It has been a long time since I first read the novels which affected me the most strongly: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ivanhoe and Gone with the Wind. The first two I read when I was ten years old, or thereabouts; the last, Gone with the Wind, three or four years ago. Since then, I’ve read a few books, but none which created impressions as deep as they have. So much so, that I’d come to doubt whether I would meet anybody as kind and as good as Melanie Wilkes, or anyone as terrible as Dorian Gray. I felt that I wouldn’t meet any love as strong as the love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, or the love for Scarlet that Rhett had. Women like Jane Eyre, or Countess Natasha Rostova, or Agnes Wickfield, or Scarlet O’Hara are rarely met with. But a lot of things changed when I decided to correct a mistake that I had made, since I had never got a chance to read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, having read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame years ago as an abridged version (curse those monstrosities, they rob us of a great deal!). So when I chanced upon a Penguin Classics edition of Les Misérables, a 1976 translation by Norman Denny, I seized it without a second thought.
Victor Hugo is a master story-teller, and his plot is rich in twists and turns. Some have parallels, as for example Thénardier’s role in bringing the truth about Jean Valjean’s life to Marius’s knowledge is very similar to Gollum’s role in destroying the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Oh! Once I shuddered when The Lord of the Rings was compared to the Harry Potter series, and now I shudder to compare The Lord of the Rings to Les Misérables. I read the Lay of Beren and Luthién and was deeply moved, and when I read the last three books of Volume V: Jean Valjean, I did something which I have not done in years: I wept. If, previously, someone had asked me to name the three greatest characters I’d met, I would have named R. Daneel Olivaw, Melanie Wilkes and Sherlock Holmes. Now, the list would be R. Daneel Olivaw, Melanie Wilkes and Jean Valjean. All three are characterised by their infinite love and compassion, their benevolence and goodness, their innate heroism, and their strength of character. Indeed, Daneel is more human than some humans.
Norman Denny said that Victor Hugo is a poet, and rightly so. Only a poet would indulge in a retelling of the Battle of Waterloo, only for creating a setting for an ironical twist of fate. But the tale is well told, and only increases the disgust for the dastardly act that follows, and I doubt even the best of authors could have done any better. His novel is accused of being riddled with unreadable digressions, but they serve to make the tale all the more interesting, and are as much matter for the mind as Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical meanderings in War and Peace. In many a sense, I find Tolstoy’s work (which he considered to be something not quite a novel) is the only book comparable to Hugo’s work. It is interesting that one chronicles the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall, and the other the aftermath. Both have characters that rise from being social outcasts to being angels on Earth, the one has Pierre Bezukhov, an illegitimate son of a count, with a heart of gold and the innocence of a child, and Jean Valjean, a paroled convict who came out with the blackest of minds and was transformed into the most benevolent of men. Both have their ingenues: Natasha and Cosette (the picture at the top is of her as child); both have their young men burdened with poverty and a title: Count Nicholas Rostov and Baron Marius Pontmercy.
Hugo’s tale of nineteenth century France is singular tale of misery and wretchedness, and, at the same time, of hope and love. We follow the life of Jean Valjean, sent to prison for stealing a piece of bread for his family, ending up spending nineteen years in jail for repeated escape attempts, after he is released on parole. He encounters the Bishop of Digne, an uncanonised saint, who transforms him, and guides him to the path of goodness. He is entrusted with the care of Cosette, the child of a poor girl called Fantine. As Cosette grows into womanhood and meets and falls in love with Marius, the tale draws them all into events leading up to the June Revolution of 1832 in Paris, weaving all the threads in to a tapestry of singular beauty. We witness the gallant nature of Jean Valjean, as he helps even those who dislike him or even hate him. We witness the implacable nature of Inspector Javert, whose single-minded dedication to the enforcement of law is the gravest of dangers to Valjean’s liberty. We witness the unchanging evil in Monsieur Thénardier, even as he seeks to rob the gentleman who gives him alms, and to expose him to his son-in-law, whilst unknowingly setting aright a number of misunderstandings. Éponine’s pain at having to aid Marius with his love for Cosette rends our hearts. Why, oh, why do people have to suffer from unrequited love?
Admittedly, Hugo’s tale has weaknesses. Nobody will paeans to the love between Marius and Cosette. Nobody will sing ballads about Marius. But then, this tale is not about them. This is about the upliftment of Les Misérables, the miserable ones, the wretched ones, the very dregs of society, as seen in Valjean, Éponine and Gavroche; Gavroche - that gallant little soul, to whom, one cannot help but bow to and acknowledge his greatness of soul. Yet, with all this, as one flows along with the tale, we do not even see these flaws, immersed in the curiosity that makes us want to know: Will they ever have a chance at a better life? Will they rise above their misery and find happiness?