Les Misérables is big book. With a big story. Not just in number of pages or characters (although those too), but in scope of relationships and God and choices.
I was particularly interested in the main storyline—all things involving the main character Jean Valjean. If you’re familiar with the book or plays or films, you already know that he steals a loaf of bread for his sister’s hungry kids, and gets banished to hard prison labor for 19 years.
Upon his release, Jean Valjean steals silverware from the nicest bishop ever, Monseigneur Myriel, who in turn shows him so much grace (he lets him keep the silverware and throws in two silver candlesticks to boot) that Jean Valjean is forever changed.
The story starts from there.
And the story is an incredible one.
For that story of grace, I endured all the pages and myriads of rabbit trails and the five months it took me to read Les Misérables.
All worth it.
That’s not to say there wasn’t frustration along the way. Valjean’s past continues to haunt him over and over. He’s faced with many difficult decisions regarding his life and the young Cosette. Author Victor Hugo allows us to see inside the decision-making of many of those choices, and allows us to experience the anguish of their difficulty.
But when the joy comes, he lets us feel that in full force, too.
So my apologies to Hugo for all the times I griped about his long soliloquies on topics such as “ANCIENT HISTORY OF THE SEWER.” (Yes, really.) (And did Hugo not even realize his propensity for digressions? “. . . the reader will permit us one other little digression, utterly foreign to this book, but characteristic and useful, since it shows that the cloister even has its original figures.”)
Les Misérables is not a book to be taken lightly or read quickly. It asks much of the reader. Especially we modern readers who have short attention spans. (Having read this and The Brothers Karamazov in the same year, I feel somewhat drained. )
But rising to the challenge of hard reading (it was hard reading to me anyway) can be satisfying. A great book combines the beauty of art with the sanctity of the divine. It’s rare and is to be treasured.
To quote the Bishop when he was confronted by Madame Magloire about “wasting” a spot of land for flowers—“Monseigneur, it would be better grow salads there than bouquets”—the Bishop responds, “You are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful.” He added after a pause, “More so, perhaps.”
Time spent inside Les Misérables was as useful as it was beautiful. And that’s saying a lot for a die-hard non-fiction reader like me.
Here are a few favorite excerpts.
“That evening, before he [the Bishop] went to bed, he said again: ‘Let us never fear robbers nor murderers. Those are dangers from without, petty dangers. Let us fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers. The great dangers lie within ourselves.
What matters it what threatens our head or our purse! Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.’”
~ * ~
“He did not study God; he was dazzled by him.”
~ * ~
“This humble soul loved, and that was all. That he carried prayer to the pitch of a superhuman aspiration is probable: but one can no more pray too much than one can love too much.”
~ * ~
“Civil war—what does that mean? Is there a foreign war? Is not all war between men, war between brothers? War is qualified only by its object. There is no such thing as foreign or civil war; there is only just and unjust war.”
~ * ~
“Jean Valjean surveyed the doctor and Marius serenely, almost without ceasing to gaze at Cosette. These barely articulate words were heard to issue from his mouth: ‘It is nothing to die; it is dreadful not to live.’”
* * *
What do you think about Les Misérables? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.
And with this, I’m officially finished with my 2014 Book Challenges. What a great year of reading!
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