I confess up front that I haven’t finished reading this week’s book – I mean you try to read ___ pages in a week. It’s a book I picked up several times in the regular library and thought “There’s no way I can get through this in a measly two weeks – I doubt I could get through it even if I renewed it for another two. So why bother?” Then I’d put the book back and mentally stick it on my bucket list. Then I saw a tightly bound paperback copy at the book sale. Surely I could afford 50 cents for a book that’s always on the list of the world’s best literature (note: the unabridged version also makes the list of the world’s longest novels, just edging out Tolstoy’s War and Peace).
Hugo, Victor. New York: Signet Classics, 1995. 1488 pp.
Yes, there have been movies and there was the musical, and know there’s the movie of the musical, but if that’s your only exposure the Hugo classic then you’ve only gotten the Cliff Notes version – even when it clocks in at almost 3 hours in length.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the musical. I just saw it again last year at the St. Louis Muny. But Hugo uses those pages and pages to build some of the finest character studies I’ve ever read. Let’s take a minor role from the musical—the priest, I’m not even sure the audience knows he’s actually a bishop. We learn absolutely nothing about him except he gives away his silver and candlesticks and doesn’t press charges against Valjean. His actions just didn’t seem that plausible to me, even for a man of the cloth. I just assumed he had to do it or we’d have no way to move to the second act.
In the novel Hugo writes what could almost be a short paperback on its own to share the bishop’s “back-story.” He had been a wealthy, aristocratic man, he lost his wife while they lived in exile in Italy during the French Revolution, he returned to France as a humble priest and ran into Napoleon Bonaparte who made him a bishop. Although he was then a prince of the church he continued to live a very humble lifestyle. He gave his bishop’s palace to the soldier’s hospital and lived in their small residence instead. He gave away 90 percent of his salary to local charities and when he learn he was eligible to collect a stipend to rent a carriage to visit his province he claimed it and gave it away too. He accompanied men to the gallows when the local priest refused to do so. Now I finally find it believable that he would give away the family candlesticks because it fits his pattern.
I’ll admit that I don’t always appreciate the level of detail Hugo provides as it seems to get in the way of the flow of action. My professor in college gave me permission to skip the expository portions of Moby Dick, so I’m not feeling guilty about jumping ahead when Les Miz seems to wax on a little too long. I’m sticking with it though, all summer if needs be, because I rescued my own copy and don’t have to worry about returning it to the library.
You can find a list of all my Rescued Books here