Friday, 11 December 2009
It seems as though I've always known the story. Before I first read Victor Hugo's story in my early teens, there was a classic comic - then a BBC Sunday evening serial. Perhaps my mother told me the tale - it was certainly one of her favourites. Cosette, Marius, Fantine, the Thenardiers and, above all, Javert and Jean Valjean weren't just characters in a book - they were part of the mythic structure by which I understood the world.
These days, fewer people read Les Misérables. "It's too long," someone told me last night." "I was put off by the musical," another commented. "I've read The Hunchback of Notre Dame," was another defence, as if one Hugo novel could stand for all the rest. Mind you, I haven't read much by Hugo. I'd like to find time for the late novels L'Homme qui Rit (The Man who Laughs) and Quatre-vingt Treize (1793). But before I do that, I have to finish Les Misérables and I'm still only 260 pages in. There are about 1200 to go so I'll be busy reading over Christmas.
Last time I tried to re-read Les Misérables, I picked up my old English-language version. It's a bulky tome from Collins, with mock-leather binding and pages as thin as any Bible's. I thought it the height of elegance when I was 13. A few years ago, I found the prose style dull and was bored by Hugo's sententious moralising. I put it down again.
This summer, in one of the French bookshops at South Kensington, I picked it up again - perhaps in an abridged edition - and the magic returned. I hesitated, thought I might buy a copy, then left the shop. I was having a small economy drive and wasn't convinced I'd get through more than a chapter. Besides, the exchange rate means that French books are no longer as cheap as they were. I thought I'd get over it. But throughout the autumn I found myself looking for copies in English bookshops and secondhand shops, checking the prices on-line and wondering if perhaps, for Christmas, for my birthday, I should buy myself a copy.
I didn't expect to find the three-volume paperback edition in the Canterbury Oxfam shop. I checked carefully to ensure it was a complete text, looked at the price (£4.99) and reflected that, even if I didn't read it, Oxfam could do with my money. Most of my long journey home was consumed with work but on the tube, on the bus, when waiting at stations, I started to read ... and I found it hard to stop. Even now I don't want to blog about Les Misérables - I want to read it, and I'm tired from reading it last night when I should have been catching up on sleep.
The first eighty or so pages dragged slightly - they focus on the good bishop who changes Jean Valjean's life. Maybe I needed to read myself into the book or just to get used to Hugo in French. Once Jean Valjean arrived, I found myself at risk of missing my stop on the bus. I've even walked along the road while reading - something I haven't done for at least forty years.
Perhaps it's the focus on the poor that commands my attention. I may respect the bishop but I care about Valjean, Fantine and the other "misérables" of the book's title. Reading in French makes me consider what "misérable" means. It's not "unhappy." I've seen the word translated as "wretched." But surely in France where Catholicism and the Latin Mass were so important, there's a connection to the Latin prayer "miserere nobis" - "have mercy upon us." Many of the people in Les Misérables are wretched and unhappy but, above all, they need and deserve mercy.
Hugo's conviction that mercy is a greater human responsibility than truth, justice or any other accepted virtue is startling in today's society. Mercy isn't restricted to the cute or angelic. When Jean Valjean first appears he is compared to a brute and an animal. His grievances about his treatment in jail have placed him outside human society. He's never been a great part of it. He doesn't even have a proper name. Hugo explains that he's inherited the name "Valjean" or "Vlajean" from his father and that it was simply a corruption of "Voilà Jean" - "There's Jean." He's an individual who has been despised all his life and who has learnt to hate in return.
In Les Misérables, Hugo insists that human beings can learn and change - that mercy transforms lives and communities. He was writing against the trend in his own time. Les Misérables was published in 1862, five years before Zola's Thérese Raquin, the first of a string of major novels which proclaimed the belief that humans were controlled by the circumstances of their lives and had no means of escape or power over the events that affected them. I may care about Zola's characters but his view of the world doesn't fit the people I encounter.
The world I live in includes people who are cruel and vindictive like the Thenardiers. I've met plenty of people like Javert who obey laws and rules unthinkingly because they assume the forces of law government always know best - people who assume that the wealth and its trappings are a badge of virtue and respectability. But there are also many people like Jean Valjean and Fantine and even the Bishop - trying to do their best, making mistakes, giving way anger and misjudgement but also capable of enormous love and generosity. These are the flawed, good people who are willing to learn and change. They show mercy to others, even at great cost, because they also need and receive mercy.
It's not a very modern view of the world but I'm rushing back to it. I should be in bed asleep but Jean Valjean is on his way to Arras and I want to know - even though I know already - what happens next.