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Unabridged

May 2, 2011

Eternal sepulcher-mates at La Pantheon. I hope they like each other.

At long last, I finished reading Les Misérables.  I feel as though I’ve spent a semester studying abroad.  Now returned, I am compelled to impart uninvited wisdom on uninterested readers.

I read the Signet Classics unabridged paperback version, A.K.A. “The Brick.”  It is based on the Charles E. Wilbour translation.  If I’ve understood correctly, Mr. Wilbour was a friend of Victor Hugo.   VH, perhaps interested in severing the friendship, requested that CW translate Les Misérables into English.

For years I had avoided reading Les Mis.  A college friend provided me with an easy excuse—it is worthless to read a French literary classic in English, he said; the nuances and texture of the carefully crafted words are likely translated out.  Perhaps.  But I nonetheless found great quotes.

Love is the foolishness of men, and the wisdom of God. —VH

All the four-legged pieces of furniture behaved as if they had only three. —VH

To some extent [the Bourbons] fell short of the majesty of their misfortune. —VH

I wanted to read something apropos while in Paris with Genevieve; Les Misérables was the obvious choice.  Before I bought the masonry-shaped tome, I perused several other copies at my local bookseller.  I wondered to myself: What version of Les Misérables should I read?

Some fool reading in Paris

Post-Les-Misérables, I can confidently state that I now understand the concept of an “abridged” book.  I always thought that to abridge a book would be akin to chopping a movie to air on television inside of two hours.  I assumed that important character and plot developments were left on the cutting room floor, sacrificed to the god named Brevity.

But Victor Hugo, I am loath to say, begs to be abridged.  The unabridged Les Misérables includes the director’s cut movie and all the DVD extras that go with it.  These extras are not appended after the story.  No, no.  They are woven into the text like chunks of hard candy into duck foie gras.  There was no fact too far-flung, no opinion too superfluous that Monsieur Hugo could consider it outside the scope of story.

People are ignorant of things they ought to know and know things of which they ought to be ignorant. —VH

Hugo explained at great length why he felt nunneries were an affront to decent society.  This dragged on for fifteen pages before he finally concluded, “Well, sometimes they’re okay.”  In that instance, Hugo had the good sense to call the section “A Parenthesis.”

Other unannounced asides belabored the nuances of Argot slang, the (hypothetical) intricacies of Thénardier’s escape from prison, and the construction specifications of a barricade that in no way figured into the story, but was rather built years later.

Only the epic has the right to fill twelve thousand lines with one battle.  —VH

Hugo was true to his word.  He frugally devoted only 2,500 lines in 58 pages to the battle of Waterloo.  This was necessary to set the stage for a single plot point that was, in itself, only peripherally related to the battle.

One of my friends has heralded Les Misérables as his favorite novel of all time.  This makes perfect sense to me now.  My friend is given to lengthy asides in his conversation.

So, for the various levels of potential readers out there, here are my recommendations regarding one’s Les Misérables purchase:

  • If you want to know the mind of Victor Hugo—First, learn to read French.  Second, pick up the unabridged French version and some No-Doz.
  • If you want to know the mind of Victor Hugo but you’re lazy—Read the brick that I noted above.  (Have coffee on hand.)  Lazier still?—find it on CD.
  • If you want to know the original story of Les Misérables as opposed to the Hollywood or West End truncations—Buy an abridged version and count yourself lucky.  One could easily trim five hundred pages from Les Mis without inflicting even a paper cut on the meat of the novel.

A few other thoughts I’d like to share with potential Les Misérables readers:

  • One needs to familiarize oneself with two important vocabulary words: “Sepulcher” means “tomb.”  A “cloaca” is a sewer.  Oftentimes authors use favorite words as crutches.  Apparently, much of the world reminded Monsieur Hugo of sepulchers and cloacae.
  • I would dissuade anyone from reading the section called “The Intestine of the Leviathan” while one is eating.
  • Keep an eye out for Napoleon’s memorial elephant which, in my limited exposure to popular culture, I believe has only ever appeared (unrelatedly) in the film Moulin Rouge.

I have failed to comment on the actual plot and characters of the novel.  (I quite liked the book, as it happens.)  I will remedy that in another post.

One more thought from Monsieur Hugo; it relates to your current electronic surroundings:

The great wars of Africa and Spain, the destruction of the Cicilian pirates, civilization introduced into Gaul, into Britain, into Germany, all this glory covers the Rubicon. —VH

I submit that Victor Hugo made superb river references.

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2 comments

  1. I still don’t know how you escaped reading it in high school.


  2. You must have read it in college! We read “A Tale of Two Cities,” I tell you!



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