Prompted to think about a piece of art that is dear to me, it doesn’t take me long to make my choice and think about Les Misérables. The reasons behind my choice? Let me count ’em…
1. When did I first become acquainted with Les Misérables?
The first time I read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables I was about 14. I cannot remember fully my age, but I know I was young and at school, and my teacher told us it is not really a required reading due to its volume and hard language, so clearly, I had to read it. Of course, I would never be able to read it in the original French as intended, but even in translation, I was reduced to tears.
2. Why did the story touch me?
It is impossible to explain to someone who never heard about it, who never read the book or saw it in the theatre, or watched the movie. It a timeless piece, considering topics of faith, personal development, strength, standing up to one’s beliefs, love, family, betrayal, sacrifice, exploitation, promises, and trying to find a purpose in life. If you cannot find something that resonates with you, you may well be a tree, or an alien. Written in an abundant romantic style, Hugo paints the lives of hundreds of characters with such vividity and clarity that I felt like I knew them, even though I hardly understood all the historical references. I wanted to slap Marius, shake Cossette, kiss Enjolras, and hug Gavroche. I read through the final books, sitting in my room for hours, unable to stop. I cried over Fantine, I cried over Eponine, I cried over Enjolras, I cried over Gavroche and I cried over Jean Valjean.
3. How would I summarise it?
An epic romantic tale of what it means to be human, set during the French Revolution, that will test your patience, beliefs and understanding of the world and yourself.
4. Who would I recommend it to?
Everyone. Granted, maybe in different forms. Not everybody is into reading a thousand odd pages, and not everybody likes 2 and a half hour long musicals with an cast resembling that of War and Peace. If must, there’s even a comic book version available, so there is really no excuse for not getting familiar with Jean Valjean.
5. What is my favourite rendition?
Obviously, the book is the ‘ground zero’, where my interest / obsession with Les Misérables began. However, it is infeasible to read the book again and again, unless I gave up reading new books, or stopped all other activities that take up time in my life.
A little after I read the book, I became aware of the musical version, and listened to the CD with avid interest, trying to match each to the different scenes from the book. I tried to think about how my understandings and opinions of the characters and events changed after becoming familiar with the lyrics, how I began to love Javert who earlier I just tolerated with a curious interest. The lyrics and passionate vocals accompanied by the amazing orchestra gave new meanings to the story, and new layers to my understanding of it. And when again, some time later, I somehow got my hands on the tenth anniversary concert of the musical, I was a giddy, tearful, obsessing mess. I don’t know how many times I have seen it, but I know every drum beat, every inhale, every syllable and intonation.
I guess it is only fair to mention the more recent movie adaptation. While I appreciate the sentiment and effort, the vision and scale, somehow the all star cast didn’t cut it for me. Maybe I was too used to the musical versions I grew up with, maybe it was the cold and overcrowded yet unappreciative cinema experience, but somehow it just didn’t touch me. If anyone wants the Hollywood version, then by all means, go for it. I don’t mind. At least they get to know this amazing story. Still, I think I would sooner re-watch Liam Neeson as Valjean.
Following Bloom’s Taxonomy Book Review Questions, here are a few extra thoughts about Les Misérables.
6. Knowledge – Where did the story take place?
Being a good thousand pages long, the story takes place in a number of locations and across a number of decades. The most important ones, imho, would be:
- Toulon – where Jean Valjean spends 19 in the chain-gang as prisoner 24601, getting familiar with Javert.
- Digne-les-Bains – where Jean Valjean robs a bishop and in turn is gifted all the bishop’s silver.
- Montreuil-sur-Mer – where Jean Valjean turns into Monsieur Madeleine and opens a factory, then becomes the major, Monsieur Le Maire. Javert happens to pass by and gets confused between Champmathieu and Valjean.
- Montfermeil – where Cosette, aka Cinderella, goes from house slave to an adopted princess.
- Paris – where Jean Valjean is called Monsieur LeBlanc and calls himself Urbain Fabre, until at last living up to being Jean Valjean.
Confusing? Read it.
7. Comprehension – What did the title have to do with the book?
Umm, everything. The miserable lives of the protagonists and the contemporary society et large is portrayed with such sombre tones that one cannot help but feel a little depressed reading the book. It is an unjust world where effort and ambition is rarely met with success and no matter how noble or righteous one might be, death is ultimately inevitable and mostly untimely. It is a manifest of Hugo’s ingenuity that most deaths (and there are plenty of them!) are still experienced as somehow cathartic.
8. Application – What changes would have to be made if the story took place 200 years ago?
Well isn’t this my lucky day – the book starts exactly in 1815, which was, yep, 200 years ago. So I am going to move on with a smug smile.
9. Analysis – The Who/What/Where/When/Why/How.
In a dramatic turn of events at the court, the man previously apprehended for breaking his parole and being at large for years, turned out to be innocent.
Inspector Javert must have felt rather silly when the man he claimed to have been chasing for a decade, turned out to be only an unlucky resemblance. The irony? The whole mis-identification only came to light when the real man on the run, Jean Valjean turned up at court to save the life of the man who answers his description, that of Champmathieu. The court and Javert were so confused that they let Valjean walk out after he announced his identity and location to be found. It appears that Javert has his reputation to rebuild, and better hurry after the breadcrumbs that Valjean threw at him.
10. Evaluation – If you could only save one character from the story in the event of a disaster, which one would it be and why?
Gavroche. He died young and his death did not further the story, and his staying alive would not influence the outcome. He died collecting the bullets on the barricade – a heroic, symbolic death, the death of innocence during the battle of ideals against the oppressing, mindless laissez faire attitude. However, were he to live, he could have been the next Enjolras. And that could only have been a good thing.