on August 9, 2005
Having not read many literature books in my lifetime, undertaking to read one of the finest piece of work ever written is a challenge.
If you are like me and have read the reviews on Amazon before tackling this gigantic novel then I do not need to go on about how great this book is and what it is all about.
Also, if like me, you are a beginner in the world of fine literature, the following are a few tips I would give to those who haven't read Les Miserables. Here goes:
1. Get the book and do not be intimidated by its size. It is huge but the chapters are not very long and this version is made so that it is easier to understand. If you compare several different translation, you will see the difference.
2. Make sure to buy the Signet Classic version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (ISBN 0-451-52526-4). One reviewer said that this was the best version available and I totally agree with that. This is the new version based on the 19th Century Charles E. Wilbour translation. I had another version of this book and this one is by far the only completely unabridged paperback and also more reader-friendly.
3. Have a dictionary handy as there are many words that need translation.
4. Knowing the French language/history is a bonus but not required. Although knowing about French history will make some of his detailed descriptions of France not so tedious. In one chapter entitled "In the Year 1817" he talks about what was going on in France in that time period and although I read every single word, I must confess I was confused because it is all based on the history of France in that year of which I know nothing. He also tends to sprinkle French words, phrases, bits of poems and songs of which I am totally clueless but I still read it without understanding. I felt I was cheating if I did not read every single word (English or French).
5. Have patience - this book will require time to read and when I say read, I mean savor each word. Do not read hastily or skip over parts that you think are not important. Yes, Mr. Hugo is very meticulous and detail-oriented in his description of characters, things and places but by reading and in some cases (like me) re-reading, you will realize that they were written because they are essential to the plot of this book. Also make sure that when you are reading the book, there are no distractions, i.e., tv, radio...as this book requires total concentration in order to fully appreciate it.
6. Do not be tempted to see the movie or show instead of reading the book. Read the book first and then go see the show or watch the movie if you want to. Be prepared to be disappointed with movie/musical as they cannot convey the, emotion, wisdom, love, etc... contained in the written version. Seeing the movie/musical instead of reading the book is like watching a Yankees game on TV instead of being at the stadium in NYC cheering along with the rest of the fans. Well you get my drift....
7. Be prepared to be changed by this book. No, it is not the Bible but it does deal with all aspect of human emotions and by reading it, you will want to be a better person. I know I do!!!
These tips were added in 2013 while re reading this magnificent book and reading comments from those who reviewed my review (no pun intended).
8. Have a highlighter when reading this books as there are many lines, quotes and paragraphs that you will want to highlight because of the simple truth and wisdom that they convey about the human spirit.
9. One of the reviewers sent me this tip which I think might be useful. Go to Wikipedia to get a list of all the characters. However, if you are like me and want to be surprised, don't read the synopsis as it is very detailed and will spoil your enjoyment of the book. If you don't want to go to Wikipedia then have a little notebook and pen handy and make your own list of the major and minor characters in order to keep track of them. That is what I do for the larger novels (over 1,000 pages or a book that is part of a series, like Harry Potter).
With that being said, enjoy the book as it is a reading experience that you will not soon forget and thanks for all the comments. I love receiving them and responding back when I can as I know that I am talking to a person who will be experiencing the beauty of this classic.
on April 25, 2000
I'm a high school sophomore amd we had to read this book for school last semester. Honestly I wasn't encouraged by it's seemingly impossible thickness, nor by its slow start. Having never before seen any Les Mis movie or play or the musical (which is ALMOST as awesome as the book) I didn't know anything about the plot or the great characters and the whole experience was new to me. This is the only book I've ever read that has kept me up hours as night just to finish one beautiful part after another. My sister made fun of me that I would always talk to the book but when the believable characters act in ways that so thoroughly move your heart it's hard to resist sighing or commentary. Hugo is truly a master at combining every element of everything human to create characters from all walks of life and intertwine them into a poetically romantic plot that can only be described as beautiful. But don't skip the descriptions just to move from event to event. Hugo, I feel, has the unique ability to convey idea and thoughts and descriptions in a way that touches your heart and makes you think and yet at the same time doesn't bog you down with flowery adjectives. The language in his page-long paragraph descriptions flow so naturally you find yourself nodding and flipping pages and before you know it you're on to the next event in the plot. My friends laughed at me when we recently traveled to Paris and I wanted to buy the two-volume unabridged original Les Miserables- even though I don't know a word of French! It is a tragedy for any person with a poetic mind or a romantic heart to miss this book-truly a human classic.
on May 9, 2006
Here's my story about how I came to love this book.
If you're an average schmuck, with a job (not in academia), a life, and some curiosity, this review is for you.
If you're a literary blueblood, this review isnt for you. If your sworn enemy in life used to be your closest friend until they disagreed with you about whether Beowulf was a real person, be offended by my apathy and go away. If you had to turn off the TV newscasts on 9/11 because they were getting in the way of your arguments of whether sonnets devalue prose, just move on down to the next review.
I'm not a Literature buff. I tolerated English in high school and college because I had to, skipping what I could, skimming what I could get away with, and bluffing where needed. The thought picking up a stack of books and being dictated a marathon schedule to read them by still makes me bristle with quiet rebellion.
After school I ended up with a job with lots of down time between bursts of madness. I decided to make use of slow time going back and leisurely reading some of the 'classics' that I probably should have read before. Twain, Tolstoy, Dickens, Stowe and others pulled from the titles of Cliff's Notes (Hey, if Cliff says they're important....) Funny, but classics are much more palatable when they are read on a leisurely timeframe. Some I liked, some I couldn't care less about, but Les Miserables was, literally, a life-changing text.
I fell into Les Mis completely by accident. On day I forgot to pack whatever book I was working on that day and dug around looking for something other than Harlequins and Clancys. I picked up Hugo's Hunchback more by default than choice, liked the book, and in the closing commentary a writer mentioned that Hunchback was merely a prelude to his greatest work, Les Mis.
But starting Les Mis was a trial. French words scattered in the text were stumbling blocks. Hugo's text is a jealous mistress- it demands your full attention while reading. Les Mis is not in the genre of modern novels...grab the reader's attention in the first pages or lose them forever. I got bored reading about a bishop's daily routine. It takes 100 pages for the story to kick in. I stopped reading it twice, only to pick it back up a few months later and start all over.
But, as anyone who was read the novel can tell you, those first chapters are essential to the power of the story that follows.
I pushed my way through, got caught up in the current of the story once it began, and floated out the other side a better human being because of it.
Les Mis is a fantastic, detailed journey through human psychology. With 1400 pages, subplots, a cyclone of characters over decades of history, it can be difficult to distill WHAT the book is about into one word, but here's my try: Redemption.
Les Mis can be trying at times. Hugo is very detailed. He takes the reader though various side trips along the way. More than once he spends 100 pages setting up two pages of storyline. But his detail produces a work that is untouched in its ability to reveal the characters.
We see the difficulty in Valjean weighing wealth and praise from the multitudes against "one voice cursing in the darkness."
We see a character in Fantine pulled from innocence with a slow cruelty found nowhere else in lit: being turned for more misery (in surprising ways)like a pig on a split...with a reader helpless to intervene.
I see the police detective Javert as an embodiment of 'the system,'not necessarily as evil as one reviewer suggests. Hugo's penchant for overly-through descriptions adds multiple dimensions to what would otherwise be a flat character somewhere between a Napoleonic Joe Friday and Robobcop. We see Javert recite all the reasons he is right...and Hugo agrees with Javert... but we see that sometimes there is a larger truth than being 'right.'
Writing this a decade later I still see in my mind one of the most powerful images in the story: a middle-aged man and a small girl, both written off by the society around them, each with little in common with the other,walking down a deserted rural road, both clinging to each other because the other is all they have in the world.
For those who are used to watching all the loose ends coming together at the end of every hour of television, Les Mis will be a rude shift. It ends in a way that can be described as happy in its own sense though everyone doesnt ride off into the sunset or end with a joke and everyone laughing.
Frankly, I think it is impossible to appreciate the nuance of the musical without reading the unabridged text.
I finished reading Les Mis for the first time over 10 years ago. I still remember reading the last page, closing the book, and spending hours reflecting on the immensity of what I had experienced.
Girlfriend read it on my recommendation with similar effect.
Friend decided to stick it in his reading lists on my suggestion. When he started, he came to me frustrated with the slow start. "Is all this about the Bishop necessary to the story?" I said yes and he kept reading. A decade and hundreds of classic novels later still names Les Mis as his favorite book.
Shortly after reading it the first time, he recommended the book to yet another colleague looking for something to read to pass the time. As he handed it over, he issued a challenge: "Give me 100 pages, and your life will change."
He did, it did, and I now offer my friend's challenge to you!
UPDATE 2/11- I just realized this review is showing up on all Les Mis books on Amazon. If anyone cares, I read the one from Signet Classics.
on November 6, 2010
I really hate to give this a one-star review, because it will seem that I'm a Phillistine who can't appreciate Victor Hugo or has the patience to read a book that's over 1400 pages long. But giving a one-star review will hopefully get enough attention from Kindle fans to read it before possibly wasting their money.
The cover art used for this Kindle edition is the EXACT SAME used for the unabridged Penguin classic version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacFee. (If the cover looks familiar, it should---it's the same promotional poster used for the Broadway musical.) It is BASED on, but not IDENTICAL to the classic C.E. Wilbour translation. This abridged Kindle edition may very well be the original C.E. Wilbour translation , and if so, people who read through the whole thing will probably find it much better than one star---more likely closer to five. But it won't be the same text as fans of THE PARTICULAR TRANSLATION I cite, and the one-star is a warning for them. That's another thing--I don't know if C.E. Wilbour or Elmer Fudd is the translator because the translator isn't credited. For that matter, there is no table of contents so you'd better use the bookmarks utilty to save your place, or the search option to look ahead because this Kindle edition won't make it easier for you to navigate through this book.
According to Amazon, the Fahnestock/MacFee translation is NOT available for Kindle yet, and when (or if) it is, it will probably be slightly more expensive than the virtual freebies. That's because although Victor Hugo's novel is in the public domain, only English translations made before 1922 are free of copyright. Fans of this particular translation may want to wait. In the meantime, I hope Amazon replaces the cover and is more forthright about who the translator is.
P.S. The Penguin Classic book I am referring to has Amazon code # 0451525264 ; ISBN-10 0451525264 ; and ISBN-13 978-0451525260 ; Miserables, Les (Signet classics)
on November 19, 2003
Reading some of the criticisms of this masterpiece gives rise to a certain measure of despair. With so much to honour in this novel, what do these critics focus on? Its length. Its digressions. Its departure from modern writing conventions. It's like disparaging the teachings of Jesus Christ because He was preachy, given to parables and wanting a fashion sense.
Les Miserables is not an easy read. Worthy literature rarely is. Hugo takes pains to paint complete pictures of time and place, sometimes going on for dozens of pages just to set a scene. This is because he wrote before the advent of cinema, a narrative medium that has trained us to think in terms of pictures. As modern readers, we are well versed in such visualization, but Hugo's readers were not. Most had never seen a battlefield; had no idea about the horrors of war. Contrast this to the modern reader who has already seen a hundred depictions of battle before the age of ten. Is it any wonder that Hugo felt the need for exhaustive descriptions of settings that we take for granted?
This is a novel with many stories. But the arc of one life ties them all together. Jean Valjean is the warp that binds otherwise disparate wefts. He is more than the heart of the novel; he is its soul. Hugo indulges in a writer's conceit, showing us a man's passage from barbarism to the attainment of grace: the soul of the story on a journey of the soul. What a marvellous self-referential device. This is but an instance of the intelligence that informs this work.
The many characters that populate this novel all contribute to Valjean's spiritual journey. From the Bishop, he learns virtue; from Fantine, pity; from Cossette, love; from the nuns, humility; from Marius, patience. Even his implacable nemesis Javert has something to offer. In matching wits with him, Valjean learns courage.
Another warning: this book is melodramatic. It was written in a more innocent age, before the advent of cynicism and disdain. It is foolish to judge Les Miserables by current standards, and the fact that it may look naive to our jaded eyes says more about the failings of our times than the failings of the author. But insofar as it is melodrama, it is good melodrama. The author's sincerity is never in doubt. He puts melodrama to noble purpose and doesn't yield to false sentiment.
Consider the following passage from the book. Fantine has died and her child, Cossette, has been forced into slavery as a drudge. On a dark night, in the dead of winter, this little girl is tasked to haul water from a well deep in the woods:
"She struggled with [the bucket] for a dozen paces, but it was too full and too heavy and she was forced to put it down again. After resting for another moment she resumed the struggle and this time got a little further before she again had to stop. Then she went on. She walked bent forward like an old woman, with the weight of the bucket dragging on her thin arms and the metal handle biting into her small chilled hands, pausing frequently to rest; and each time she put the bucket down a little of the water slopped down on to her bare legs. And this was happening to a child of eight in the woods at night, in winter, far from any human gaze. Only God was there to see, and perhaps her mother, alas, for there are things that rouse the dead in their graves."
"Her progress was very slow. Although she shortened her periods of rest and forced herself to go as far as possible after every pause she reckoned that it would take her over an hour to get back in this fashion to Montfermeil, and that Mme Thernardier would beat her when she arrived; and this was a further distress to be added to the terror of solitude and the night. She was nearly at the end of her strength, and still she had not got out of the wood. Coming to an old chestnut tree with which she was well acquainted, she made a last pause, longer than the previous ones, so that she might be properly rested, then bravely started again; but such was her despair that she could not prevent herself from crying aloud - 'Oh, God help me! Please, dear God!'
The passage is clearly manipulative in the way all melodrama is, yet I defy anyone with a working heart to read this and remain unmoved. But this passage does not exist simply to milk our tears. Hugo is condemning the failings of his society with passion and with shame. It is unconscionable that a child of eight should be sentenced to a life of indentured servitude because bourgeois morality first destroys the mother and then throws away the child. Such melodrama is purchased with the dearest currency.
This book is so all encompassing, so finely textured, that we sometimes lose sight of its magnificence. The only phrase that does it justice is "grandeur of spirit". This book, more than any other work of literature, epitomizes the grandeur of the human spirit. When Valjean dies, it is more than the death of a good and gentle man. Les Miserables occupies a place among the most vaunted tragedies because Valjean has penetrated to our innermost being. He represents all that is numinous about the human spirit, and his passing is the passing of greatness.
on October 4, 2005
Finished reading this book about two weeks ago - but the effect that this book had on me, was so profound that I could not bring myself to write anything on the book, lest I might say something to demean the masterpiece! For, when was the last time you saw a critical review of the Mona Lisa, or where have you ever heard someone describing the faults of the Taj Mahal!?!
The story chronicles the life and times of Jean Valjean, a homeless, faithless, escaped convict, as he runs across the landscape of France of the 19th-century, at the time of the French Revolution. The two central themes that dominate the novel are the moral redemption of Jean Valjean, and the moral redemption of a Nation through Revolution. Victor Hugo is quoted to have said: "I condemn slavery, I banish poverty, I teach ignorance, I treat disease, I lighten the night, and I hate hatred. That is what I am, and that is why I have written Les Miserables."
Overall, the novel is a critical statement against human suffering, poverty, and ignorance, its purpose being as much political as it is artistic!
Coming back, then, Jean Valjean is running across France, because he is being hunted down by a meticulous, conscientious, but unmerciful police office Inspector Javert, to whom Valjean represents all that is despicable, abominable and vile in the French society at that time. The pursuit is relentless, and forms the background of the whole of the 1400-odd pages of this unabridged version of the story (available from Signet Classics).
Though the adventures that Valjean has, the chances that he gets to go back to treachery and villainy, after being given a chance at nobility, are not so easy to identify with always, but they have that ring of authenticity, that makes a work like this withstand the test of time! The story goes from place to place, always following the exploits of Valjean, though the digressions of Victor Hugo (would you believe he has written full 100-page chapters each on the Parisian sewerage system, the crime underworld existing at that time, a witness-account of the Battle of Waterloo, an obscure convent in the heart of Paris... the list, I'm afraid is too long to mention here in full! But hey, it is much more delightful to read all those detours as Hugo intended the reader to...) at times make quite a read by themselves, having not much to contribute directly to the story, except perhaps setting the context!
The French word "miserables" means both poor wretches and scoundrels or villains. The novel offers a huge cast that includes both kinds of "miserables" ...... the brave & diligent yet pathetic Fantine, the beautiful yet sad Cosette, the contemptible rogue Thenardier, the perfectionist & cruel Javert, the mercurial yet diffident and reticent Marius, the wretchedly pitiful Eponine, the exceptionally heroic Enjolras, the ebullient & fearlessly valiant Gavroche, the ......wait a minute, I am going the way of Victor Hugo, for that is what the story is like all through, no dearth of adjectives! Even when two words would have done, Hugo strives to (and I must add, quite admirably achieves to - ) give you the full rainbow of the description!
The book makes you smile, makes you laugh out, overawes you to wonder, makes you cringe in horror, causes you to weep bitterly, yet teaches you to never lose hope! Though some of the modernist readers might find the novel too romantic for their taste, even they cannot refute the strength of the convictions that the characters are shown to successfully carry! All in all, it is one of those books that reach out to you, and teach you life, as it once was, as it now is, and as it should (or is it could?) be in the future... it comes as close to life as any other book I have ever read. Probably irreproachable, in terms of sheer effect that the book has on the reader, it is a must read, independent of age! Anyone who has not read it, do yourself a favor, get a life - read this book!
on November 9, 2010
This is not so much a review as a complaint that Amazon would use the Signet book cover (copyrighted, I'm sure) to sell this tired old translation of Les Mis. Not to mention, that it's not even a full version of the book and this translation can be found free almost everywhere (just tell us that for hell sake!).
The best way to experience Les Miserables is via the Signet publication. That translation is poetry compared to any other translation. Please don't waste your time on this or any other translation. I've seen people who started the public domain translation quickly abandon it as they were bored to tears, yet were consequently moved to tears by the Signet translation.
Here's one small example.
From the Signet translation:
"Strong and rare natures are created this way; misery, almost always a stepmother, is sometimes a mother; privation gives birth to power of soul and mind; distress is the nurse of self-respect; misfortune gives good milk for great souls."
From the public domain version:
"Firm and rare natures are thus created; misery, almost always a step-mother, is sometimes a mother; desititution gives birth to might of soul and spirit; distress is the nurse of pride; unhappiness is a good milk for the magnanimous."
on December 5, 2001
Still, it is not without flaws. For one thing, the characterization of Jean Valjean seems somewhat erratic at the beginning of the book; apparently, Hugo believes that being converted from beastliness to benevolence increases a person's IQ by about 30 points. (Valjean goes from being a common laborer, unexceptional and unimpressive, who 19 years in the galleys have turned into a beast, to being, after his conversion to the "light side of the force", an inventor, a competent magistrate, and an expert herbalist.) But this is a fairly minor quibble, as it is one of the few flaws in characterization, among dozens of characters, and happens early enough in the book that we have well over seven hundred pages of consistent characterization of Valjean after the sudden change.
Otherwise, we have a book which, if taken in the context of the accepted writing conventions of its time, is virtually flawless. Still, a modern reader is likely to find the pacing rather slow at times; what it actually is, is "symphonic". It starts slowly, and very very gradually builds to a crescendo, only to begin a new movement, again very slowly, and build very gradually to a crescendo. This happens over and over in the course of the thousand pages of the book (give or take a couple of hundred, depending on the edition that you read.) It can be very annoying at times; for instance, we're literally fifty pages into the book before we even MEET our main character (the first fifty pages being a character portrait of a man who has a very major influence on the life of said main character, but who never appears again after the first hundred pages) and then again, a bit later, after we've just finished a very exciting part of the story, and seem poised to continue in a similarly exciting vein, we take a literally fifty page digression into the history of the battle of Waterloo, which happened eight years or so previous to what was happening in the story, and while a tiny bit of this digression later becomes extremely important to the plot, truly forty-five of those fifty pages were completely irrelevant, and even the five or so that were germaine did not become so until MUCH later. Then, with "only" 200 pages left to go, a character escapes from a tight situation by fleeing into the sewers, so we must have a twelve page digression on the history, philosophy, and geography of the Parisian sewer system. This pattern is repeated constantly throughout the book, and it can be very frustrating for a reader who comes from an era in which an author is expected to stay at least marginally on-topic, but it is necessary to understand that such was considered a perfectly reasonable writing style at the time. In any case, the story is good enough to make it worth putting up with the digressions; my only other complaint is that the love interest in the story is again very typically 19th century, (two people, incidentally both young and good-looking, who don't know each other in the slightest, make eye contact across a quadrangle and are suddenly, magically, in love. But it's a spiritual love, of course, nothing of physical attraction in it at all, and the love actually survives the test of time...a concept that still survives today, mostly in bad romance novels, but it was absolutely standard in Hugo's time) but one can hardly blame the man for being a product of his times.
Highly recommended, with the caveat that you must understand that it will not be an easy read. It is every bit as daunting as those thousand pages make it look.
on March 28, 2007
I will confess that Les Miserables is my favorite book of all time. And this unabridged English translation is excellent. Les Miserables is Victor Hugo fully developed: his political, moral, and story telling faculties are at their zenith.
Please read this novel. It's a good one.
The hero in this story is a convict. The evildoer is society. A society that is quick to condemn, a convict who forgives and shows compassion. It is a story of redemption, of revolution, of love. This is a book that shows the hypocrisy of a society with no compassion, no heart.
Our hero, Jean Valjean is given many moral choices, some he fails, most he passes. He steals from the Bishop who forgives him. Valjean becomes a successful businessman, but faces an impossible moral dilemma. Read the book to find out how that comes out. Javert, the indomitable policeman is constantly on Jean Valjean's tail. Will he be caught? Continually Jean Valjean faces critical moral choices? What would you do if you were Jean Valjean?
Victor Hugo tells the story like, well like Victor Hugo. From the detailed description of the Battle of Waterloo, to Hugo's story of the Paris barricade, to the emotional roller coaster tale of Jean Valjean, the story is intense. And in a way a bit frightening. There are violent scenes, sappy scenes of agape love, and funny scenes. Not horse laugh funny, but amusing funny. There are bad guys like Thenardier and upright but short sighted guys like Javert. I have thought about Javert. Maybe you will to. Cosette is the lost child that Jean Valjean . . . well I don't want to ruin the story.
Victor Hugo has put some thought into what makes people tick. So you believe these characters are really facing these very human situations. Hugo's descriptions are meticulous and bring on the fictive dream, which is what fiction is all about. And while Hugo is very intense and wordy there is a lot of action.
There is no question that my perspective was challenged by this book. And it continues to challenge when one considers America's prison's. When children are still raised in horrible circumstances like Cosette.
If you do not like to be challenged, if you do not like uncomfortable thoughts, this book is not for you.
On the other hand if you are open to moral challenge, can stomach critiques of the status quo and critiques of authority this may be your book. You may cry, you might cheer, but you will surely think.
I have read this book several times. Please read the unabridged version, the abridged versions miss too much of the driving plot. Also there are versions that appear to be unabridged but are in fact heavily edited by the translator. Stay away from those. This Signet Classic version is complete and unabridged. It's a keeper.
on October 26, 2011
I read Les Miserables unabridged. I read it because I wanted to know what really happens at the end since this 1400 + page book is usually abridged. Call it the rebel in me, but why should I let someone else choose what I should read out of this book? Oh, you don't think I can read the whole thing? WATCH ME.
In addition to my rebelliousness, three separate people said to me with passion that I had to read Les Mis unabridged and I have to say it was worth it. The ending was amazing! It took me about 5 years to read it. I spent about 1 year actually reading it and 4 years convincing myself to read it. Cliffnotes were essential in me being able to finish it. Since I took long breaks from it, I would read all the summaries up to where I had stopped.
The story has an epic feel to it, but the plot was often interrupted by what I called "political rants" that ran on for about 20-30 pages. These little rants are probably what gets edited out in abridged versions. You'd come across a nunnery in the narrative and Victor Hugo would go, "Speaking of nuns..." and ramble on for 30 pages about what exactly he thought about nuns. Here's a list of the political essays (which I named myself) that he inserted into Les Mis:
The Battle of Waterloo (50 pages! Part 1, Book 1: Waterloo)
The Uselessness of Convents (Part 2, Book 7: A Parenthesis)
The Need for Universal Education (Part 3, Book 1: Paris Atomized)
Politics of 1815-1832 (Part 4, Book 1: A Few Pages of History)
Slang (Part 4, Book 7: Argot)
Sewers and Poop (Part 5, Book 2: The Intestine of Leviathan)
What struck me the most about his essays was not how different the problems were back then, but how much they are the same. Don't we still argue about politics and education today? Another thing that I noticed about the unabridged version was the fact that you got to learn the entire back story for almost every character you met. It added such depth and color to the story and made it truly unique.