Daily Archives: March 10, 2011

Of Stage, Page, and Other Doorways: Les Misérables

A friend who works at CLP East Liberty is rereading all of Victor Hugo’s novels this year. Her praise for Julie Rose’s 2008 translation of Les Misérables moved me to track down a copy, and it is a formidable translation indeed:  1300 pages, and thicker than bricks.

A book that size demands your complete attention. You can’t really read it comfortably at the dinner table, or on the bus (at least, not if the seat next to you is occupied).  Oh no:  the size and heft, as well as the small font that delivers the content, demand your undistracted gaze, from the first lines of the introduction to the final footnote.

On the bright side, walking around with 1300 pages of French literature tucked under your arm is, apparently, better than a firearm when it comes to warding off unwanted attention; I’m not sure if people worry I’ll hit them with it or start quoting from it, but either way, all but the most literarily obsessed give a wide berth when Julie Rose and I walk by.  Especially if my nose is buried in the text, and I’m not looking where I’m going.

Why reread a classic when there are so many new and exciting works of literature waiting to be devoured?  I’d like to be able to say that, like our intern Shannon, I have a penchant for serious books.  The truth of the matter, though, is that Hugo bored me to tears when I was fifteen, reading him for the first time in French class (sorry Madame Soubre – il n étais pas votre faute).  I didn’t fall in love with Les Misérables until my college chamber choir tackled excerpts from Boublil and Schönberg’s musical score ; one rehearsal of “The Confrontation” and I fled for the library to take another stab at what I had so clearly missed in the novel the first time.

Ideally, textual interpretations feed into each other.  Music can lead you to books, perhaps by way of a graphic novel detour.  While the experience of reading a text is very different from watching a film, say, or listening to an audiobook narrated by Orson Welles (mmmm), the ideas themselves do not change.  Though the packaging may alter to accommodate different learning styles, the substance of Hugo’s moral and philosophical inquiries remains constant.

And what grand concerns they are.  As Jean Valjean struggles to overcome his criminal past, he is confronted at every turn with issues that are as troubling to a twenty-first century American as they might have been to a nineteenth-century French citizen.  What is social justice?  Is the ultimate goal of law to punish or rehabilitate?  What can / should be done to ameliorate class warfare?  What do we mean when we speak of ethics, honor, patriotism, faith, love?  And, perhaps most importantly, is there an absolute morality, as represented by Inspector Javert?  Or can we be redeemed by grace and mercy, as embodied by the Bishop of Digne?

I suppose the Javerts of the literary world might take me to task for coming to the book in a roundabout fashion, instead of appreciating it for what it was from the start.  As for me, I prefer the idea that there are many doorways into a text, and that it is no insult to the great books if we are not ready for them just yet.  They will remain, quietly shining on the shelves in their greatness, waiting patiently for us to stumble across the path, or through the doorway, that will ultimately lead us to the eternal lessons they have to teach.

Leigh Anne
(who would like to thank her teachers for not giving up on her during her “sit in the back of the class reading Stephen King” phase)

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