74 Readers
106 Writers
headspinningfromvagueness

Ironic Contradictions

I'm a long time reader - since way back when I was seven. That makes it over three quarters of my life that I will be a reader for. But it is worth it. When I'm not reading or wasting my time online on here or Goodreads I'll be off playing video games, studying teaching and messing around with friends and pop culture. Or reading some more.
Les Misérables - Victor Hugo, Peter Washington, Charles E. Wilbour
"We can only suppose that its new life as a musical - and what an appropriate fate for that most operatic novelist - will help to bring Les Misérables to the attention of a new generation of readers, reminding them perhaps that the abuses Hugo catalogues are still alive elsewhere, awaiting their own chroniclers in the brave new world of the twenty first century." - Peter Washington, Introduction

While I have a personal propensity towards giving my love easily to many various novels, there are few novels which I would consider great favourites. By which I mean that I both love and consider them among the greatest pieces of writing ever written. [b:The Lord of the Rings|33|The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)|J.R.R. Tolkien|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347257199s/33.jpg|3462456], [b:The Chronicles of Narnia|11127|The Chronicles of Narnia (Chronicles of Narnia #1-7)|C.S. Lewis|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348864262s/11127.jpg|781271], [b:Alice in Wonderland|13023|Alice in Wonderland (Alice, #1)|Lewis Carroll|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166512952s/13023.jpg|2933712], [b:Peter Pan|34268|Peter Pan|J.M. Barrie|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1337714526s/34268.jpg|1358908], [b:The Complete Sherlock Holmes|188572|The Complete Sherlock Holmes|Arthur Conan Doyle|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348815538s/188572.jpg|7492217] and [b:Complete Stories and Poems|23919|Complete Stories and Poems|Edgar Allan Poe|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327942676s/23919.jpg|30431] number among these. Now this year I can confidently state that I have added two more in [b:Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell|14201|Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell|Susanna Clarke|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1357027589s/14201.jpg|3921305] and this great work: Les Misérables.

Les Misérables, as a novel, is far grander than its worthy adaptations (of which I recommend the 1998 film with Liam Neeson). It is not the simple tale of Jean Valjean escaping from Inspector Javert. It is so much more. It is: a love story, the love story of France as well as a romance; a tragedy, a catalogue of the miserable citizens of historic France; a historical chronicle, a mapping out of the cultural landscape of one image of time; above all it is a literary masterpiece.

Victor Hugo may have his failings in this novel. At times he falls into pompous verbosity, rambling on about subjects which appear to lack relevance to the story. However, what he has achieved in this novel is nothing short of remarkable. This is literature at its finest, a book recording the suffering and beauty of humanity and reflecting upon it in language which is both complex and simple despite translation. Speaking of translation, this version by Charles E. Wilbour seemed to be quite excellent (if old fashioned), however if I ever re-read this I shall buy a different translation with greater annotation. I urge anyone interested in reading this book to get the unabridged version. Reading the abridged versions will only ruin the charm of the story and perhaps your understanding of the story itself.

There are many themes throughout Les Misérables. Most people who know anything of the story will know that at its simplest Les Misérables is a tale about the convict Jean Valjean, one of the great characters of literature. A character so fleshed out for the reader as to be almost real. It is also the tale about how Javert, inspector of police, hounds him across different times and locations to bring Valjean to legal justice. In many ways Les Misérables is a story therefore about the cycle of history and how the past rises up to chase the future. However it is, in my eyes, also one of the greatest stories of grace versus the law.

By grace versus law, I mean the idea of a man being given a second chance, contrasted with the legalistic view that a man must pay for his crime regardless of his changed moral circumstance. Legalism in my eyes would have every reformed good man destroyed, and this is what I think Les Misérables portrays so very nicely. Jean Valjean seizes the chance for redemption, however Javert refuses to believe that any man sentenced as a convict could possibly become heroic. It is this refusal to believe that drives the conflict of Les Misérables and leads to grace versus law becoming one of the major themes.

Update:

I just went and saw the new film - wow, was it powerfully moving. When it comes to musicals I tend to like them. My favourite is probably the Audrey Hepburn version of My Fair Lady. My love of musicals having been generated by the exposure to the Muppets version of Treasure Island at a young age. The Tom Hooper version of this book, or rather the musical adaptation to the screen, is up there as a new favourite. Emotionally moving, brilliant production, excellent makeup, great sets and camera sequences. I also loved the casting and think that criticisms of Russell Crow as Javert are a touch unfair. I suspect those critics were expecting something different to what he provided whereas I always go in with as low expectations of a film as possible (I say possible because some movies, like when I see The Hobbit part 1, will have high expectations still).

So yes, I fully recommend the movie version if you haven't made time to see it. And I now want to get that soundtrack. However I'm not going to spend this just reflecting on how good the movie was but also about how the film pointed out aspects of the book to me in new ways. I felt the film highlighted how the book is about the idea of religion, law and grace nicely. I felt the film also revealed further depth to how Hugo created a story all about the outcasts of society, all those individuals trodden upon by law and the upper echelons. The film also pointed me to the fact that in the book and movie the 'crimes' committed by individuals such as Jean Valjean, Fantine and the revolutionaries are actually triggered by the harsh conditions of the state. The suggestion being that when a person is in a position of power or has the ability to help a less advantaged person they have a moral responsibility to do so.