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Les Miserables (Penguin Clothbound Classics) Paperback – 25 Mar 1982
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"Hugo's genius was for the creation of simple and recognizable myth. The huge success of "Les Miserables "as a didactic work on behalf of the poor and oppressed is due to his poetic and myth-enlarged view of human nature." V. S. Pritchett
"It was Tolstoy who vindicated [Hugo's] early ambition by judging "Les Miserables "one of the world's great novels, if not the greatest [His] ability to present the extremes of experience 'as they are' is, in the end, Hugo's great gift." From the Introduction by Peter Washington"
"Hugo's genius was for the creation of simple and recognizable myth. The huge success of Les Miserables as a didactic work on behalf of the poor and oppressed is due to his poetic and myth-enlarged view of human nature." --V. S. Pritchett
"It was Tolstoy who vindicated [Hugo's] early ambition by judging Les Miserables one of the world's great novels, if not the greatest... [His] ability to present the extremes of experience 'as they are' is, in the end, Hugo's great gift." --From the Introduction by Peter Washington
-Hugo's genius was for the creation of simple and recognizable myth. The huge success of Les Miserables as a didactic work on behalf of the poor and oppressed is due to his poetic and myth-enlarged view of human nature.- --V. S. Pritchett
-It was Tolstoy who vindicated [Hugo's] early ambition by judging Les Miserables one of the world's great novels, if not the greatest... [His] ability to present the extremes of experience 'as they are' is, in the end, Hugo's great gift.- --From the Introduction by Peter Washington
About the Author
Victor Hugo was born in 1820. He was one of France's greatest poets, dramatists and novelists. During his lifetime he produced twenty volumes of poetry, nine novels and ten plays. He was deeply concerned with the social and political developments ofhis time and his outspokenness eventually forced him to leave France until 1870 when he was elected to the national assembly.
Norman Denny was educated at Radley College.
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The novel also contains spiritual themes. The novel is popular with many conservative Christians but to be clear Hugo never mentions any particular religion. There are biblical allegories for sure in some parts of the novel but Hugo is more concerned with the spiritual side of man than organised religion. The introduction mentions Hugo started his own religion that is still practiced in Vietnam.
The novel has a reputation for having long digressions. This is true but I also think it is part of the charm of the novel. Les Misérables is not just about the story of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to 19 years in the prison hulks for stealing a loaf of bread or Fantine, a grisette who has been kicked to the ground by life and is now struggling to find money for her daughter, or Marius, the son of a soldier who fought for Napoleon, raised by his royalist bourgeoisie grandfather. Les Misérables is more than that. It is also an outlet for Hugo's views on poverty, prejudice, war, nationalism,modern France, the criminal justice system, capital punishment, architecture, monasteries, and the Paris sewer system amongst other things. Many have said that Les Misérables is in part about Victor Hugo. One journalist writing just after Hugo's death said that Les Misérables contained "all that Victor Hugo knew and was expected to know". I fully agree with this. Les Misérables is as much the story of Victor Hugo as the story of Jean Valjean. If you read Les Misérables, you are going deep into the mind of Hugo. This makes reading the novel a rich and rewarding experience. Without the digressions, the novel would feel rather empty. If you have watched any of the TV or movie adaptations, you are missing out on some wonderful insights that only the novel can give you.
One of Hugo's strengths is his characterization. Marius and Cosette are more rounded characters in the novel than in the movie adaptations. Likewise the nine principal members of the Friends of the ABC student group are sketched out in great detail and you soon become acquainted with their various personalities unlike the movies which only focus on the leader Enjolras.
Do not be put off by the size of the novel. The text is actually very readable and you will find that you will get through the novel quite quickly. I actually found the novel much more readable than some shorter works by Dickens.
Now onto the translation. First a little bit of translation history. American Charles Wilbour was the first to translate the novel and his version was published by Carleton in 1862 just months after the novel was published in Brussels. The fact that Wilbour, at the age of just twenty nine, completed the translation so quickly is astounding. The translation is very close to Hugo's French and is highly regarded. The set was plagarised in the South in 1863 during the Civil War by publishers West and Johnson who removed many of the anti slavery texts that Hugo wrote. Thankfully once the war had ended, Carleton's one volume edition of Wilbour's original became the most dominant version and was constantly in print. An abridged version of Wilbour's translation was released in the UK by Catto & Windus in 1874. The unabridged version was finally released in the country in 1890.
The only downsides of Wilbour's translation are that it contained no footnotes and French verse parts were not translated. This was rectified in 1987 by an updated translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, released by Signet. The vocabulary is more modern so the translation will appear more readable to someone who finds 19th Century texts difficult. This is the most common paperback version in the USA and has the musical logo on the cover. It is unabridged like the original Wilbour, has full place names instead of dashes (so you get Digne instead of D-, this was a revision Hugo himself made to the text in 1881) and French verse parts are translated into English in footnotes.
Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall's translation was the first to be released in the UK and appeared in 1862, just before the release of the last volume of Wilbour's translation in America. Wraxall's translation was the only one to pay copyright to the publishers. It was advertised as the most "literal" translation. It is abridged as it deliberately misses chapters and books (Wraxall gives his reasons for this in the preface). The text was even further abridged from the fourth edition onwards. The omitted parts were translated in the USA by J Blamire for the 1886 Deluxe Edition by Routledge and this same text was used for the 1938 Heritage Press release with illustrations from Lynn Ward. Little Brown also supplemented the Wraxall text in 1887. Later reprints by various publishers, such as Allison & Co, supplemented the text using Wilbour. Even with the supplementations, the Wraxall version is still very poorly regarded. Hugo himself even voiced his disapproval.
The Wraxall translation was also heavily plagarised by others. The translation by William Walton et al. (actually a pseudonym of John Thomson of the Philadelphia Free Library), released in 1892 by the publisher G Barrie, borrows heavily from Wraxall.
Isobel F Hapgood's translation first appeared in 1887 and was published by Thomas Crowell. Hapgood's translation was generally very well regarded at the time, although some of the language used has become outdated. Hapgood's main defect is that she misses out the Cambronne section. This omission was restored by a handful of publishers in the early Twentieth Century including John Wannamaker, Dumont and Century Co. Crowell continued to publish a copyright version without the supplementation so it is clear that Hapgood did not approve of such additions.
In the 1890s Henry L Williams released a translation. This translation could almost be considered an adaptation. Williams specialised in cheap dime novels and his translation (if he did actually translate it himself) is a dumbed down and heavily abridged version issued to cater for the "lower end" of the market. His translation is called "The Outcasts".
The early years of the post war era was mainly filled with adaptations and abridgments of Wilbour's text (a famous abridgment by James K Robinson reduced Wilbour's text to under 400 pages). Norman Denny was the first person to offer a new translation in the Twentieth Century. This is the most common version available in the UK, released in 1976 by Folio Press (with bizarre illustrations) and by Penguin as a paperback in 1980. Highly readable but Denny takes great liberties with Hugo's text and a lot of material is omitted. Two sections are moved to the end of the book as appendixes. Penguin continues to print this but thankfully they have now released this superior translation by Christine Donougher.
Finally in 2008 an unabridged translation by Julie Rose was released by The Modern Library in the US and Vintage in the UK. The main criticism of this translation is that the vocabulary is very modern and at times feels awkward. For instance Rose uses the term "slimy spook" to describe Javert in one section. I have never heard this term before and I cannot imagine it being a good translation of the French term Mouchard. I do respect Rose for translating such a difficult text. Her translation just didn't click with me.
So now we come to the new translation by Christine Donougher. So why is this translation superior to the others? It is complete and unabridged, unlike Denny, Wraxall and Hapgood. It doesn't feel like the language has been dumbed down, unlike Rose. It has excellent notes and footnotes, unlike Wilbour and the updated versions of his text. The text flows well. I would say the closest translation to Donougher in terms of style is probably Hapgood. It is certainly as readable as say Denny.
The introduction, translation notes and timeline are fascinating. I think the publishers made the right decision in choosing Robert Tombs, a history Professor, to write the introduction rather than say a English Lit Professor. This means we have a greater emphasis on the historical aspects of the novel. Donougher's notes on the translation are quite interesting, especially how she dealt with Hugo's discussion of slang. The timeline is a lot more detailed than the ones given in previous translations and offers a wonderful overview on the life of Victor Hugo. The notes section at the end of the book is excellent and helps give the context to many scenes in the novel. My only complaint would be that the notes at the end of the book should reference which page number the note relates to.
Apologies for the extended essay. In summary Christine Donougher's translation of Les Misérables is the best version available in English and I would advise all fans of the novel to buy it. Well done to Penguin for publishing this splendid edition.
Like Dickens, Hugo relies too much on coincidence and sometimes the plot creaks a bit. He does a marvellous job with the characters though, not so much Marius and Cosette who seem to be stereotypes, but the poor inhabitants of Paris, the criminals, street urchins and revolutionaries.
Every now and then there is a flash of wonderful insight into human nature, and his burning sense of social injustice leaps from the page, just as with Dickens. His dialogue does not, however, get close to the quality of Dickens and the characters are not brought to life very well through their speech. This is not helped by some of the choices made by the translator (Isabel Hapgood, a 19th century translator). She obviously felt that it was important at times to show the reader that characters were using 'tu' rather than 'you', but her device - the archaic thee and thou, along with their associated hideous verb constructions ('thou wouldst') - irritated the hell out of me. Most of the romantic twitterings of Marius and Cosette just come off as annoying.
I have never seen the musical Les Miserables (and have no wish to), so I can't say whether this book would suit someone coming from that direction. If you happily read big 19th century novels, this one is probably worth a look.
The stage play-the first stage performance was in Belgium in the mid 19th century-and the musical version just out on film should be treated for what they are, namely entertainment. They are very poor interpretations of the novel.
Hugo intended his book to be called 'Miseres'. It is about injustice, tyranny, obsession, honour and love. It took over 16 years to finalise during which Hugo toured Napoleonic battlefields to ensure he got his facts right. The novel can only be fully understood if it is read in conjunction with his other masterpiece: 'Claude Gueux' that also dealt with an unjust French legal system. Many of his poems also focused on the same issue.
When published all copies in the bookshops of Paris were sold out in 3 days. Pope Pius 1X, however, placed it on the notorious Index of banned books. In catholic Spain copies were burnt. Hugo's denunciation of injustice and bigotry was too much for some.
When Hugo died in 1885 over 2 million Parisians turned out for his funeral.
This is a massive book but it is not difficult to read. Hugo's attack on a legal system that drove men to crime and women to prostitution is sadly still relevant in all too many parts of the world today. It ought to be read by everyone who is concerned about tyrannical government and barbarous penal systems.
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I bought the novel to accompany my listening to the unabridged original...Read more