So I've decided to take the plunge and make another attempt at Victor Hugo's epic masterpiece, Les Miserables. At 1260 pages (depending on the edition), it's quite possibly the longest book I've ever read! (I'm not sure if it's longer than War and Peace, it's tough to say based on different editions. It's definitely longer than Gone With the Wind and anything by Dickens or Trollope.)
Since the book is so long, I've decided to write blog posts after each of the five books. The first book, Fantine, took me just about a week to finish. If you don't know the setup, here's what's happened so far:
The book begins in the 1820s, and begins with a lot of back story about a priest, Monseignur Bienvenue, who only appears in this section but is a pivotal character. (He is saintly and allows a newly released convict, Jean Valjean, into his home for the night. Valjean has spent 19 years doing hard labor onboard a galley ship after stealing a loaf of bread (his initial sentence was five years, but was extended after repeated escape attempts). Valjean steals the family silver and uses this to start a new life, eventually working his way up to become a successful businessman and the well-respected mayor of a town about five years later. Meanwhile, one of the factory workers, the beautiful Fantine, has left her illegitimate daughter Cosette in the care of the unscrupulous Thenardiers, who take Fantine's money and spend it on their own children, treating little Cosette like a servant.
Cosette's nasty co-workers discover where she's been sending her weekly wages, and get her fired from her job. She then sinks to selling her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body on the streets. Finally one day she is arrested for assaulting a man on the street when Valjean (now known as Monsieur Madeleine) witnesses the event and stops the policeman Javert from throwing her in jail. Fantine health is wrecked and he takes charge of her care, promising to reunite her with Cosette.
Meanwhile, Javert has become suspicious -- he believes Mayor Madeleine is a former convict who is wanted for thefts after his release. However, Javert tells Madeleine his fears were averted when another man is arrested for the crimes. Madeleine realizes another man may be sentenced for his crimes and struggles with the decision to come forward. And that's only the first 200 pages!
There is A LOT going on in this book -- plot, characters, setting (Hugo loves detailed descriptions), and many asides in which Hugo pontificates about politics, philosophy, religion, etc. This seems to be a feature of books of the time -- I remember Moby-Dick included entire chapters about chowder and the color white. I've heard there are entire chapters in Les Miserables about the Paris sewer system, so that'll be . . . interesting. (Fun fact: you can take sewer tour in Paris -- there is an actual sewer museum! Apparently it's closed at the moment for renovations, so if you're planning a trip, you're out of luck). Also SO MUCH back story about the characters -- Monseigneur Bienvenue was the reason I gave up my first attempt reading this a few years ago.
Anyway, I'm really enjoying it so far, despite all the asides. I've been lucky enough to find a digital download of the audio from the library, so I've been able to make real progress while walking the dog and driving around town. The audio version is the Charles Wilbour translation from 1862, and I like it so far. It's the same translation as the Modern Library hardcover edition, also checked out from the library. I do actually own two other copies of this book, but it's easier to keep reading the same edition. I also own the beautiful Penguin clothbound copy and the Signet mass-market paperback, both pictured. I love the Penguin copy but it's actually easier to read the Modern Library version, as it lies flat when open. The Penguin and Signet editions are also different translations. I'm sure they're equally good but I find it easier to just stick with one -- maybe someday I'll go back and reread the others to see which one I like best!
I'll be posting more thoughts about Les Miserables in the coming weeks -- I'm hoping to finish one section every week, so if all goes as planned I'll finish up by the end of March. I'm also going to include some travel photos related to Paris and Victor Hugo, and various adaptations.
Bloggers, have you read Les Miserables? Which edition is the best? And what are the longest books you've ever read?