The peasant Jean Valjean is imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, and the novel follows the subsequent fall and rise of his fortunes and experiences in the impoverished and criminal underbelly of Parisian society.
Intertwined with Jean’s story are the tales of many other characters, from priests to prostitutes, lawmen to lovers, and rogues to rebels. Fantine, Javert, Cosette, Thenardier, Marius… these are merely the most well known. There are many more.
The action covers the period of French history from 1815 to 1832, and running alongside the labyrinthine plot are Hugo’s observations on a vast array of topics such as religion, politics, education, revolution, philosophy, justice, family, love, and Paris.
Where did I get hold of the book?
Due to lack of time I’m afraid I simply downloaded this one, for free, to my Kindle app.
At the start of the year I’d had grand hopes of reading the French books on my list in the original French, to revive my skills in that language. But given that it took me every spare moment I had over the fortnight to read the English version, I’m very glad I didn’t pursue my original aim…
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
As is becoming more the case now that I’m reading older novels that are very much rooted in the history of their period, I learned a lot about nineteenth-century France – not to mention the geography of Paris. How much detail will stick over time, I’m not sure, but at least now I have an awareness of lives and experiences I knew nothing about two weeks ago.
I’ve also learned – again – a lot about my own life and my way of experiencing the world.
Because I didn’t plan ahead, I didn’t twig until the last minute that two weeks was going to be quite tight for a novel the length of Les Mis. Consequently, in order to meet my deadline, I found myself having to spend practically every waking moment (that wasn’t dedicated to work) ploughing through it.
Whilst I ultimately achieved my goal, this preoccupation prevented me from making much progress on any other projects; and I realised that devoting myself to one activity at the expense of everything else (except work) was really quite exhausting.
Well, not quite ‘at the expense of everything else’. During that fortnight we also, as a family, had to deal with the loss of my grandmother. While this was not entirely unexpected – she’d reached the ripe old age of 101 – it was nevertheless a sad and emotional time. Work can occasionally be postponed; creative projects almost always can; but grieving must occupy its righful place and time.
And so, as I was spending my spare moments reading about fictional characters’ experience of life, love, family, legacy and death, I was at the same time facing these very things in my own life. What would we remember about Grandma? What will people remember about me? Why do we suffer? Why do we bother? What – and who – is it all for? What is the meaning of life?
Heavy stuff. No wonder I was exhausted. And I concluded that, although I am capable of pushing myself to expend vast amounts of mental and emotional energy when required, it will eventually take its toll. Much as I would like to think I have superhuman strength, I do not: if I do not recoup that energy and take time out to recover from the demands placed on me, I will crash and burn.
Fortunately I now have a few days ‘off’. And so, rather than trying to push myself to catch up with everything that got sidelined during the last two weeks, I will instead use this time to breathe, rest up, and gradually return to my normal pace.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Les Misérables had a similar effect on me to The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps because they are both epic in scale, and deal with not only personal tales but also wider societal issues, they have instilled in me a greater awareness of the effect we, as individuals, can have on the development of civilisation.
It was particularly interesting to read Les Mis against the backdrop of the Labour leadership campaign here in the UK. The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a surprise frontrunner has brought to the fore a debate on the kinds of issues that would not be out of place in nineteenth-century Paris: poverty, austerity, hunger, protest, unity, personal responsibility…
Hugo’s asides on these subjects, and their resonance today, are a sharp reminder of just how cyclical society can be. Issues that it was once thought possible to deal with through the simple pursuit of ‘progress’ still raise their heads. How much has really changed?
Considered at the same time as the musings on life and death occasioned by my grandmother’s passing, I can say one thing. We can never stop pursuing what we believe in; we cannot assume the ‘fight for right’ will ever be over; we all have a responsibility to do what we think is necessary for the betterment of society.
Was Hugo an idealist? Probably. Overly optimistic about human behaviour? Almost certainly. But does this mean we should abandon our ideals and adopt a cynical view? Absolutely not. My grandparents were educators, a path also followed by my parents; I am neither an educator nor a parent, but I still have a responsibility to stand up for what I believe in and (to quote Gandhi) ‘be the change [I] wish to see in the world‘ – if only so that others who feel the same way can know they are not alone.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
My vow after reading Anna Karenina was to schedule my time better, in order to fit in my other creative projects. However, with a book as long as Les Misérables, this isn’t always an option. And while that’s probably the longest book I’m going to read this year, I can’t rule out unexpected life events dropping on me from a great height and throwing out all my best-laid plans.
So the attitude I must now strike is one of acceptance: of recognising that, although I have so much I want to do, I can’t do it all – at least, not yet. The year – and the book challenge – so far has been truly amazing for helping me get focused on what I want to achieve; but now I need to remember that I am not just here to work but also to live. If I try to rocket through the working day, taking no time to smell the flowers, I think I will be missing part of the point.
Les Misérables has been a salutary reminder of the power of doing good and standing up for your beliefs. However, when time is lacking, it’s a huge challenge to meet these self-imposed expectations. The past fortnight has taught me that, if I am to succeed in my aims, I must look after myself and not wear myself out. So, here’s hoping that ‘slow and steady wins the race’…
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!