Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Les Misérables/The Wretched, by Victor Hugo

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Un jour, il arriva à Senez, qui est une ancienne ville épiscopale, monté sur un âne. Sa bourse, fort à sec dans ce moment, ne lui avait pas permis d'autre équipage. Le maire de la ville vint le recevoir à la porte de l'évêché et le regardait descendre de son âne avec des yeux scandalisés. Quelques bourgeois riaient autour de lui.
One day he arrived in Senez, an ancient episcopal town, riding an ass. His resources, which were very depleted at that time, did not allow him any better turn-out. The mayor came to welcome him at the gates of the town and watched, scandalized, as he dismounted from his ass. Some of the townsfolk around him were laughing.
I first read this I think in 1988 or 1989, in my last year as an undergraduate, in an ancient and not terribly fluent ten-volume translation which I checked out one by one from the Union Society's library; and around the same time I fell in love with the stage musical, which I managed to see in the summer of 1989. A quarter of a century later, the political and romantic plot lines resonate if anything more deeply now that I have lived and loved a bit longer. And Christine Donougher's Penguin translation seems a real step forward - especially with the footnotes and endnotes conveniently arranged in the Kindle edition.

It's a long book but a great one. In reality the 1832 Paris rebellion was probably the least distinguished of many such efforts in the nineteenth century; but Hugo turns it into a real occasion of heroism and challenge, yet in itself insufficiently linked to the real human dramas going on beneath the surface. Yes, there are mad digressions (the section on slang could be easily dispensed with); yes, the romance between Marius and Cosette is basically between the two least interesting of the major characters; but there is a tremendous passion for shaking the middle-class readership out of their complacency and complicity combined with a humanity that Dickens often blunts with mockery. The stage show dispenses with the two younger Thénardier boys, and with Marius' grandfather, but I think they are crucial to the big picture that Hugo is painting. (Last week, as part of a team-building exercise at work, several dozen of us were coached into performing "Do You Hear The People Sing"; it was electrifying.)

When I did my survey earlier this year of the best-known books published in each European country, I awarded the prize for France to Les Misérables with some hesitation. My doubts are resolved; it's a worthy winner. Go get it, especially in the Christine Donougher translation.
Tags: bookblog 2015, world: france, writer: victor hugo
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