that my own self) and Harry Potter beginning to end four times and so on, well, you can see where I'm going.

    The novel was originally published in 10 volumes - two per "book" - but 10 volumes all at once, not as a serial. It should be five paperbacks today. They already have their own titles - "Fantine", "Cosette", etc. They would make an attractive little boxed set.

    Emily - Hugo is just outstanding. But if it's French Hugo we're talking about, forget the fiction. You want Les Contemplations, or Les Châtiments, or - anyway, poetry. Man oh man.

  7. Amateur Reader-good points on how to look at the length-I have read also the Tolkien, the Potter series, Clarissa (is it longer than the Hugo) and much longer sets of diaries, journals or letters-

  8. If I go by this Wiki comparison, Clarissa is about 90% longer than Les Misérables. That feels about right to me.

    Hugo's novel is also - what's a polite way to put this? I mean, I love Clarissa. At its best, it's one of the greats. Let's see: the boring parts of Hugo's novel are much less boring than the boring parts of Clarissa.

  9. On Clarissa-I read Les Mis when I was 16 and swooned. I read Clarissa (Penguin edition) when I was 25 and swooned. They're both great, and as A.R. points out, both have their strengths (and weaknesses). That said, of the two, I choose Clarissa. There's only so many times I can read Les Mis without "On My Own" popping into my head. Over and over and over again.

  10. Maybe worth mentioning that I have never seen the musical and have never heard any of its songs, or if I have heard them I don't recognize them.

  11. I had the exact same stumbling block in the history of the convent. The bishop was only a minor problem compared to that, and only actually put me off the French original. Which it would be nice to someday read, as a re-read.

  12. So, Tom, what's the best English edition of the novel? One that is complete, unabridged? Any suggestions?

  13. Two good choices: The Signet Classics edition, which now has the musical poster on the cover. It's the original translation but with some modern revisions and corrections. I read this one. Cheap, sturdy, portable.

    Then there is the recent Julie Rose translation (Modern Library). I thought it looked good, too; reviewers interested in translation thought it was good.

    The Penguin Classics edition is 1,200 pages long but is actually abridged by several hundred pages!