Pop Culture Princess

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The joys of Les Miserables

One of my latest reading habits is to catch up on classics,old and post modern, by choosing one to be my "Morning Read" and to read at least two pages(sometimes more but never less) from it early in the day. I've completed quite a few good books this way,with the longest to date being Victor Hugo's Les Miserables,which I finished up over this past weekend.

It took me a little over six months to complete Les Miz(and yes, I saw the musical film version during that time and no, it didn't ruin the story for me at all) and when you're with a book for that long a time, it's pretty much like having a chatty roommate move in.

Hugo's epic novel was intimidating for many reasons,the length not being one to daunt me since most fans of the novel love big page turners like Sir Mix-a-lot admires the notable seat cushion of certain ladies.

 One of the tricky choices to make here was in finding the right translator(I settled on Norman Denny) and when it comes to a wordy fellow like Hugo, that decision was not made lightly.

For one thing, Hugo doesn't just set the scene of a particular locale crucial to the certain part of the story he's telling,he gives you a whole encyclopedia's worth of history and background for such places as a battlefield,a convent or the sewers of Paris. Plus, he throws in a number of dueling philosophies held either by the characters or himself as the narrator which offers up a number of roadblocks to the first time reader.

However,it's all worth wading through to get to the heart of the story and when it comes to plot action, Les Miz readily sings along(no pun intended!). A lot of themes are floated around here,with the centerpiece being redemption in the form of Jean Valjean,a convict unjustly sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family. The emotional portraits painted on the page by Hugo make the story seem more accessible than most of the literary scholars and big Hollywood adaptations would lead you to believe:

Valjean's attempts to live a better life,first due to an unexpected kindness from a humble bishop and later to protect Cosette, the innocent daughter of the doomed Fantine, are constantly challenged by circumstance and the constant presence of Inspector Javert.

Javert's obsession with finding Valjean guilty of something is tied into his shame regarding his family origins and in many ways, we see that he is just as much of a prisoner of his own rigid code of conduct as he would like certain others to be. One of Valjean's merits is in finding sympathy in his heart for Javert and while doing his best to avoid recapture, is able to offer the man the respect that this officer of the law would be pleased to deny him:

Amidst these two opposite ends of the moral spectrum are a host of friends,allies or potential enemies whose actions are either affected and/or by their connection with Valjean or Javert.

The sleazy con artist couple Thenardier, young street urchin Gavroche(who could give Dickens' Artful Dodger a run for his money), their feckless daughter Eponine in hopeless love with poor little rich boy Marius who is in turn hopelessly in love with the innocent Cosette,all of them and so many more characters round out the other major talking points of the plot,such as dire poverty,exploitation and the need of the young to rebel against the social order of their elders.

What most agree makes a book resound beyond it's time period is the universality of it's themes and in this age of Occupy Wall Street and the war against women,so much of this story feels as fresh as it did back in 1862. When Anne Hathaway ended her Oscar speech last year by saying hopefully in the future,the fate of Fantine(the role she won Best Supporting Actress for) would only be something in stories and not in real life, that wasn't just lip service. It would be wonderful if that was true:

While I did enjoy the musical version of Le Miz, I would like to find a good dramatic adaptation to watch as well. There's a lot to choose from but with a little searching, the best one can be found,I'm sure.

However, the best benefit that I have gotten from this lengthy reading is that now I get it when people speak about Jean Valjean in such reverent tones. His courage and determination to better himself, yet never considering himself to be better than anyone else, is incredibly admirable. Hugo also allows Valjean moments of doubt and weakness,making him a man that most of us can truly identify with and strive to be more like in our own way.

While my new Morning Read isn't as intense( Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady),I will still relish the calm but never forget the storm of Les Miserables. This elaborate story has much to teach all of us about dealing with life's ups and downs,not to mention giving us all a song to sing in our hearts and minds for generations to come:

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