Les Miserables

   by Victor Hugo



As a rule, I avoid abridged versions of the classics.  If Tolstoy or Melville wanted me to read a 900-page novel, why on earth should I trust some modern-day editor who’s pared the thing down to 550 pages?  However … after slogging through 1,200 pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I’m changing my mind – a bit.  That’s because Hugo pauses – often – in his engrossing tale of the cursed ex-convict Jean Valjean for interminable digressions about 1) the history of the Paris sewer system; 2) the origins of French slang; 3) convents; 4) the battle of Waterloo.  At times, I wondered if Hugo concocted the story of Jean Valjean and company merely as a pretext to interject his own musings on politics, religion, and philosophy.

But there’s a reason we call certain books “classics,” and Les Miserables certainly has memorable characters and a powerful story.  Hugo does resort to narrative cheats – unlikely coincidences, characters who suffer convenient memory lapses – but his writing is so sincere and heartfelt that when I got to the final pages I experienced something rare for me:  goose bumps.


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