WARNING: This post will contain spoilers – it is a stream-of-consciousness reaction to reading Hugo’s unabridged epic in 6 weeks ….

With the film imminent my reading group obviously thought this was the time to read this chunkster. Can’t say it has ever appealed to me , I must admit but I shall reserve judgement and let the book prove whether it is deserving of Upton Sinclair’s assessment – one of the six greatest novels ever written. I wonder what the other 5 are. If you ask me, nothing beats War and Peace.

I don’t know the story, and haven’t seen the play. With the whole world talking about the film, it’s going to be a challenge to get to the end without stumbling across any spoilers.

Allons ….

… 3.5 hours later

Just as well I have a few days annual leave. This is going to take some reading. Happy I persuaded the group only to read the first 3 books by the 14th. I might just make it. Other impressions, it’s wordy. I understood by page 20 (actually page 10) that The bishop was a paragon of virtue and I didn’t need 58 pages of saintliness to convince me. Is Hugo going to lay things on this thickly throughout? I guess so – it will account for the page count. But I do like the clarity of prose and character description. Things perked up a little with Jean Valjean appeared.


Fantine’s heading for a fall …. The adjectives give it all away …. Naive, in love, a good girl. The happy parts of the day out reminded me of Renoir’s Le Moulin de La Galette. Not that there’s any hint, in the painting, of the unhappiness that is obviously going to follow in the novel. Ah, ah, there we have it, right at the end of Part One Book Three. The child … So Fantine, that would TROUBLE in big, fat capitals …..

Questions Book One: Jean Valjean’s intelligence – Why did he keep trying to escape? 1 attempt, yes. But … And what made him rob Monsieur Bienvenu AND the poor boy when he was finally released? Talk about sowing the seeds of your own destruction. Fantine: .did people really give their children away so cavalierly? What prevented Fantine from passing herself off as a widow? Would anyone have known when she returned to Montfermeil? Can I reconcile the success and the benevolence of Monsieur Madeleine with the ex-convict?

Court room scenes – dramatic and utterly unbelievable. In contrast with the realist depiction of the small-minded townsfolk.

Must say am developing a grudging admiration for Javert. Loving the cat and mouse games. don’t see Javert as the villain of the piece, that’s Thenardier.

Beginning book Two and here we are at Waterloo. History brought alive … loving this…..

Oh my goodness! The ditch ….. The horses …. The men. Horrific!

This set piece reminded me of Tolstoy’s superb battlefield pieces in W&P. Checking dates I find Les Mis was published in 1862, 3 years before W&P. So maybe Tolstoy took a good idea and perfected it? By that I mean that Tolstoy seemlessly integrated his characters into the historical panorama. Nikolai, Pierre and Prince Andrej were known to me by the time I followed them into battle. I have no vested interest in anyone here, fiction blending with fact only at the end when Thenardier “rescues” the crushed lance corporal. Obviously this is going to be significant ….

Favourite paragraph so far: p 283 It’s almost biblical.

The sky had been covered the whole day. Suddenly, at that very moment – it was eight o’clock at night – the clouds on the horizon parted and through the elms on the Nivelles road the great sinister redness of the setting sun streamed in. At Austerlitz, the sun had been rising.

At the end of Book Two, I’m enjoying the story but getting impatient with all the digressions and inserted essays. I groan every time Hugo says I won’t go into X, Y, Z, or words to that effect – because more often than not it’s a cue for an extended thesis on history, philosophy or something similarly intellectual – something not intended for a reader of fiction. I was just beginning to wonder about the scope when I turned to page 422, Volume Two, Book Seven, he told me.

This book is a tragedy in which infinity plays the lead.

And there follows a short history of cloistered life. Sorely tempted to start skimming or start reading the free abridged e-book at this point. Which is the greater crime? Abridged, or e-book?
I resist.

Final day before returning to the office and I’m about half way through Book Three. Marius has made his entrance, as have many words about French political philosophy. I care less about this than I care about convents. I sympathise for Marius and his grandfather in their estrangement but I really, really feel for Marius’s father.

What a climax to Book Three! It went on a bit (why would Hugo change the habit of an epic?) and I could see where it was heading miles in advance, all the coincidences knitting together as they do, but even so, I was hyperventilating at the end. That was masterful …..

I really wanted to read on but I know Hugo now. There’s another thesis awaiting me if I turn the page. It can wait until after book group. 675 pages in 9 days is deserving of a treat I know I will enjoy every word of ……

I went to book group last night determined to behave myself. People who know me recognise the absolute unreliability of that statement. It’s on par with Hugo’s saying he”s going to keep things brief. I don’t think these reading notes helped ….. Well, someone’s got to be devil’s advocate, haven’t they?