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Making Progress in Les Miserables

>> 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.

17 comments:

Kim 1/09/2007 3:18 AM  

Hi! Les Mis is a GREAT book and I am so glad that you are enjoying it! I know what you mean about taking a few days off to read...sometimes you just need to lose yourself in a great book and forget about the world for awhile :0) Enjoy!
Kim

ML 1/09/2007 6:56 AM  

WOW! What an awesome feat to tackle Les Mis. I haven't had the guts, but you've inspired me!

Booklogged 1/09/2007 11:31 AM  

One of these years I'm going to read Les Mis. Won't you be so tickled with yourself for having read such a fat classic? I think you're doing terrific.

I especially loved that last quote - that the one said, “neighbor”, and that the other said, “me”

adrienne,  1/09/2007 6:13 PM  

I have tried to read this book a couple of time and failed, but I have not given up hope. I hope you enjoy it.

SuziQoregon 1/09/2007 8:57 PM  

Kim: it's definitely a book I'd love to curl up on the couch and spend the whole day with. Maybe Saturday?

ML: I wasn't sure when I started it, but I'm glad I'm reading it.

Booklogged: It's partly your fault (and partly Bookfool's) between the Classics and Chunkster challenges it just seemed like the right time.

Adrienne: I'm a little less than a third of the way through - there's been some parts that are more page turners than others, but overall it's good.

Les 1/10/2007 9:37 AM  

I've seen Les Mis twice and loved it both times. The music is fabulous. I've never read the book, but I enjoyed reading the passages you included in your post and may have to give it a go -- next year. I have enough chunksters to last me through 2007!

SuziQoregon 1/10/2007 7:58 PM  

Les - it's a very dense book, but this translation is quite readable.

Heather,  1/11/2007 8:57 AM  

Les Mis is a book and play I've always avoided. I've had the impression it was a depressing story and not worth the read. Your post however makes me rethink this attitude. Then passages you posted are well written and I'm starting to think this book might just be a sleeper hit with me!

Heather
www.thelibraryladder.blogspot.com

SuziQoregon 1/12/2007 7:08 PM  

Heather: I'm nearing the halfway point and still enjoying it - yes, there are parts that are sad, but there are also triumphs and funny parts too. It's a very complex and densly packed story.

nessie 1/12/2007 8:30 PM  

great Job! I actually tried reading it in high school, my mom took it away because I wasnt focusing on school and I never saw it again :(!

Its a good idea to get to it when motivation is high. Also it isnt the type of book to be reading out in the sun. I ADORE the musical! Do you know of it?

jenclair 1/12/2007 9:51 PM  

Your comment about Hugo and Voltaire sent me off onto another "web research." Thanks!

Literary Feline 1/12/2007 10:21 PM  

I began reading Les Miserables right before I started graduate school and then I got so bogged down with my studies that I had to stop about halfway through. I've never picked it back up even though I loved what I'd read of it up to that point.

I'm a huge fan of the musical!

I am glad to hear you are enjoying it, Suzi!

Amy 1/15/2007 3:07 PM  

Hi!

I have really enjoyed reading your blog.

Les Mis is one of those books that I really want to read. I even own it already. I just haven't made the time for it....yet. :)

Amy
www.sleepyreader.blogspot.com

SuziQoregon 1/15/2007 6:48 PM  

Nessie: Haven't seen the musical, but I'd like to.

Jenclair: I did some research on the Voltaire connection too - love it when books make me do that :-)

Amy: Thanks for stopping by - I'm over the halfway point now and really enjoying it. I hope you decide to give it a try.

Bookfool 1/16/2007 11:14 AM  

Oh, wow, I never thought about paying attention to the translation. Yeeks. I really want to get to Les Mis, one day, but now I'll probably worry about whether or not I have a decent translation - I do already own a copy. I particularly loved that second quote about the bees pillaging the jasmine, etc.

Carrie K 1/16/2007 12:04 PM  

Les Mis is a great book! And hmmm, that's the version I read. Taking some time off to just read it would be ideal, but alas. That is definitely a Chunkster though! That's a great excerpt you chose.

Framed 1/17/2007 6:13 PM  

I'm going to bask in my memory of seeing the musical and not attempt to read this huge thing. I need to check into the Voltaire connection though. He's on my "Classics" challenge.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment. I read and respond them here although not always right away. If you would prefer an email response let me know.

I do moderate comments on posts older than 14 days in order to control spam. I will approve your legitimate comments as soon as I can.

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