Every week I’m falling farther behind on finishing volumes of The Brick. In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’m participating in a group read of “Les Misérables” by Victor Hugo. It’s hosted by Emma at The Terror of Knowing and Liz at Travel in Retrospect. Thank you both; you’ve sufficiently ruined my life.
I knew on some level what I was getting myself into when I decided to try and read a 1,463-page book in 31 days. I was keeping pace fairly well until Hanson Day rolled around. I didn’t go this year, but I spent a lot of my free time this past week trying to live vicariously through fellow Fansons via social media. Since I’m falling a few days behind, my #MiserablesMay experience will probably stretch into June.
I’m going to try and boil down this past week’s reading as much as I can, which isn’t an easy task. As we already know, Mr. Hugo shares a lot of information that seems extraneous but always has a purpose — even if it takes him a while to get to the point.
Once I got past the usual drivel, I found Volume 3 to be the most exciting book yet. I just finished it last night.
The focus of this volume is on Marius, the grandson of a member of the bourgeoisie and son of a disgraced colonel who fought at Waterloo. Marius is raised by his grandfather, the ridiculous M. Gillenormand, and studies to be a lawyer. He has no contact with his father but learns upon his father’s death that Napoleon made him a baron on the battlefield. By turns, Marius is somehow entitled to that designation as well. From there, Marius’ knowledge of his father evolves into hero worship and he forms very staunch political ideas that mellow out over time. I can relate to that — when I was younger I had very idealistic political views, but I’ve softened over the years for various reasons.
Marius also learns about a man named Thénardier — yes, THAT Thénardier — who served alongside his father. He decides Thénardier must be a real stand-up guy, and tries unsuccessfully to find him.
After being kicked out of his grandfather’s house for his political views and falling in with a colorful bunch of edgy revolutionaries, Marius becomes entranced by a young girl who sits in the park every day with an elderly man. Here is where Marius makes the biggest fool of himself, basically stalking this chick and even stealing a handkerchief — monogrammed U.F. — that can surely only be hers. It isn’t, but it’s really funny and awkward to see him carrying the thing around as his friends make fun of him.
Of course the hankie doesn’t belong to “his Ursula,” and her name is not even Ursula. Her elderly companion’s name is also not Monsieur Leblanc. It’s not even Urbain Fabre. Duh, of course, Jean Valjean and Cosette are back. It’s so obvious to the reader who they are that Hugo never even names them as such! I love how Valjean continues to morph into a different character throughout each volume and keeps on fooling people.
Next we meet Marius’ wretched neighbors, the Jondrettes. But they aren’t who they appear to be, either. You guessed it — they’re the Thénardiers. Marius gives them a little money, not knowing who they really are until he spies on them and witnesses Leblanc/Fabre/Valjean and Cosette/Ursula acting as good Samaritans toward them. Jondrette/Thénardier quickly recognizes his old enemy and rounds up a bunch of his sketchy friends to harm the man. (I was confused as to how Valjean didn’t recognize Thénardier right off the bat, but whatever.)
Marius is torn! Whom should he help? The father of his true love, or the man who (supposedly) saved his father at Waterloo? As Thénardier tries to get what money he thinks Valjean owes him for taking Cosette eight years earlier, Valjean frees himself from his bonds, then takes advantage of a diversion involving one of Thénardier’s drunken criminal cohorts to escape through the window.
I forgot to mention that Marius, after overhearing the plot against Valjean, goes to the police and speaks to none other than Javert, who doesn’t show up at the scene until after Valjean has slipped away. Another narrow miss!
As the book wraps up, we see the Thénardiers’ unloved urchin son Gavroche returning to his family’s home, only to learn that all of them are in prison. Bafflingly, but also not surprisingly (because they’re pretty crappy people and deserve to be locked up), he walks away singing. And that’s the end. For now.
To be ultra is to go beyond. It is to attack the scepter in the name of the throne, and the miter in the name of the alter; it is to mistreat the thing you support; it is to kick in the traces; it is to cavil at the stake for undercooking heretics; it is to reproach the idol for a lack of idolatry; it is to insult through an excess of respect; it is to find to little papistry in the pope, in the king too little royalty, and too much light in the night; it is to be dissatisfied with the albatross, with snow, with the swan, and the lily for not being white enough; it is to champion things to the point of becoming their enemy; it is to be so pro you become con.
Not seeing people permits us to imagine them with every perfection.
For there are many great deeds done in the small struggles of life.
When (Mabeuf) sometimes happened to say — and who doesn’t — “Oh! If I were rich,” it was not, like M. Gillenormand, on noticing a pretty girl, but on seeing an old book.
(Mabeuf) never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two.
In reading aloud you assume authority for what you are reading. There are people who read very loudly, and who appear to be giving their word of honor for what they are reading.
…were it given to our human eye to see into the consciences of others, we would judge a man much more surely from what he dreams than from what he thinks. There is will in the thought, there is none in the dream.
…there is a point when the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les misérables; whose fault is it? And then, when the fall is furthest, is that not when charity should be greatest?