I write a book for each of my children. Each book is broken into four parts. I have recently finished Part Three for the book that I am dedicating to my son, Magnus. Here is the beginning of Part Three:
The Fates command the lengths of our lives. For some, the allotment is long, rolling, and arduous; for others, short and brief, like a bursting nova. This, for us, appears arbitrary. Our final moments are drenched in a thick, gray fog. And while this can drive some to madness, it also imbues our very existence with mystery, a mystery so compelling that all of our learned women and men—our philosophers and theologians—opine endlessly on the soul, the body, and eternal consciousness. The answers provided (always inadequate) range from a suffocating surety to a vertiginous doubt.
What happens upon the Fates extending a thread to its fullest extent, raising their shears, and pronouncing their rightful and final judgment: “Enough?”
The simple answer—the least complex answer—is always the best answer. We do not know. And yet, as if rising from forlorn ashes, a question surfaces: On such a foundation can one build either a philosophy or an ideology for both right and virtuous practices?
Well, who can say? Certainly neither Nim nor Dardan. Yet, these questions, these primordial questions, ran through both their heads as, moving into the darkness of Gaius’ tunnel, they heard a slow, confident voice: “Hold, Dardan. You are betrayed and now held fast in the nets of the Established. Do not move. If you do, you shall die. If you stay, then you will be handled gently.”
Article first published as I’ll Believe It When I Read It: Les MisÃ©rables on Stage, Screen, and Page on Blogcritics.
It’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.