>> Monday, January 8, 2007
I haven't dropped off the planet. I'm reading a ginormous book.
I knew that diving into this book to kick off 2007 was going to be a challenge, but I’m so glad I did. I always worry a bit when buying a book that was originally written in another language. I've been the vicitm of some bad translations and (unknown to me when I started) abridgments. I did some research and settled on the edition shown in the picture. It’s a 1987 unabridged translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee that is based on the classic C. E. Wilbour translation (which was the first major translation published only a few months after the novel in 1862).
The book is divided into 5 major parts and I’ve finished the first part and started the second. This is an extremely complex novel and a very dense read at 1463 tightly packed pages. I’ll consider it an accomplishment if I finish this before the end of January.
The Book opens in 1815. Jean Valjean has just been released from 19 years of imprisonment that resulted initially from the theft of a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her children. His attempts to escape led to multiple extensions of his sentence. He arrives in the small town of Digne unable to secure a place to sleep due to his ex-convict status. He is sheltered by the local bishop. After stealing the bishop’s silver and getting caught Valjean is given the gift of an opportunity to change his life. The bishop tells the police that he gave the silverware to Valjean and in fact he forgot to take the candlesticks too. The bishop then makes Valjean promise that if he takes the candlesticks he also has to promise to become an honest man.
Two years later in Paris, we meet Fantine, crushed by the loss of her first love and father of her illegitimate daughter. She returns to her hometown after leaving her young daughter Cosette with a family who agrees to look after her for a monthly stipend. While working in a factory, Fantine struggles to keep up with the monetary demands made by the family who has Cosette.
Fantine’s struggle to survive and provide for her daughter and Valjean’s struggles with his conscience while at the same time being hunted by the police chief Javert are compelling reading.
A few favorite passages so far . . .
Hugo definitely sees the prison system as flawed:
Jean Valjean was not, as we have seen, born evil. He was still good when he arrived at the prison. There, he condemned society, and felt himself becoming wicked; he condemned Providence, and felt himself becoming impious.
I loved this paragraph:
That day was sunshine from start to finish. All nature seemed to be on a vacation. The flower beds and lawns of Saint-Cloud were balmy with perfume; the breeze from the Seine vaguely stirred the leaves; the boughs were gesticulating in the wind, the bees were pillaging the jasmine; a whole bohemian crew of butterflies had settled in the yarrow, clover, and wild oats. The stately park of the King of France was invaded by a swarm of vagabonds, the birds.Jean Valjean struggles with his own conscience:
He also saw, as if they were laid bare before him in palpable forms, the two ideas that up to then had been the double rule of his life,--to conceal his name, and to sanctify his soul. For the first time, they appeared absolutely distinct, and he saw the difference separating them. He recognized that one of these ideas was necessarily good, while the other might become evil; that the former was devotion, and the latter was selfishness; that the one said, “neighbor”, and that the other said, “me”; that the one came from light, and the other from night.I'm looking forward to more of this one and wish I had some vacation days scheduled so I could sit and lose myself in it.