Monday, April 21, 2008
Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
It took Victor 17 years to pound this bad boy out and I can see why. Les Mis is startlingly long with tangents the size of giant baguettes. It's hard to believe that the musical follows the book as close as it does considering the book's NBA draft pick like length. I always thought the musical was about the French Revolution, well, apparently not. Although the novel spans decades, the main action takes place between 1810 and 1835.
We are first introduced to a kindly old bishop. We get much of his life story and just when the reader is wondering where this is all going Hugo gives us the main character. Jean Valjean starts as a hardened convict in the galleys. He hates everything. After 19 years of slavery he is released as an outcast. The only person who will take him in is the old bishop. Jean is shocked by the bishop's kindness, but he cannot help but be tempted by the house's fine silver. He steals it and is caught. Much to everyone's surprise, the bishop lies to the police and tells them he gifted the silver to the con. This is the moment that changes Valjean's life. The bishop makes him promise to turn things around.
Valjean obliges by starting a new life. He invents a method of making black jewelry that generates tons of cash and great jobs for his new town. He is elected mayor and respected by everyone. It would be hunky dory if this could have lasted, but, alas, it wasn't to be. Valjean's former captor and current police chief has suspicions that his boss is Valjean. Eventually another man is arrested for being Valjean and the real Jean has a crisis of identity. He can save himself and the town or save the falsely accused man. He chooses the man and admits to being Valjean. Valjean, being really good, has also been taking care of a sick single mom who he initially fired from his shop. Fantine, abandoned by her baby daddy, had been whoring to pay for her daughter, Cosette's, upkeep by the Thenardiers. The inn-keeping family was running a big scam and using Cosette as a servant while pocketing all Fantine's money. Valjean watched Fantine die as Javere arrested him. Outraged at Javere's lack of human decency he bolts the first chance he gets and heads to rescue Cosette. He buys her off the amazed Thenardiers and takes her away. Javere is enraged and the Thenardiers are mad that they didn't fleece Valjean for more cash. These are two enemies that will reappear.
Valjean and Cosette eventually get settled in a convent in Paris. They live there for several years before Valjean decides the homely Cosette should get out in the world. Despite the risk that he might be discovered he leaves the nuns. For a year or two this works great, but then Cosette starts growing up. She turns out gorgeous and attracts the attention of Marius, a student who's a bit lost in life. Much like Hugo, he came from a family divided between Royalists and Bonapartists. His grandfather has disowned him for remembering his father, a soldier in Napoleon's army. Marius falls in love with Cosette.
Skipping ahead Marius finally finds Cosette with the help of one of Thenardier's daughters, Eponyne. Eponyne is the most pathetic figure in the story, hopelessly in love with Marius, but not able to extricate herself from the thieving background of her father.
Eventually things get too hot in the neighborhood and Valjean is forced into an emergency relocation. This leaves Marius depressed and suicidal. Conveniently there is a bloody revolt that his friends are staging. He heads over to the barricade and gets ready to die. Valjean intercepts the death letter Marius means for Cosette and heads to the barricade himself, not sure what he wants to do the the interloper. Valjean encounters Javere, a captured spy, and volunteers to execute him. In an act of mercy he frees the determined policeman. Everybody dies in a wonderfully exciting scene, everyone except for Marius and Valjean. Valjean carries the unconscious Marius through Paris's extensive sewer system, and the reader is treated to a detail history of said system. Valjean exhausts his strength trudging four miles before he finds a way out. Here he is promptly arrested by Javere.
In keeping with the theme of identity Javere isn't sure what to do with himself now that he knows Valjean isn't pure evil and might not deserve to go back to the galleys. He finds that justice and the law don't always mix. So, naturally, he chucks himself into the Seine and drowns.
Everything should be right as rain, but Valjean is feeling guilty that he's an ex-felon and once Cosette and Marius are married he starts phasing himself out of their lives. He tells Marius his story, but leaves out the part about saving his life and coming up with all the cash legally. Marius gives him the cold shoulder and Valjean is distraught at not seeing Cosette. He sinks into depression and starts dying. One day Thenardier stops into to try and extort some cash from Marius by using Valjean's past as blackmail. Thenardier reveals that he saw Valjean with a "corpse" in the sewer. Marius realizes that "corpse" was him and all is clear. He throws some money at Thenardier because of an old family connection at Waterloo, grabs Cosette and they race to Vajean. They meet and see each other for only minutes before Jean Valjean dies.
Well, in a thousand page book you expect a lot of different themes and Hugo delivers. Gender, class, identity, sexuality, politics, familial relations, age, religion, city planning, the nature of good and evil, language and slang, and death are all deeply explored.
Rating 9/10: It is a brilliant book if a bit long-winded at times. It really does have everything.