Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Les Miserables, Books 3-5, and the West End Musical

It took me two months, but I've finally finished Les Miserables, Victor Hugo's sprawling masterwork. Originally I had planned on posting after each of the five books within the novel, but the last month has been difficult for me, as I'm sure it has been for everyone else. I've had a hard time concentrating and often can barely make it through a short story a day. I ended up listening to quite a bit of the book on audio while walking the dog. The audiobook is split into 56 parts, almost 58 hours of listening time. And of course I'm hardly driving anywhere nowadays, so it took even longer.

So. The third book introduces the character of Marius, a young lawyer who is the son of Pontmercy, a retired army colonel who was badly wounded at the Battle of Waterloo, which takes up an enormous long section in Book Two. At the very end of the battle, deserters are scavenging the bodies of the dead for valuables, and one of them discovers a survivor, whom he pulls from the bottom of a pile and ostensibly saves. The deserter is of course the shady Thenardier who ends up adopting the hapless Cosette; the survivor is Pontmercy, the father of Marius. There's a lot of back story about Marius' maternal grandfather and his estrangement with Pontmercy. Eventually, Marius grows up, learns about his father, leaves his grandfather's house to live in a garret, falls in love with Cosette, Thenardier finds Jean Valjean who then disappears with Cosette; Marius joins the uprising of June 1832; is wounded then saved by Jean Valjean (of course!) by dragging him through the sewers of Paris.

I really should have split this posting into three, but I'll just give my final thoughts. Overall I liked it and was glad I stuck with it, but wow, this book is a commitment. There are some very long passages which are essays about history, politics, religion, etc, and some of them are pretty dry. They're often turned into long soliloquies by characters. I had wondered how the heck this 1260 page behemoth was adapted into a six-hour mini series, much less a feature film or stage musical about three hours long. Obviously, they cut a lot, starting with these passages. It's a great plot, despite the amazing coincidences, and I'm sure I would have gotten more out of it if I'd studied it as a work or literature or even followed the blog postings and podcasts in great detail. Honestly, I cannot imagine a book like this being published today -- editors would be trying to make cuts everywhere. I do think some of the character development is a little sketchy.

So, now a bit about the West End production. A couple of years ago when I still lived in Germany, I took a trip to London to finally meet some of the people from one of my online book groups. I decided to make a long weekend out of it, and planned in some West End shows, tours, and museums -- that trip was packed. I don't normally plan out a detailed itinerary, but on that trip there was so much I wanted to do, I actually made a spreadsheet. There was an opening for the last night of the trip, and I settled on Les Miserables because it's such an iconic show -- it's been running almost continuously since 1985 with more than 14,000 performances to date. However, I didn't have enough time to read the book first, and I didn't want to watch the movie version, so I went to see with only vague memories of the plot.

I enjoyed the show but I hadn't realized that it's a sung-through musical, meaning that there's hardly any dialogue, like a traditional musical -- there's far more singing so it's closer to an opera. The show was completely sold out, and it was quite long, nearly three hours. I did appreciate the quality of the singing and the sets and costumes, but at the time, I don't think I understood why people are so in love with the show. In retrospect, I really wish I had read the book first, I think I would have gotten more out of it, though, obviously, a lot of the plot was cut. As I was reading I realized how abridged it was! Now I'd really like to see it again, but apparently the Queen's Theater in the West End closed for several months for renovations (reopened as the Sondheim Theater), and now the show is different, closer to the touring show version. There was quite a hullabaloo among the fans, especially because the set is also different -- there was a revolving stage which is now gone. So I'm glad I got to see the previous version.

Anthony Perkins as Javert in the 1978 miniseries
I still haven't seen any of the TV or film adaptations since I was a child -- the version I saw starred Anthony Perkins as Javert which is still available on DVD, so I might have to track it down. I do have the most recent miniseries adaptation checked out from the library and I guess I'll have time to watch it now that the library is closed until further notice -- that is, if I can tear myself away from the Scandinavian murder mysteries streaming on Netflix.

UPDATED: While researching images for this blog post I found an interview with Andrew Davies who did the most recent six-hour TV adaptation. Davies said he'd been to see the West End musical and hated it, calling the performers "second- or third-rate." I found that so offensive -- I've been to quite a few West End performances and NEVER seen anything less than first rate singers and actors. Even if I didn't care for the story or the staging, the performers are always top-notch. Does he have any idea how hard it is to do eight shows a week for months? Now I'm rather put off him and don't know if I want to watch his miniseries after all (and I reeeallly hated Sanditon, but that's another whole blog post.)

What's everyone else reading and watching now that we're all hunkered down? Is anyone else making progress with those classics we've been putting off forever, or is everyone just craving comfort reads?

I'm counting this as my Abandoned Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge (I'm halfway through!); the Second Chances category for the Victorian Reading Challenge; and as my French classic for the European Reading Challenge


  1. This was fun to read because I also read the unabridged book not long ago and in February I saw the touring version of the West End production in Zurich. Here's my post about it:

    I also saw the original production with the revolving stage. It was an amazing effect and important for giving a sense of movement and space to this immense story, given all the content that had to be omitted. The new sets were beautiful, if more conventionally staged.

    I haven't ventured to take on any large classics lately but I've been reading Oliver Sacks's An Anthropologist on Mars which is a modern classic in its own field -- fascinating stories of people adapting to extraordinary circumstances.

    1. I was sorry to hear that they changed the staging which I remember as being very impressive. It must have cost a fortune!

      I haven't heard of the Oliver Sacks but it sounds fascinating, I will look for it.

  2. Les Miserables was possibly the first book where I thought an abridged version would make it a better book. Those details about religious orders and the battle of Waterloo don't add to the story at all. If it were just the pure story, the narrative would positively zip along.

    I've never seen any adaptation of the book on the stage or in film...maybe some day, but frankly, I'd rather see Hamilton. I had tickets for May but looks like that's not gonna happen!

    My reading is pretty much the same as before. For a couple of days, it was very stressful and I was too distracted to read. But I've developed a new normal and thankfully reading is still a part of my life now. I can read e-books from the library but I have been taking this opportunity to read from my shelves which is always a goal of mine.

    1. I agree, I can see the case for abridgment. There is a LOT of philosophizing and asides!

      I have seen both Hamilton and Les Mis, and I think you made the right call (I was lucky enough to see that in the West End also, tickets were MUCH easier to get than in NY -- also NO SCALPING ALLOWED IN THE UK!) I managed to get tickets for the tour this summer, but they're in July so there's a chance it won't be rescheduled. Hopefully your tickets will be honored for a later date.

      And I too am trying valiantly to decrease the amount on my TBR shelves but it's so easy to just download ebooks from the library! I have cards from FOUR different library systems so there's always something available. I am hoping to squeeze in some shorter reads now that I finished that behemoth!