Review: Les Misérables, Volumes I-II

Article first published as I’ll Believe It When I Read It: Les Misérables on Stage, Screen, and Page on Blogcritics.

Jean ValjeanIt’s true, books are better than movies. If you dispute this, then slap yourself. I say, again, books are better than movies. That’s why, when last year’s Les Misérables was theatrically released, I said to myself: “Don’t do it. Now is the time. Read the book.” So I did. Well, I started it anyway. As it turns out, Les Misérables is really long. It boasts some 530,982 words depending on the translation, but, and I say this in all honesty, not a word is misspent. Victor Hugo is a master. Still, Les Misérables is long, and a reader should know what he or she is in for when embarking on such a long journey.

Les Misérables is broken into five volumes. Each volume is somewhere between eight and 15 books. A book can host anywhere between four to 24 chapters, but, for the most part, each chapter is short and quickly consumed. The language, though published in 1862, is easily digested, but, of course, this depends on your translation. I am reading the Hapgood translation, translated in 1887, because Hapgood’s version is unabridged. While there are many Les Misérables translations, there aren’t too many that are unabridged.

You might be asking: “Why read the unabridged version?” Well, Hugo was known for his digressions. At one point, he spends some 40 pages recounting the Battle of Waterloo. Yet, too me, this is what makes Les Misérables such an engrossing novel. Hugo, with all his intellectual ability, thrusts his reader into 19th-century France. Here is history, social critique, philosophy, and theology writ on a grand scale and wrapped in an engrossing narrative. If, however, you are not interested in Hugo’s lengthy digressions, then buy yourself the abridged version. Though, for this reader, you’ll be sacrificing excellence.

While understanding the structure of Les Misérables’ length is important, it is paramount to know its worth. And, trust me, it is worth it. Les Misérables is gripping. Its 530,982 words will not bore you. Hugo’s digressions are offset by a beating narrative that chronicles the life of Jean Valjean, a character written with supreme depth and clarity. I feel that I know Valjean. His life, thoughts, and actions are inspiring, so much so that I asked my wife if I might tattoo, “I am Jean Valjean” on my chest. Surprisingly, she said, “No.” But, here too, all of Hugo’s characters are absorbing: Javert, Thénardier, Bishop Myriel, to name a few. Each, in his or her own right, are studies in characterization—they breathe, they eat, they sleep, they live. In my mind’s eye, I know them and I see them. While Les Misérables is lengthy, it is neither monotonous nor dull. It is a masterpiece—lesser mortals can only hope to mimic its long-cast shadow.

I hope to finish Les Misérables soon, so that I can watch its latest iteration in the theater. But, if it should slip through and I should miss it, I’m not sure that I’ll be losing anything. For Les Misérables, the novel, is a divine incarnation—living and moving, instructing and guiding—available and accessible to all.