One of the great classics of world literature and the inspiration for the most beloved stage musical of all time, Les Misérables is legendary author Victor Hugo’s masterpiece. This extraordinary English version by renowned translator Julie Rose captures all the majesty and brilliance of Hugo’s work. Here is the timeless story of the quintessential hunted man—Jean Valjean—and the injustices, violence, and social inequalities that torment him.
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Les Misérables is one of those defining social/protest novels that deserves to be read (and listened to) in its entirety. It is easily on par with the great social novels of the 19th century: Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Uncle Tom's Cabin and Hard Times.
I remember the first time I read the unabridged version in high school, I was stunned that Hugo could engage me with such force. I practically read it straight through. Listening to Rose's relatively new translation and Guidall's audio version, I was transported back to the emotions and engagement I felt 20 years ago. All those memories and I was again anchored to my pro-unabridged novel bias. If you are going to attempt this work, please go the unabridged route, you will NOT regret it. There are few books I've read twice, but Les Misérables defintely makes the cut.
When you begin this novel it DOES looks like a beast (1376 pgs or 60.5 hours), but when you finish it you realize you have sat down to a feast with a master novelist and social gospel writer. Dollar per page or dollar per minute, you can't get much better for its price, unless you steal it.
I'm sitting here wondering what I can possibly say in regard to Les Misérables, and feeling more than a little overwhelmed. I finished listening to the audiobook last night, and am still reeling from everything the book said and means. That being said, I'll give it my best shot. But I'll give you a warning up front: this is a long, profound book. So I'll have to write a long review to express my thoughts on it. Even so, I feel like I'm just scratching the surface.
I'll start with the Audible stuff: as a translator myself, I know how difficult Julie Rose's job was, especially with a book of this magnitude. She had to get into Hugo's brain and express the story so that English speakers could understand and appreciate the tone and atmosphere of Hugo's world correctly. While doing this, she had to be invisible and let Hugo tell the story. It's a very fine line to walk, and she did a fantastic job with it. George Guidall did excellently in his narration--each character was distinct, and their voices changed depending on their point in life, while remaining individual. Wow.
Now on to the book itself.
Les Miserables is known as one of the cornerstones of European literature--I don't think anybody will dispute that. However I think that many people are only exposed to the story through the stage version, and never really consider trying to takle the book. In many ways, I understand this. The book is LONG. The audiobook version is over 60 hours, and most print versions are well into the 1,100+ page range. Not for the faint-hearted. But people that limit themselves to only experiencing the musical version are not only putting a cap on their enjoyment of the story, but are also limiting their intellectual growth.
I'm not saying that reading this book will make you smarter, but I am saying that reading (or listening to) Les Miserables will make you think about things you've probably never considered before, and not all of those things are good. The book is dark. The book is sad. The things that happen to the characters will tear your heart out and make you want to strangle somebody at the same time. I finished listening on my commute home, and I started crying on the platform at Ueno Station in Tokyo.
Becky (my wife for those of you reading this who don't know) has frequently said that she feels that Victor Hugo was inspired as he wrote this. I can't disagree. Any book that can have such a profound impact on both the guy listening in Tokyo as well as the world has to have something more than literary genius going on. I can honestly say that having read this, I feel like I am a better person for having read (listened) to Les Miserables.
Now for the nitty-gritty. One of the ways that Hugo can do what he does is by putting characters in conflict with one another. Not just that, but he also pits one aspect of a character against another, which makes for some very interesting storytelling. The innate goodness of Jean Valjean against Javert's loyalty to justice. The greed of Mr. Thenardier against the generosity of ... pretty much anyone.
A couple things to know if you are about to embark on this: the book is not written like ones we are used to nowadays. It was even considered old-fashioned when it was published. There are times when Hugo devotes a significant amount of time to describing an event that--let's be honest--has little bearing on the story overall; the Battle of Waterloo and the importance of slang among them. He also goes on diatribes about how important certain ideas are, or how base certain thinking is. Dialog generally isn't dialog, but rather are extended sililoquy directed at another character, after which the speaking character will do something. It's not often that you actually have two characters interacting like normal people. Instead, one character will stand in front of the other for a good thirty or forty minutes spouting off whatever comes to their mind, never really breaking of save for breath. It can grate against our modern reader-ey sensibilities, but you can deal with it.
One thing that I felt was interesting was that the first half of the book sets up the second half, in that it provides a powerful reason for all of the characters to end up in the same place. It provides background for their actions and gives us an emotional attachment to them (good or bad) that we can build on. And those attachments are strong, let me tell you.
In a nutshell, if you are a fan of the musical version of Les Miserables but haven't read the book, you are limiting yourself. I don't have anything against the musical, but there is so much more to the story than you get from seeing it on stage (or in theaters/on DVD now.) I've only listened to the musical once before, and I saw the Albert Hall version on DVD, but I didn't really understand what was going on. That version has new life for me now, because I actually know these characters. I know their struggles, backgrounds and the grinding sadness and poverty that is keeping them enslaved. As I said before, this book has made me a better person, and has the potential to change a person's life.