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Les Misérables, (The Wretched): A Novel Volume 3 Hardcover – May 5, 2016

4.3 out of 5 stars 8,909 ratings

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  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Palala Press (May 5, 2016)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 158 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1355606748
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1355606741
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 14.1 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 6.14 x 0.44 x 9.21 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.3 out of 5 stars 8,909 ratings

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Victor Marie Hugo (/ˈhjuːɡoʊ/; French: [viktɔʁ maʁi yɡo]; 26 February 1802 – 22 May 1885) was a French poet, novelist, and dramatist of the Romantic movement. He is considered one of the greatest and best-known French writers. In France, Hugo's literary fame comes first from his poetry and then from his novels and his dramatic achievements. Among many volumes of poetry, Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles stand particularly high in critical esteem. Outside France, his best-known works are the novels Les Misérables, 1862, and Notre-Dame de Paris, 1831 (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame). He also produced more than 4,000 drawings, which have since been admired for their beauty, and earned widespread respect as a campaigner for social causes such as the abolition of capital punishment.

Though a committed royalist when he was young, Hugo's views changed as the decades passed, and he became a passionate supporter of republicanism; his work touches upon most of the political and social issues and the artistic trends of his time. He is buried in the Panthéon. His legacy has been honoured in many ways, including his portrait being placed on French franc banknotes.

Bio from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Photo by Étienne Carjat [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5
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Reviewed in the United States on January 11, 2019
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Reviewed in the United States on July 5, 2019
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5.0 out of 5 stars “The Maladies of the People Do Not Kill Man”
By Don Quixote on July 5, 2019
The canon is under attack, and yet many of us continue to read the classics. Of course we do not read them the way people did in the nineteenth century. We look for irony, parody and sarcasm; we fit them into our post-postmodern frame; we read between the lines; we mock the godlike narrator; we read ourselves into the texts. And needless to say, we complain: these novels are too long, they include too many digressions, they are implausible as stories, and most of them were written by white men. I wonder what will be said, one hundred years from now, of the contemporary books we revere. If something is said at all. Will people even read them? It seems to me that the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame keep getting shorter.

The phrase I chose as the title for this review is an excellent summary of _Les Misérables_, or at least, of the philosophy behind it. Humanity as a whole may look rotten, the author seems to say, but millions of individual men and women persevere, show true goodness, and emerge victorious from the struggle we call life. This victory, it must be pointed out, is not always apparent; it often looks more like utter defeat. The victory that Victor Hugo is talking about is that of the soul. Just in case the reader needs clarification, the author/narrator makes his point more explicit in part 5, chapter 1.20: “The book which the reader has under his eye at this moment is, from one end to the other, as a whole and in detail, whatever may be its intermittences, exceptions and faults, the march from evil to good, from the unjust to the just, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from rottenness to life, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. Point of departure: matter; point of arrival: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.”

The hero of this Romantic novel is Jean Valjean, who at the beginning of the novel has finished serving a prison sentence. He is, to put it simply, one of the most pure, benevolent characters in the history of the novel. As a virtuous criminal, he shatters society’s binaries: he is proof that an apparently evil person may in fact be good, despite his faults. (_Les Misérables_ is, among many other things, a liberal statement against the inhumane treatment of convicts, who are often more humane than so-called upright citizens.) Valjean’s nemesis is the inspector Javert, who after spotting him dedicates his life to catching this (in his view) despicable man. Fate will lead Valjean to Fantine, an innocent young woman who has fallen from grace in the eyes of society as a result of a single mistake. Throughout most of the novel, Valjean will take care of Fantine’s daughter Cosette, who becomes his raison d’être, as he escapes from Javert. Finally, there’s the young Marius, who lives with his grandfather M. Gillenormand, and whose father died fighting with Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. His life changes when he lays eyes on a beautiful young woman… The lives of these characters are intertwined with that of the innkeeper Thénardier and his family. He and his wife “adopt” and exploit Cosette. Their daughter Eponine will prove that evil does not necessarily engender evil; their son Gavroche, who lives in the streets, is one of the novel’s most colorful characters. _Les Misérables_ is divided into five parts. We follow Jean Valjean, who encounters Javert, Fantine, and Cosette. Then we learn about Marius, who encounters Valjean and Cosette. The novel’s climax describes the Paris Uprising of 1832, in which the characters find themselves participating.

_Les Misérables_ (1862) is, like Tolstoy’s _War and Peace_, like Dickens’ _Bleak House_, like Melville’s _Moby Dick, like Cervantes’ _Don Quixote_, a literary monument and a literary monster. Descriptions are long and exhaustive, sometimes even exhausting. Digressions abound. The reader will wonder at times if what he/she is reading is a “novel” at all. What is a novel, anyway? Camilo José Cela (that Spanish Nobel Laureate few people read) famously answered, “A book that bears the description ‘a novel’ below its title.”

Another important issue to consider: _Les Misérables_ has been turned into a successful musical and has been adapted for the screen numerous times, most recently in 1998 (directed by Bille August), 2012 (directed by Tom Hooper), and 2018 (the BBC mini-series, directed by Tom Shankland). These very good adaptations will give you the story. You won’t have to “put up” with the long descriptions and digressions. Why read the 1,260-page book?

We expect a novel to be primarily a story. Of course, a novel should tell a story, but it may be many other things too. We may complain of the digressions in _Les Misérables_, but remember the encyclopedic _Moby Dick_ with its essays on the different aspects of whaling. Or _Don Quixote_ with its unrelated novellas within the novel. Or _War and Peace_ with its analysis of Napoleon, its philosophical considerations about “exceptional” men, and its comments on what it takes to win a war. Philosophy was an important component of the nineteenth-century novel. There was no fear of preaching back then. The author/narrator was a colossal, godlike figure (let’s remember that, by etymology, a poet is a creator), and he, for most of the time it was a he, did not absent himself from his fictional world. With the “death of the author,” proclaimed by Roland Barthes et al, the text becomes the focus. Now, after postmodernism, we are seeing a return of the figure of the author through autofiction. Even during postmodernism, there were reactions against literary artifice; think of the work of Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro.

You may watch the screen adaptations or read an abridged version of _Les Misérables_, and you will be able to discuss the story with people who have devoted 17 days of their lives (in my case, but I believe in slow reading) to the complete novel. I, for my part, celebrate the long descriptions and the digressions. Is it necessary to dedicate 50 pages to a description of the battle of Waterloo just because one of the character’s *father* fought in the battle? Of course not. What about the 40-page description of monastic life, which includes Hugo’s personal views on this lifestyle? It is excessive, unnecessary. But during these digressions and descriptions you feel the enthusiasm of the author, who has in a sense lost control of his text. I love the story told in _Les Misérables_, but my favorite chapter, and I’m not trying to be funny here, is the second one of part 5, which offers a fascinating history, analysis and interpretation of the Paris sewer system. “The sewer is the conscience of the city,” Victor Hugo says. “The sewer, indeed, receives all the impulsions of the growth of Paris. It is, in the earth, a species of dark polyp with a thousand antennae which grows beneath at the same time that the city grows above.” The chapter is a great example of cultural studies, and this is something none of the screen adaptations will give you.

Regarding translations, the free Kindle version gives you the one made by Isabel Hapgood in 1887. This version sounds a bit archaic, as one may expect, but it is readable. The Modern Library edition (see my picture) presents the first translation of _Les Misérables_ into English, done by Charles Wilbour. It is, interestingly, smoother than the Hapgood version. It was only after I finished the book that I learned the translation was over 150 years old. Penguin offers a more modern translation, by Norman Denny, first published in 1976. Here’s a comparison, based on the first “philosophical” observation in the novel:

Original: Vrai ou faux, ce qu’on dit des hommes tient souvent autant de place dans leur vie et surtout dans leur destinée que ce qu’ils font.

Hapgood: True or false, that which is said of men often occupies as important a place in their lives, and above all in their destinies, as that which they do.

Wilbour: Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do.

Denny: What is reported of men, whether it be true or false, may play as large a part in their lives, and above all in their destiny, as the things they do.

This sample shows how wordy and awkward the Hapgood translation may sound, at times, to modern ears. The Wilbour version has the advantage of being both faithful to the original and pleasant in the target language. Denny, finally, takes some liberties with structure, but reads quite well.

Bottom line: I recommend reading _Les Misérables_. It is about life, death, the human, the divine, love, hate, obsession, crime, redemption, fate, light, darkness, freedom, revolution, victory, defeat. You know, those things some readers still care about. From most nineteenth century classics, and _Les Misérables_ is a great example, the reader simply emerges a different person. Some novels one loves the way a person should be loved: with all their virtues and their defects. That is how I feel about _Les Misérables_.

My next long novel will be Thomas Mann’s _The Magic Mountain_.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the book!
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Joe S.
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Edition, Interesting Introduction, Superb Translation
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 21, 2019
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Callum Kime
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece alongside War and Peace. (Everyman's Library Edition).
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 1, 2021
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GaryG
1.0 out of 5 stars This Kindle edition is RIDDLED with scanned-in typo errors; avoid !!
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Islander
4.0 out of 5 stars Heavy going but well worth the effort in the end
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Ivan Proctor
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts of a Kindle reader
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