Sunday, March 24, 2013

Discovering Les Miserables....

When I was a kid in grammar school, I was busily engaged with reading my way up my grandmother's bookshelves of classics, while my classmates were reading the grammar school level "Weekly Reader" . There's a reason I was reading on the college level by the third grade - one of them was my Grandmother's library. And one of the books I encountered was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, in an English translation of course. I had no trouble reading it in terms of basic reading comprehension, the words were all in my vocabulary. However, there's more to reading comprehension than words; there's life experience and knowledge of history and social issues and a host of other things...on that level it proved to be too much. I was just too young to follow Hugo's nuances of history and social justice of that period, and I finally left it unfinished, put it back on the shelf and moved on to the next book.

Didn't think about it further for years, until this past year when the movie of the musical came out. My Dreamweaver went to see the movie and went nuts about it! She had, it turns out also seen the musical as a stage play twice in the 90's. So she found a copy of the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables, and dropped that one me. I was stunned. To begin with, the music is gorgeous enough that the lyrics could be the New York phone book and you'd still want to sit and listen. Secondly, the lyrics are incredibly powerful, meaningful and deep, and they - and I now realize the book does as well - touch on social justice and religious issues and the simple power of human love and connection, which makes them beyond incredible.

So, I rounded up the book again, and took another run at it...and discovered I had caught up to it at last in terms of "getting it". Hugo wrote the book with the ideas of social justice and the questions of violence as a solution, and the final argument that grace and human love are our greatest connection and our transcendence. Which was very revolutionary and ahead of his time for the era that he wrote in and the era that he wrote about. Now, it takes some patience and being in love with the English language for the sake of words alone  to revel in Les Miserables (and 3 cheers for the translator who took it from French to English - I know well I'm reading a 19th century French author here.)...But it is so worth it, as I found out. I then was dragged (quite willingly) to see the current movie incarnation, and then we by good fortune managed to go see it live on the stage this past weekend. Not only am I not getting tired of it, its becoming increasingly more stunning with each reiteration, as you find more and more depths in each interpretation of it.

Without launching into a ponderous review of book and/or musical, let me say it revolves around two characters, one, Jean Valjean, an escaped convict who breaks parole and remains on the run, but redeems his life by becoming a fabulously compassionate and honorable man, and his counterpart, Javert,the rigid police inspector who makes it his life's business to catch Valjean and return him to slave labor. Javert can only see the law and consequences - no man escapes judgement, there is no grey, only black or white. Jean Valjean sees the world through the lens of grace and love, which saved him through the actions of a humble bishop. The various threads of the book, which are complex and full of powerful characters, all arrive in one place at the end when some students in Paris try to reignite the "French Revolution" in a doomed revolt, which results in heartless bloodshed and death on the barricades in the narrow city streets. The characters are fictional, but the revolt was real - in the historic 1832 Revolt that it was based on, Hugo himself was in the streets near the barricades and had to take shelter from gun fire.

The musical, though having to cut and alter a mass of details that simply could not be translated to the stage, nails Hugo's intent and the heart of the novel in one of the most stunning stage plays I have ever seen. Reading the book gives one an amazing background in one's knowledge that deepens the stage play's meaning and interpretation.

In other words, see the movie. Or get a hold of the 25th anniversary stage play, both available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you can steel yourself to it, read the book. It is well worth it.

Here is a scene from the 25th Anniversary Performance of Les Miserables, "Bring Him Home" sung by Alfie Boe. The context is that Jean Valjean, having gotten behind the barricades, in among the doomed revolutionaries, finds his daughter's lover and rescues him from the carnage. This is the prayer Valjean's character utters over the young man, the night before the barricade falls.

See what I mean about the music? Just wow...

Gorgeous music not withstanding, and after you've waded through the five "novels" that together comprise the sum total of book, "Les Miserables", you discover that Hugo's novel touched on many, many things - most of them heart breakingly relevant today. Poverty, and cruelty, and the crushing brutality of wealth and power over those less fortunate. Judgement and grace, belief and non belief, hope and despair, love and the ability to over come the past, or to be destroyed by it, and ignorance and knowledge. The venality and hypocrisy of the church, and those who  through simple lives, honor the heart of the Gospels in its simplest form - to love. Hugo himself summed it up best in the preface of his book. If you want to skip a mountain of reading, the heart of the novel is laid out here....

"So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless."
(Preface, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo.) 

Perhaps Jean Valjean's last words in the musical at the end of his life, sum it up even more simply and succinctly....
"To love another person is to see the face of God." 

Now, hopefully I have made the random readers of this blog desire to charge out and see the stage play or go see the stunning movie adaptation, or at least acquire the sound track, or the cliff notes. Or maybe even go - with great courage - pick up the book and give its rambling passages and vivid characters the chance to enter your heart. At the very least I thank you for reading patiently through my thoughts here...that movie, the play, the music, the lyrics, the book, are all going to be with me for a very long time. I felt the least I could do was share them and hope someone might find, like I did, delight and awe and grace in discovering Les Miserable!


  1. I'm a Les Miz fan too! After I saw the touring stage production in the early 90s, I got the CD and read Hugo's novel as well -- OMG it's long! But worth it. I saw the movie in January and loved it too -- Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway were both amazing, I thought. That music can stay in your head for days at a time!

  2. While we share a deep love of musicals/literature I don't think you'll be nearly so impressed with Starlight Express! LOL I'm so glad you find as much joy in Les Mis as I do! And yep, the music has been playing in my head for weeks now.