Thursday, December 8, 2011

Les Misérables - How Not To Write A Book?

Ok, yes, that is an attention grabbing headline to describe what is often considered to be one of the world's great books. Please believe me however when I say that I am totally in earnest in posing the above question. Let me also clarify that while I am somewhat critical of the manner in which Les Misérables has been put together, I am in no way passing judgement on Victor Hugo's ability to write. Instead please view this post as a discussion on the book from a reader's perspective.

While most people who have read Les Misérables seem to be fans of the book, just about all of them admit that reading this giant tome is a considerable challenge, and not just because of its size. Personally I've read plenty of large books, more than my fair share of trilogies, and quite a few classics. So in general I have no problem with a huge word count, old-fashioned language, or an archaic style. Indeed, the majority of celebrated classics tend to feature extensive descriptive passages, soliloquies, and essays on the nature of the human condition etc., all of which are often the defining aspects of these great novels. However Les Misérables is a case in point, a prime example of how this stylistic approach can sometimes be taken much too far.

The beginning of the novel features an extensive, and I mean EXTENSIVE, character description of Monseigneur Bienvenue, the Bishop of Digne. The reader is treated to numerous examples of his benevolence, his charity, his struggles to overcome the few prejudices he does have, etc. We are given a character description through the eyes of his sister, we are given another character description through his own eyes. Chapters with titles such as 'What He Thought', and 'What He Believed' are included. In all, a total of fourteen chapters are devoted to describing this character. Ok, so the reader can be forgiven for believing that the good Bishop is to feature strongly in the remainder of the novel, right? Actually, no. In total this character interacts with the book's central character, Jean Valjean, over the course of a single night, and then disappears from the story. Later on in the novel it is mentioned in passing that Monseigneur Bienvenue has died.

Granted the interaction between Jean Valjean and the Bishop of Digne is central to the character development of the former. It is a pivotal event in his life which can be said to shape the course of the novel from that point on. However was it truly necessary to devote such a huge volume of text to the description of the bishop himself? By about the seventh chapter or so I already had a sufficiently detailed impression of this character to serve the purposes of the story. His charity and understanding towards Jean Valjean were perfectly justified, even to readers in Hugo's time, who may have been more biased towards former convicts. Some people may say that the Bishop of Digne is worth examining in his own right, simply as a character study. That's all well and good, but many of the chapters reiterate previous points using new examples, making this a somewhat sub-par exercise in character analysis.

From my perspective as a reader, on hearing of the bishop's death I felt somewhat cheated. I had invested a good deal of time in learning about every minute aspect of this individual's personality, and then he was simply gone. I had approached Hugo's massive book with optimism and enthusiasm, fully expecting every chapter and even every paragraph to be meaningful and relevant. It was now apparent that this was not the case. From that point on I approached every character description with skepticism, and I found it difficult to connect with most of the supplementary characters. In brief (no pun intended), I had lost faith in Hugo's ability to steer me through the intricate citadel of his story, pointing out only the noteworthy landmarks while brushing over the less meaningful sights.

This loss in faith was justified. In the midst of this epic tale, Les Misérables features an detailed essay on the events of The Battle of Waterloo. Is this really relevant to the story? Well one of the main characters was there, and 'saved' the life of the father of another character, after the battle had ended. This tenuous connection is the only justification for the inclusion of this discourse on Waterloo. Similarly, in the middle of the book's climactic events, having built up the dramatic tension for a considerable time, Hugo then takes some time out to treat his readers to another detailed essay on the history of the Parisian sewer system. Is this really good writing?

The Battle of Waterloo is of course very interesting from an historical perspective, as is the Parisian sewer system I suppose, but perhaps Hugo should have considered placing them in an appendix, or maybe even in a completely different document. Some people point out that the word 'shit' is a prominent theme in this book, and use it to justify the inclusion of the dissertations on Waterloo and the Parisian sewer system. Personally I adore the use of subtle metaphors as subliminal messaging in novels. However, this does not justify the exorbitant length of each of these sections. In short (again no pun intended), was the verbal diarrhea really necessary to emphasize the shit?

Besides the vast amount of superfluous content in Les Misérables, I also take issue with the construction of the plot. Apparently they're making another movie of the book, which should probably be titled Les Misérables - A Comedy of Coincidences. Much of the novel turns on some of the most unlikely and unrealistic coincidences I have ever come across in fiction. Considering the amount of times characters run into each other at random in Paris, the city in the 18th century must have been the size of a village. Hugo's characters also seem to be suffering from poor eyesight, as even neighbouring tenants fail to recognise each other at various moments in the plot.

To illustrate this, let's look at the interactions between two primary characters, Marius Pontmercy and Thénardier, focusing specifically on coincidences:

  1. Marius' father is dragged from underneath a pile of bodies by Thénardier, in the aftermath of The Battle of Waterloo.
  2. Marius' grandfather is paying child support for two children of a former servant. These boys die and are replaced by the sons of Thénardier. This happens purely by chance and none of the parties involved are aware of this connection.
  3. Marius attempts to locate Thénardier to thank him in some manner for helping his father. He cannot find him, but subsequently moves into a building in Paris, occupying a room adjacent to Thénardier.
  4. Although he lives next door to Thénardier and shares a staircase and front door, Marius does not know his name and never meets him.
  5. Marius bumps into two girls on the street whom he does not recognise. They are the daughters of Thénardier, who also live in the adjoining room.
  6. While out walking, Marius notices a girl and her father who come to sit on the same bench on the Rue Luxembourg each day. This is Cosette, whom he subsequently marries, who was initially raised by Thénardier.
  7. Having lost contact with Cosette for a time, Marius then sees her again in Thénardier's room. She is brought there by a chance encounter, and does not recognise anyone in her former foster family.
  8. During the Student's Uprising, Marius comes into contact by chance with a child at the barricade. This is the elder son of Thénardier, Gavroche.
  9. When Marius is carried through the sewers by Jean Valjean they become trapped by a locked gate. They happen to be discovered by Thénardier, who just happens to be in the sewers at that very moment. He then opens the gate without recognising either of the men. 

The list of coincidences and chance meetings goes on and on, and these are only the interactions between two of the characters in the story. Les Misérables is of course a fictional work and the author has every right to compose his plotlines as he chooses. However the audience of any fictional work expects a certain degree of realism in order for the story to be believable. Even the most fantastical stories, movies and TV shows today are bound to maintain a certain realism in their plotlines, for fear of 'jumping the shark'. Les Misérables not only jumps the shark, it jumps back and forth over it a few times. In fact this book jumps the entire aquarium. 

Maybe one day I will reread this book and see the same masterpiece that most people seem to see. Perhaps my current opinion is a result of my inexperience, my youth, or a level of understanding that I am currently lacking. Perhaps I am a precocious child, flaunting my own ignorance. (Believe me, it's happened before.)

For now, all I can say is that as a result of the contrived and unrealistic plot of Les Misérables, I found that I lost all interest in the characters and in the story. I was confident that some series of chance happenings and happy coincidences would ensure that everything would work itself out in the end. Indeed the only character I could connect with in the entire novel was the central figure himself, Jean Valjean, who bestrides the tale as a silent and steadfast colossus. His character is real, solid, conflicted, and very very human. The remaining characters come across as two-dimensional puppets dancing a contorted jig, keeping time to puppet master Hugo's convoluted tune. 


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