Friday, November 2, 2012

Les Miserables, or Here we go again

In case you haven’t heard, the musical Les Misérables is coming to a movie theatre near you.  We’re essentially T minus however many days there are between now and December 25. 

[Cue cheering from musical theatre geeks and anyone who just wants to hear Hugh Jackman sing “Bring Him Home.”]

As any self-respecting French-major would do, I’ve decided that I’m going to read the novel before the movie comes out.  That means 1,800 pages of 19th-Century French prose.  Plus end notes. 

Look at those two volumes.
They've been waiting for this moment for ten years!

Can I do it?  Probably not.  It would be a tall order under the best of circumstances -- and this is Victor Hugo, so it’s anything but the best of circumstances.  You see, this isn’t the first time Victor and I have tangled.  I started reading his chef d’oeuvre ten years ago and made it about three-quarters of the way through before breaking it off.  We’ve been in marriage counseling ever since. 

“But what?!,” you may splutter.  “This is VICTOR HUGO!  It’s LES MIZ!  So many IMPORTANT SOCIAL MESSAGES!  Why do you hate poor people and overwrought emotional love triangles?”

[Sigh.]  Okay.  Fine.  I get it.  I’ll give the book another go.  But first I want to point out three things that jumped out at me during the first five minutes after opening Brick Volume 1 on the metro this morning: 


The first two sentences of the first chapter of the entire novel introduce the Bishop of Digne.  Here is the third sentence: 

“Quoique ce détail ne touche en aucune manière au fond même de ce que nous avons à raconter, il n’est peut-être pas inutile, ne fût-ce que pour être exact en tout, d’indiquer ici les bruits et les propos qui avaiet couru sur son compte au moment où il était arrivé dans le diocèse.”

The basic gist of this sentence is this:  “As I introduce the Bishop of Digne (who, btw, is only a secondary character) I’m going to tell you a bunch of details about his life that are completely irrelevant to this story -- because it might not be a waste of time to be exact about everything, including people who I just made up.”  Victor then goes on for three pages to tell us those details and more (he just can’t keep himself from throwing in a few more extraneous sidebars, such as how the word for “paroles” in the “energetic tongue of the south” is “palabres,” which is pure pedantry).  Honestly, Victor, if you have to convince us that “it might not be a waste of time” to talk about something, IT PROBABLY IS.   Just get to the point.


Then there’s this description of the Bishop’s spinster roommate:

“Mademoiselle Baptistine était une personne longue, pâle, mince, douce; elle réalisait l’idéal de ce qu’exprime le mot “respectable”; car il semble qu’il soit nécessaire qu’une femme soit mère pour être vénérable.”

Now here’s a gem.  If you’re a virtuous old woman who has devoted your life to God but never had children, you may be respectable -- but since you failed in your fundamental duty of having babies, there’s no way you can be venerable.  Nope.  Gotta have kids for that. 

The fun continues in the very next sentence:

“Elle n’avait jamais été jolie; toute sa vie, qui n’avait été qu’une suite de saintes oeuvres, avait fini par mettre sur elle une sort de blancheur et de clarté; et, en vieillissant, elle avait gagné ce qu’on pourrait appeler la beauté de la bonté.”

In other words, she’s not even pretty, bless her heart.  But she’s got a sweet spirit!

“Ce qui avait été de la maigreur dans sa jeunesse était devenu, dans sa maturité, de la transparence: et cette diaphanéité laissait voir l’ange.  C’était une âme encore plus que ce n’était une vierge.  Sa personne semblait faite d’ombre; à peine assez de corps pour qu’il y eût là un sexe . . . .”

Which basically says, “Oh, and she’s really, really skinny.  Normally we’d find that unattractive, but since she’s old, we’re going to say it shows her spirituality.  In fact, she’s more of a soul than a virgin -- she’s so skinny you can’t even tell she’s got a vagina there!”  Gosh, Victor, you really hit that nail on the head with that one.  What woman of faith doesn’t yearn to hear these words:  You’re so ugly and righteous I can’t even tell you’re a woman! 


We’ll wrap up with this description of the Bishop’s and Mlle Baptistine’s maid:

“Madame Magloire était une petite vieille, blanche, grasse, replète, affairée, toujours haletante, à cause de son activité d’abord, ensuite à cause d’un asthme.”

Poor Mme Magloire.  She’s little, old, fat and always out of breath (partly because she’s always bustling about, but also because she’s got asthma).  Period.  That’s all we learn about her; the obvious take-away point being that if you’re a diaphanous and aristocratic ugly old maid (à la Mlle Baptistina), you get to be “more of a soul than a virgin”; but if you’re a little old maidservant with curves, then we just focus on your weight and respiratory troubles without any inquiry into the state of your soul.  Because, while 19th-Century misogynists might be interested in reading three pages of irrelevant details about a fictional aristocratic male bishop, and may forgive a description of some holy skeletal creature that may or may not be female (fingers crossed that she’s not), they don’t actually care about you, Mme Magloire. 
*             *             *
One chapter down, a million to go.  This is going to be a long haul, Victor.  I hope you're worth it!


chitarita said...

He's not worth it. Just watch the trailer again instead.


Anonymous said...

I'm just going to see the movie and pass on the epic tonnage of ink to paper...Lady

Anonymous said...

Voyons, à côté de Balzac, il n'y a rien de mieux! La littérature, c'est fait pour prendre son temps et parfois il s'agit autant du style que du fond. Il faut dépasser le culte moderne de l'immédiateté, de l'efficacité et de l'action à tout prix! Les quatre derniers vers sont mes préférés (seulement réellement appréciables si tu arrives effectivement à la dernière page, pas avant!) et valent la peine qu'on aille au bout de quelques centaines de pages. Courage!

JJD said...

QN - tu me remontes le moral! alors on persévère...