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Monday, November 19, 2012

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in the 2012 film version of the musical adaptation of  Les Miserables

Book Review
Les Misérables
by Victor Hugo
p. 1862

   I've read some long books in my perambulations through the literature of the 18th and 19th century but none that FELT as long as Les Misérables by Victor Hugo.  I've literally been reading this book- on the ole' Kindle- for over a month.  By virtue of numerous film/tv adaptations and one incomparably famous musical adaptation, Les Misérables has unquestionably earned a place as one of the most popular novels of all time, though after actually reading the book I questions whether even 1 percent of the people who are familiar with the musical or one of the film adaptations have actually read the book.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in the 2012 film adaptation of the musical version of Les Miserables

  Published in 1862, Les Misérables take place earlier in the 19th century, telling the now well familiar tale of the convict Jean ValJean, his adopted daughter Cosette, her would-be lover Marius and of course the immortal Inspector Javert.   As a bonus, each of the five books that comprises Les Misérables contains not only the central narrative of Valjean/Cosette but also lengthy passages about historical events and philosophy.   These passages set Hugo apart from other contemporary writers like Charles Dickens.  

Amanda Seyfreid as Cosette in the 2012 film adaptation of the musical version of Les Miserbales.

   Generations of critics, scholars and fans have pointed to the "universality" of Les Misérables as being key to its enduring success with a global audience.   Hugo was a prolific author of poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction.  Hugo was living in exile- in England- during the period when he wrote Les Misérables and it's hard not to impute some of the universal appeal of this book to his awareness of the success of novels like David Copperfield (1850),  Bleak House (1853),  Hard Times (1854), North and South (1855) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859.)

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier in the 2012 film adaptation of the musical version of Les Miserables.

  To compare the style of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (published in 1831), his other big hit novel, with the style of Les Misérables is to see growth in the scope of what a Novel could accomplish within a historical setting.   The Hunchback of Notre Dame is squarely under the influence of Sir Walter Scott and his historical novels.  While Les Misérables also takes place in the past, it is much, much more then a historical tale with contemporary political undertones.   Les Misérables by Victor Hugo is a novel of ideas and more resembles Moby Dick and War and Peace then what Dickens was turning out.

  The initial publication was a huge hit with the Audience- on an international scale- but less so with critics, who took issue with a number of aspects- the sentimentality, republican sympathies and the "immorality" of the characters.

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