Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: Book One, Fantine


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?

13 comments:

  1. I read Les Miserables in 2018. Using Goodreads, I am able to confirm it is indeed the longest novel I have ever read as well. I read the Penguin movie tie in paperback which is 1232 pages. The runner sup from my read books are "And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer at 1184 pages and then "A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin" at 1117 pages.

    I have War & Peace and Don Quixote on my TBR still...both are pretty long. But long books are doable. It is all in the approach and motivation really. There are 200 page books that have been real slogs for me to read, you know?

    I look forward to your posting as you go along. I read all the "boring bits". I didn't like the sewer part as much as I thought I would. And the Waterloo section was almost MY Waterloo in defeat! LOL. But otherwise, I didn't mind his digressions too, too much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've just started the Waterloo section, alas! I generally have a tough time with extended action and battle scenes, so I may end up skimming parts. I did read W&P for a college class over 10 weeks, but that was the entire reading list! I've also read most of the GRRS but it's a different type of long book, I think a lot of contemporary fiction is easier.

      Still haven't read Don Quixote! I do have a copy of "And Ladies of the Club" which I may take a crack at someday.

      Delete
  2. I loved this book so much, and listened to it on audio too (the Julie Rose translation). The sewer part is what people always talk about, but it's not long and it's actually very interesting. Much more interesting than all the ABC club politic stuff. Those parts bored me to tears. But otherwise I liked all the sidenotes about culture and architecture and religion from the time period. The parts about the nunnery were particularly awesome.

    As for the longest book I've ever read, Good reads says it is indeed Les Mis, followed by The Count of Monte Cristo, then Oathbringer (and then a bunch of Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin books with Don Quixote thrown in there for good measure).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm really enjoying it so far -- I didn't mind most of the asides in Moby Dick either. I'm hoping this book will give me the courage to tackle DQ and maybe Zola's La Debacle. Not quite as long but it's longish for Zola and it's all about war!

      Delete
  3. I read Les Mis way back as a teenager and have been wanting to reread it as an adult. Great idea to break it up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reading it as a teenager is impressive! Was it for school or for pleasure?

      Delete
  4. I read Les Mis in 2018 as a chapter-a-day book (it has exactly 365 chapters!)
    I came to love the asides, and the battle chapters of Waterloo were made easier by reading them one at a time. I will never forget this book. I read the hardback Penguin Norman Denny translation, which worked well for me. I found the Rose version too colloquial for my liking. I also really liked the Donougher and the softcover book was easier for me travel with, when I needed to.

    My posts throughout the entire year of reading, are all at the bottom of this post - http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com/2019/01/les-miserables-by-victor-hugo.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've been looking at that 365 readalong and sorry I didn't participate -- but I know I could never stretch out a book for that long! I'm in the Waterloo section and it may, indeed, be my Waterloo. Now I need to look at your posts!

      Delete
  5. Good luck! I've never made it through this one. My longest read is probably Atlas Shrugged which has around 1168 pages. Happy reading Les Miserables! :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've made it about 500 pages through so I think I might really finish it this time!

      Delete
  6. Waterloo defeated me... I have good intentions of trying to go back one day, but there are so many other things I'd rather be reading!

    I've attempted several longer books in the past, but according to Goodreads the longest I have finished is probably "The Red Queen" by Isobelle Carmody at 1120 pages. Some of the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon came close, hovering around 1000 pages but I gave up on those half-way through the fourth one (1200 pages) as I just wasn't enjoying it that much...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Waterloo went on for a looong time. I was listening to the audio which really helped, the narrator was good and I was walking the dog. I will admit my mind wandered more than a few times! I'm a visual person so I'd really need to see a video or maps or something like that. I'm sure there's a documentary on YouTube or the History channel which would really explain the battle to me. I'm just really glad I'm not reading this for a class, if there were a test I would definitely fail.

      Delete
  7. Wow what a great blog, i really enjoyed reading this, good luck in your work. Online marijuana chocolate

    ReplyDelete