Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Les Miserables

For the better part of the last decade I have been reading, on and off, Hugo’s Les Miserables, in French. Last month, with mixed emotions, I came to the end.

Such a huge, sprawling mess of a book, with its melodrama, its labyrinthine plotting, its stupefying coincidences, its insane digressions. But it really is a wonder, both as an entry into a particular, spectacularly-detailed and long-gone Paris, and as a passionate affirmation of a series of simple and essentially Christian themes—redemption, forgiveness, self-sacrifice.

In this there is an interesting contrast to the other huge book I’ve read in French, Dumas’ Le Compte de Monte Cristo. There also, at least toward the very end, as one of the villains is literally driven mad with grief, the protagonist comes to realize the terrible inhumanity of vengeance—but this is only after we’ve been enjoying it royally for more than a thousand pages. The tale of revenge carries a deep satisfaction, but the tale of redemption is much harder to carry off.

It has to be said, I think, that Jean Valjean an impossible character. Such selflessness surely can’t reside in a real self. And yet, partly, I suppose, through the length of our association with him, he becomes flesh and blood, struggling against a social condemnation wildly out of proportion to his initial fault, carrying a secret, and an inner guilt, which, instead of paralyzing, impels him to extremes of charity and paternal love. We follow him, and we fear for him.

The difficulty of dramatizing this theme is underlined by the difficulty of translating it onto the screen. Reading, except aloud with another, is a solitary act. Wanting to share some of this with my family, as I approached the end, I bought a DVD of the Liam Neeson movie treatment, to watch with them after I had finished to book. I was determined not to watch the movie before finishing because, as a matter of fact, I didn’t know any of the plot before this reading, and I didn’t want the movie to spoil it. As if it might! The movie’s ending was utterly changed, the characters distorted, and the focus of the ending of the film was the death of Inspector Javert, whom Valjean watches die with indifference, and then joy. Not exactly vengeance, but close.

But then the movie treatment made Javert an evil man, and one of the burdens of the novel is to demonstrate that, cold as he was, Javert was not evil, but merely just. He demonstrates the inadequacy of justice, how it invariably turns on you. Indeed, I think Hugo was being consciously ironic when he titles the first book of the first part, “Un Just,” referring to the good bishop whose leading characteristic is, in fact, not justice, but mercy.

There is, of course, a real villain in the wretched Thenardier, but even he is redeemed somewhat by his ragged children, and of course, in the novel’s penultimate scene, his cruel attempt at extortion unwittingly leads to the final scene of tearful reconciliation. His evil is real, but good inexplicably and rather improbably always comes out of it, beginning, fantastically, in his looting the dead at Waterloo.

And I’ll pat myself on the back for reading it in French. It wasn’t easy, and I have to admit that it probably made me miss a lot, even while not knowing I was missing it. The long digression on criminal “argot” was, yes, a long exercise in bleeping over unintelligible sentences. But, still, I think there is an importance in knowing, “These are his words,” even if one doesn’t get them all. The difficulty of the language creates a barrier, but at least it’s a barrier one is aware of, unlike the barrier, too quickly forgotten, erected by the translator.

But even now, it starts to fade. Such is memory. “L’herbe cache et la pluie efface.”


Anglocat said...


Now that I know it exists, your blig will be less lonely.

I like what you say about Javert, who is in many ways heroic--look at his composure when caught out by the would be revolutionaries, and his little tally of injustices in his note before he kills himself. I think the point Hugo makes in him is that the law--no matter how impartially one strives to apply it--is inherently flawed.

My one nit to pick is that I think it's law and not justice per se that Hugo indicts. In a nineteenth century translation I have, it's phrased as Javert realizing that "the rule might be inadequate in the presence of a fact, that everything could not be framed within the text of the code, that the unforseen compelled obedience." (Isabel Hapgood trans., Bk. 5, p. 147 (1862).

So I would suggest that Javert can't reconfigure himself to address higher justice, let alone the imperatives of mercy.

rick allen said...

I think you're right that, for Javert, law is justice. He lacks a transcendental perspective, and in that I think he embodies a certain strain that came out of the Revolution (think Robespierre), associating grace with the arbitrariness of the ancien regime, and thinking that therefore any relaxation of the law as written is an offense against justice.

It's kind of like the parable--one worker starts at eight, another at noon, another in mid-afternoon, and the steward pays all for a full days work. Grace, or a violation of the Equal Pay Act?

Anglocat said...

Yes, I like that--Robespierre catches it v. well.

Counterlight said...

Your comment on Hugo showing Javert, not as a villain, but as justice itself, reminds me of the character of Captain Vere in Melville's Billy Budd. Melville shows him to be a scrupulously just man, who Billy reveres. But, it is Vere who will be the instrument of Billy's death. Again, there is that theme of the limits of justice.

Your essay is not only thoughtful, but splendidly written.
I'm glad you brought this blog to my attention.

Counterlight said...

Your comment on Robespierre is interesting. Hannah Arendt has similar thoughts in her book On Revolution, about the limits of the reforming impulse.
She comes to a little different conclusion, different only in that she does not invoke transcendence.

C. Wingate said...

Perhaps three years is too long ago to respond to, but anyway...

I think there's also a cultural factor which plays a big role in Americans reading this book: we are extremely strongly biased against Javert, to the point where we cannot take his sense of justice seriously. To an American, I think a merciless justice is seen as evil, period. And relentless pursuit of justice is not something out Bill of Rights is that sympathetic to.