Les Miserables was the book selected for me during the Classics Club spin, and one that I was genuinely excited to get to. I had seen the film and the stage show and I love big chunky epics to sink my teeth into, so I picked up this story of a failed Parisian revolution in 1832 with lots of optimism and anticipation. But unfortunately I was disappointed. And this was very unexpected because I like really chunky books (Anna Karenina and A Suitable Boy are among my favourites) and I like books about social issues and the lives of the poor. I tried so hard to like Les Miserables but in the end I had to admit to myself that it will never be a favourite.
The main problem with the book wasn't it's length, but the fact that it felt so long to read. Every time the main narrative threads starting building up and the pace started increasing, Hugo would interrupt them with some completely unrelated diversionary 50+ pages about the Battle of Waterloo, the history of a convent, or the architectural design of Parisian sewers. This really interrupted the narrative flow and I found it completely jarring; every time I lost myself in the book, I was abruptly jerked out of the story.
And then there is the detail. Now I like a good bit of detail and I don't even mind when it slows the pace, but Hugo is the master of unnecessary detail and his writing style is repetitive. Why write it in a sentence when you could spend an entire chapter repeating the same few things? I understand that Les Miserables is a panoramic view of society at the time, and a lot of the detail was relevant, but too much time was spent lingering on each piece of information, and it began to feel a little self-indulgent. In the very first chapter, Hugo writes "There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell - not even on the background." Yet he mentions it anyway, in great detail, for many pages, and the whole book is like this.
To get all my negative points out of the way first, I also found the character of Cosette to be very annoying. She falls in love with Marius at first sight and completely loses sight of who she is as a person. Her whole being becomes focused on being in love, to the extent that she has no other identity. There's one scene where she is explaining to Marius that Cosette isn't her real name, and that she prefers her birth name Euphrasie. Marius indicates a slight preference for Cosette so she instantly changes her mind. She allows herself to be pulled away from Valjean, a man who has cared for her for most of her life, and basically has no opinion that Marius has not expressed first. Hardly a great example of a strong female character.
Now I'm done with the negatives, I can say that of course, there were many things that I did like about Les Miserables. Both Epoinine and Enjolras were fascinating characters, full of depth and very interesting to read about. I particularly liked Epoinine's mix of toughness from living on the street mixed with a surprising vulnerability and how she just leapt off the page as a character full of life. Hugo's themes of progress and education for all people in society are of course honourable, and the battle scenes at the blockade were very well written. In fact, most of the book was well written and I can't fault Julie Rose's translation.
But for me, I just couldn't get over the excessive detail and how the pace of the novel was constantly interrupted with diversions. By the time I got to just over half-way through the book, reading it had started to feel like a chore that I was looking forward to completing. I am glad that I read it, but I can't see myself ever picking it up again.
The Classics Club: Book 20/72
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1862
Edition Read: Modern Library, 2009
Score: 3 out of 5