This much bigger than War and Peace!
I’ve loved the show since I learnt ‘Castle on a Cloud’ as a tiny child, and the film was magnificent, so my sister suggested that I should read Les Mis. I thought that sounded like a good idea, until I saw it, all 1,194 pages of it. It was brought home from the library so we could all have a jolly good laugh about it, (holding it next to War and Peace, discussing how few copies it would take to build a house etc.) but then there was a power cut: hours with nothing to do but read by the glow of the fire.
The First Half
So the opening isn’t exactly gripping: Hugo admits, ‘There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the late we have to tell – not even the background.’ The whole of book one is a long origin story for the bishop that gives Jean Valjean the candlesticks. It spends rather too long listing his household expenses and describing his taste in interior design, which is all white walls and sacking. This whole section is basically seventeenth century Cribs, but with more philosophical deism.
It gets interesting when we meet Jean Valjean, particularly as he does keep declaring ‘my name is Jean Valjean!’ like in all the songs. The cleverest technique used in the book that simply wouldn’t translate to the stage is the element of surprise. For example, we learn that years after the bishop has given Valjean the silver, in a completely different town there is a business that has revolutionised jewellery making. We are then introduced to Monsieur le Maire who runs the factory. It is only when Javert turns up to hand in his notice after ‘falsely accusing’ the mayor of being the fugitive, Jean Valjean that we find out that they are in fact one and the same. It is used again to express the fall of Fantine; we see her luck change as she has to leave the factory and give her child to the innkeepers to look after. Later, we meet a woman who has sold her hair and front teeth and become a prostitute. We later find out that this is Fantine.
Fantine has had a properly horrid time of it in the book. Cosette’s father is particularly awful and breaks up with her by sarcastic, flippant note, which is like the old school equivalent of dumping someone by text. When it comes to Fantine’s demise, she is very weak, but pushed over the edge by being scared to death by Javert. In the book, Valjean does not manage to escape from Javert here to get Cosette; he is imprisoned, breaks out (by pulling apart the bars like a superhero), and is then imprisoned again (and given a new prison number- he is no longer 24601, but the less rhyme-able 9430). Sentenced to life, he is next seen doing hard labour on a ship where he breaks his chains and risks his life to save someone dangling by their ankles from the rigging. He then dives over the side, into the path of another ship, and is presumed drowned, but he’s basically super-human and lives to find Cosette.
Javert finds out that someone turned up to claim the child (or ‘kidnap their daughter’ as the immoral innkeepers are putting it) and goes in search of Valjean. They barely escape this time as Valjean hides in a coffin, but is inadvertently buried alive. It’s dramatic in parts, but there are also long swathes of battle descriptions and long back stories for every minor character. However, it is very pleasing when a line from the text has been directly used in the songs: so far, someone has ‘dreamed a dream’ and the innkeepers really do charge more for sleeping with the window shut!
Many years later, Marius has just been introduced and there’s rather a lot about how he became such a radical.
So I’m half way through- that means I’ve already read the equivalent of several normal length books! I think I may well persist, if only for Jean Valjean’s Houdini escapes and feats of strength, and to continue to play ‘spot the lyric’!