Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading Les Miserables in Chicago

I finally finished reading Les Miserables (an English translation, obvs) this month--more than three years after I started it.

I had such high hopes when I first ordered the free Kindle version. It's only 959 pages, I thought to myself. I can handle that. After all, I'd already plodded through Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame--all 550 pages--including an entire novel's worth of narrative about the history and architecture of the cathedral; and 750 pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick--including 30,000 words about whale blubber. That is not a lie.

The difference between the reading of those two novels and the latest novel is that I read with others in a reading group, with a deadline. I read Les Mis on my own, with no time constraints; and during the duration of my reading of I Am Miserables, I read 49 other books (according to my LibraryThing book tags), one of which, Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, was almost as unreadable as I'm Still Miserables

OK, that's a bit harsh. It's just that I'm a simple person, with lofty intentions but with the attention span of a toddler hopped up on Twix at Halloween. So when I encountered the 19-page table of contents (again, not a lie), I thought to myself, "Oh, crap." 

You know you're in trouble when some of the chapter titles are longer than entire chapters of some books. For example: Volume II, Book Second, Chapter II: In Which the Reader Will Peruse Two Verses, Which Are of the Devil's Composition, Possibly, and also Chapter III: The Ankle-Chain Must Have Undergone a Certain Preparatory Manipulation to be Thus Broken With a Blow from a Hammer.

You also know you're in trouble when you don't understand a single word in some of the lengthy chapter titles, as in Volume III, Book Eighth, Chapter XIII: Solus Cum Solo, In Loco Remoto, Non Cogitabuntur Orare. Apparently, they only had a budget for for French-to-English, not Latin-to-English.

Barnes and Noble claims that Les Miserables is the home of the longest sentence ever written, clocking in at 823 words. But the Victor Hugo Internet Hub debunks this risible impertinence, citing five novels with longer sentences. I remember that sentence, however; it caused my undiagnosed aneurysm to throb.

The beautiful thing about reading on the Kindle is that you can look up words you don't know as you go along, without having to stop and pick up your unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. This is fortunate, because Victor Hugo is a vocabulary beast -- I encountered unknown lexical combinations on virtually every page. I am determined to find many opportunities to use recrudescence and fulgurating and matutinal in everyday conversation.

It was disconcerting, however, that many of the words I highlighted did not have definitions in the Kindle dictionary--such as pterigybranche, poignarded, emphyteuses, and arondissement. As it turns out, Hugo's narrator does not hide his linguistic snobbery, and his disdain for anything but the most precise and standard vocabulary and usage. He refers to 

...that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that  
pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the the night which has just been torn from its cesspool...what is slang, properly speaking? It is the language of wretchedness. 


Victor Hugo's middle name is digression. He admits this in the third sentence, after introducing the character Myriel, Bishop of D--: "Although this detail has no connection whatever with the real substance of what we are about to relate, it will not be mention here the various rumors and remarks which had been in circulation about him..." Hugo then spends the next 63 pages introducing the Bishop, who plays a key role in Jean Valjean's life even though he only appears briefly in the book. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean valuable silver, and urges him to use it to become an honest man; and after this encounter, the Bishop never returns to the story. 

The trick with reading Hugo or any prolix classic author is to figure out which digressions you can skim over without losing track of the main characters and plot lines, and which digressions contain indispensable facts and connections. I failed miserably at this task, which is why it took me three years to finish the book. I probably could have flipped past the entire Volume I, Book Third, or at the very least the first chapter of said Book entitled The Year 1817, which is a single seven-page paragraph name-drop. I could have spurned the entire Book First, Volume II, which comprises 19 chapters (47 pages) about the Battle of Waterloo--which the title of Chapter V refers to as The Quid Obscurum of Battles. (I googled quid obscurum. It means something like what darkness. It's also the name of a famous thoroughbred horse.)

Hugo wrote six chapters about the sewers of Paris in Volume V, Book Second. The Intestine of the Leviathan describes in torturous detail the history, construction, geography, and putrescent contents of the French sewer system. There's some interesting, even quotable, material in there--such as the passage that describes the sewer as "the conscience of the city:"

All the uncleannesses of civilization, once past their use, fall into this trench of truth, where the immense social sliding ends. They are there engulfed, but they display themselves there. This mixture is a confession. There, no more false appearances, no plastering over is possible, filth removes its shirt, absolute denudation puts to the rout all illusions and mirages, there is nothing more except what really exists, presenting the sinister form of that which is coming to an end...All which was formerly rouged, is washed free. The last veil is torn away. A sewer is a cynic. It tells everything.

But if I had neglected this section, it would not have diminished my understanding of the story.

Some of the excursus distracted from the heroic storyline but proved germane to contemporary social and political discussions--such as the analysis of the political stage in France in the early 1830s, described in Volume IV, Book First, Chapters I - IV. These are the kinds of passages that get books banned in the red states:

Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy,and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

So. I finished reading Les Miserables. I'm glad I read it, in the same way I'm glad I ran a marathon back in the '80s when I was young, energetic, child-free, and motivated by sibling competition. I have earned my bragging rights, but thankthelittlebabyjesus, I will never have to do it again.

What ridiculous book are you laboring to finish?


jkww said...

Very impressive! I have never been tempted to tackle Les Mis. I did, however, purchase the unabridged Don Quixote 12 years or so ago because I remembered really like the extremely abridged version we read in my literature class in college. I read about 50 pages.

I still have it, and it taunts me with its endless tedious chapters.

jeanie said...

Laughed out loud a couple of times and thought to myself "she's back." Not that it is the same she or ever will be but I hope you know what I mean.

I'm only half way through "The Brothers Karamazov". I wonder if I will ever finish. I am learning that cliff notes are my friend (remember what I learned about Kim and I didn't even read it) and Book Clubs. You really need to discuss these books to get the most our of them, I think.

I love the Green Room!

studioGypsy said...

this is why i wait for the books to turn into movies! :P. i think my attention span is shortr than urs.. since i still have not finishd moby dick or that othr book on my kindle fir ur book club that i have faild to earn my keep in! but i will say that i did finish 2 thick novels by george macdonald recently that i so wishd i had patience to read back as a teenager.. :). xoxo