on 6 February 2000
I decided to read 'Les Miserables' more out of a challenge to myself than anything else. I honestly thought it was going to be one of those 'boiled cabbage' books that taste pretty dull but are very good for you. I could not be more wrong. From the first chapter, I was surprised by Hugo's sense of humour and sharpness. His take on the clergy and their not-so-humble lifestyle set the tone of the book and acted as a promise that it wasn't going to be a 'tour de force' of morals and religion.
And then it just got better, and better, and better. The plot had more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie's novel, the characters far more rounded than the two-dimensional figurines one encounters in Dickens' writing. These characters are memorable. Jean Valejan, Cosette, Marius, the evil Javert: I dare you readers to find a book in which the characters become so alive, so vivid, so intense and so human. By the end of the book (almost 1000 pages of!)you just don't want to let them go. I frantically read and read for days until, almost at the end, I slowed down and tried to make it last a little bit longer, and yes, when the last page was turned, I felt totally and utterly BEREFT. Les Miserables is a story that will stay with me forever. If classics ever put you off, do yourself a favour, and read this wonderful novel.
on 9 February 2014
I am sure that most people reading this review will already be familiar with the story of Les Misérables. You may have seen the hit musical, the movie based on that musical, a television adaptation or one of the many non musical movie adaptations. Needless to say Les Misérables is a story that has proved to be timeless and the social issues it examines are just as relevant today as in 1862 when the novel was first published. Part of the appeal of Les Misérables is that it has many themes and contains elements of many genres. Generally the novel is classified as a romance (in the style of say Walter Scott) but it is also a social commentary, a historical study of Nineteenth Century France, an examination of the human condition (the discussion of the moral dilemma faced by Jean Valjean in the first part of the novel is the most gripping thing I have read in any text), a love story, a detective story and an adventure story. Les Misérables has something for everyone. That is why I think the novel has a universal appeal.
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.
on 29 May 2009
Having seen several film versions, and the stage show, you could say I was already a fan of this story. However, I was always puzzled by the unexplained bits - how did Jean Valjean enter Paris over the city walls ? What exactly was the circumstance surrounding his initial arrest ? 19 Years for stealing a loaf was excessive even for pre-revolution France, and lots, lots more.
All of the detail and explanations are here.
The book is fascinating as it is a marvellous social history of France, but the author/translator has also provided references for each chapter which very helpfully inform the reader. You can read and enjoy the book without referring to these, but I found they enhanced the story.
As for Victor Hugo's tale itself, it is a masterpiece. The storytelling is exquisite, and it certainly reads as a modern tale, but the language is rich and well put together.
At over a 1,000 pages, this is no beachside escapist book - what it is, is a return to fantastic, richly woven storytelling, with a message about life, that hits you hard in the guts, and makes you sit up and want more.
It is compelling, wretched, miserable, heartening and uplifting by turns.
I defy any reader who is tired of the pap that often passes as literature today, not to be excited by this magnificent book.
on 19 August 2008
Not the greatest prediction in history perhaps, but Victor Hugo's monumental Romantic epic still remains one of the best known and most popular works of the nineteenth century. A vast panorama of Parisian life during the first half of that century, Les Miserables seems to contain the author's entire world view and knowledge base, everything but the kitchen sink. Yes, when viewed through twenty-first century eyes it suffers from all the peculiarities associated with novels of that era: twists and turns born out of wildly improbable coincidences, a tendency to sentimentality and melodrama, familiar caricatures (misers, prostitutes, street urchins), odd attachments to unrelated children, and loose ends neatly tied up. But, like War and Peace it is a great sweep of life, like Moby Dick it is juxtaposed with digressions and immensely detailed descriptions (Waterloo, the Paris sewers), like Dickens's works the characters live and breathe even though they are flat and behave stereotypically. In sum, it is a magnificent slice of social history, teeming with life and detail, sometimes funny, often moving, always compassionate.
The story is basically simple. It revolves around peasant Jean Valjean who is sentenced to five years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and then to 19 years in the galleys for an escape attempt. He becomes a recidivist criminal on release until he sees the error of his ways after being befriended by a saintly priest. Then, making a stupid mistake on the spur of the moment, he is discovered and compelled to return to prison. However, escaping again, he spends the rest of his life seeking redemption, firstly by becoming a wealthy and respectable citizen and then by rescuing a young girl from abuse. Les Miserables is a morality tale which seeks to demonstrate the virtual impossibility of escape from poverty and injustice at a time and in a system where the less fortunate are excluded. Among a great canvas of characters many are memorable: Valjean himself, the obsessive policeman Javert, the ill-fated Fantine, the malevolent Thenardier couple, and the irrepressible urchin Gavroche. The numerous stage and film interpretations of Hugo's masterpiece are a testimony to its enduring popularity and its place in the pantheon of great European literature.
on 12 July 2003
This particular book is the ABRIDGED edition! This is fine if you are happy to read the 'lite' version as seen in the musical show. If you want to read the more complex and fascinating book that Hugo actually wrote make sure you are getting the whole thing!
on 23 November 2009
Phew! Well, that is a book that you feel proud of for having completed. It is the size of a breeze block and it's printed on tissue paper in size 4 font- very daunting to approach!
The story is very intricate and has many small `insignificant' details which, you realise when trying to write a synopsis, all have great impact upon it. It is set in 19th Century France, and follows ex-convict Jean Valjean and his struggle through life, being constantly pursued. He raises a `daughter' and we also follow her story, of young love. If you have seen the musical, you will recognize the story from the adaptation easily, but be amazed at the extra intricacies!
Although this is, as I have said, a very daunting book to approach, there is actually nothing difficult about it. It is written plainly, and easy enough to understand. But there is no doubt it takes concentration. It's a book you have to really READ, if you understand my meaning. There are pages and pages of back history to every character, no matter how small. Even alot of the buildings mentioned have pages, sometimes chapters of back history!
This really is an excellent book with an excellent story. I would recommend it most highly, but with the advice that you would probably have to see it as a long term project! There is a bit of everything, action, adventure, love, suspense, war, sadness, happiness, and hope. Suitable for all, with a little perseverance!
on 2 March 2000
I was dissapointed to discover that this is abridged version. Maybe good for the people who get discouraged when seeing about 1000 pages book, but Les Miserables is well worth it to read in in unabridged version. Didn't want to give less than five stars to Hugo's masterpiece, but reader's should be aware that this edition contains about 1/4 of the original book.
on 9 August 2005
If a novel is an artistic piece of creativity, requiring the right tones, contrasts, and combination of elements to create the perfect masterpiece, then Hugo's Les Miserables epitomises such a work.
Beginning with a touching portrayal of a lonely and selfless Bishop, the reader is introduced to the central theme of Hugo's timeless classic, grace. Hugo carefully crafts a tale that brings the reader to a realisation that no one is beyond redemption, beyond change, and beyond atonement, yet the state and man have an inability to recognise this.
Many shades of the man himself are found within his work, the frequent references he makes to historical events he himself he has experienced, and his own political views. Through Hugo's writing one can discern that life, truth, and justice are never a two dimensional affair, and adherence to rules, regulation and authority can tear ones life apart, and unduly harm the undeserving. Championing the underdogs, the outcasts, to whom the title refers, Hugo constructs a classic narrative examining the true meanings of social justice, all revolving around the character of Jean Valjean and his selfless sacrifices and devotion to his foster daughter Cosette.
Hugo treats the reader with a sense of respect, assuming the reader is intelligent enough to unearth the subtle clues he leaves, never giving away more information than necessary. His method of story telling keeps the reader uncertain, yet intrigued, towards the course of events, flowing like a like a mountain stream, uncertain like a jigsaw puzzle, and all assembling towards a heart touching conclusion.
As the translator notes in the introduction, the most important part of translation is not to capture the literal meaning, rather the authors intent. His intent in descriptive powers has been rendered immaculately in this fine translation, but his intent towards the reader can be no more aptly described than the change of outlook one gains from reading this, making it a pleasure for the mind and soul. Hugo once remarked, "as long as there is misery, injustice and destitution there will be a need for my book." Indeed Hugo was correct, and perhaps if more people discovered this treasure the world would be a better place.
I warrant that the enduring popularity of this book is due in large part to the affection people hold for the musical based on it. I have never seen the musical, nor the film, so must judge the novel on its literary merits alone. I would say that it had a very mixed appeal for me. The actual plot was well written, compelling and page turning. The characters are well drawn, and comparisons can be drawn with the work of people like Dickens and Tolstoy. Jean Valjean is a fascinating character and his story is interesting and sympathetic. If this story were all there was to this book I would be giving it five stars. Sadly, it is not. This is not a small work. At about fifteen hundred pages it requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the reader. A substantial portion of the book is also not directly related to the plot. Hugo had a much bigger vision in mind when writing this book. He aimed not only to understand and beg for review of the French penal system, but also to enquire into and think about every ideal and institution that made France what it was at the time the book was set. He uses hundreds of pages to discuss religion, politics, empire and republic, philosophy, the inner workings of the battle of Waterloo, the life of Napoleon, and virtually any other area of French life he could think of.
Sometimes this is interesting. Sometimes it drags, and it always distracts from what would otherwise be a first rate story. It seems fairly common to take this approach to novels at the time. Tolstoy employs the same method in War and Peace, and I have the same criticisms of it. It detracts from the story, and I want to read the novel as a story, not as a polemic.
on 13 January 2010
This is one of the world's great books. The story of convict Jean Valjean and his pursuit by the morally obsessive and iron-willed detective Javert is so compelling that it remains burned into the reader's mind long after the book is finished. Valjean undergoes so many trials of fate and endurance that he emerges as almost superhuman, though always sympathetic. The evil Thenardiers are also fascinating in a macabre way. There are weaknesses: the characters of Cosette and Marius are less vivid and the latter comes across as overly self-centred and immature.
And then there are the famous digressions. Often these break up the story and, with the best will in the world, I found I had to skip them or totally lose interest in the story. But some, such as the Battle of Waterloo, are worth reading in themselves - especially if you have time. Also, there are coincidences that seem so absurd - how is Javert so often in the area when Valjean reappears - as to be off-putting, but they are so skilfully contrived that they merge into the overall picture.
I first read the book when I was much younger and found then that it made a great impression. It made an equal impression this time, especially in the excellent new translation by Australian-based Julie Rose, who also contributes a delightful preface. The language is crystal clear, though some of the slang and colloquialisms are jarring and do not really fit the atmosphere of 19th century France. But this is a small point - such a monumental work has to include everything, as Hugo intended.