I’m back in Illinois with a couple of jobs now, but, in the interim of moving back home from Washington and figuring out what to do with myself, I had enough free time to seriously get into doing something like reading a 1300 page book. About a year ago, I picked up what was supposed to be a really excellent translation of Hugo’s Les Miserables after another wave of English major guilt made me feel like I needed to read it someday, so, I figured that this was the time. I got a little bit of somewhere in this book with the first week of reading, before I got a job and stuff, but there’s no way I’ll have this done before I stop caring about keeping this blog up. So, Les Mis Part One: the 200 or so pages I’ve read so far and what I think I’ve learned from it about books and things.

Right into the first few pages, I was a little confused by Les Mis‘s narrative tactics. Maybe I should have anticipated it in a book from that era, but it has a self-aware narrator (a narrator who acknowledges that they’re telling a story to an audience), but it apparently has plural narrators–or the narrator has some kind of associates helping him sort out this book that has apparently eaten several other books. “We” always pops up as the pronoun whenever the narrator talks about what he’s heard or understands to be true or is trying to do with the story, and I found it easy to believe that what I was reading was written by at least two people. Or, if it was Hugo all by himself, he must have had some kind of Mr. Hyde alter ego showing up to sabotage his novel with bloated tangents and political/philosophical ranting.

Hugo and the struggle against his evil side’s reckless undoing of his work both showcase and kind of break down the “show, don’t tell” mantra of good fiction writing. When it comes to any kind of exposition, of plot or characters or setting, it’s much more interesting and effective to “show” it via actions, scenarios, dialogue, and things than to just “tell” it straight to the audience, and usually good fiction will do the former while bad fiction does the latter. But Les Mis does both, and it does them multiple times for the same thing, just to make sure nothing got past you.

Most of what I’ve read so far has focused on Biship Myriel; now, in the musical this guy gets about three minutes of face time before serving his purpose of giving Valjean an opportunity for redemption and then dropping off the earth, but the book devotes multiple pages to describing this guy’s apartment alone. This guy cannot scratch his ass without Hugo devoting a paragraph to the texture of his pants against his pale, old, Catholic posterior. Mostly, though, this book is interested in making the reader believe in how genuinely caring, selfless, and non-judgmental Myriel is, in the face of its hazy animosity toward Catholic Church figures that seems to be hanging around in this book, and it likes to take a two-pronged approach. First the book eloquently, but flatly, tells you how this guy is the greatest person alive and how the two nuns who live with him look up to him like he’s the immaculately conceived child of Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. transported back in time to lead post-revolution France out of its darkness. But then it turns around and gives us simple, matter-of-fact, but deeply meaningful dialogue, like when one of the sisters tells him that Valjean has stolen their silverware.

The bishop remained silent for a moment, then he looked up with a grave expression on his face and spoke softly to Madame Magloire: “To start with, was the silver really ours?”

Madame Magloire was flabbergasted. There was another silence and then the bishop went on: “Madame Magloire, I was wrong to hang on to that silver–and for so long. It belonged to the poor. What was that man? He was poor, evidently.”

“God help us!” Madame Magloire retorted. “It’s not me or Mademoiselle I’m worried about. We couldn’t care less. It’s Monseigneur. What is Monseigneur going to eat with now?”

The bishop looked at her in amazement. “Ah, is that all? Don’t we have any pewter cutlery?”

Madame Magloire shrugged her shoulders, “Pewter smells bad.”

“Well, then, iron.”

Madame Magloire pulled a face. “Iron tastes bad.”

“Well, then, wood.”

This dialogue suddenly does away with all the fancy, dramatic language and long sentences, and it focuses on manifesting everything the story has described in one go. This quirky exchange might not sound exciting, but it perfectly illustrates everything about the characters in a tiny fraction of the words used before. Why did I need to read dozens of pages about this guy and these nuns? I could have just read something like this and understood everything I need for the whole story.

But I do have to say that I don’t exactly mind Hugo’s flat “telling” exposition all that much. When he goes off the rails with that stuff, he at least does it with a purpose. Obviously Hugo didn’t read my Elysium post before writing Les Mis since he has no problem making his agendas clear to the reader, but the academic in me forgives him and even kind of gets into it when he decides he’s going to take a break from the story for a bit to more-or-less write me an essay about his political and moral philosophy through massive and unnecessary info dumps.

In any case, I’ve got over 1000 pages of this left, so I’m sure my opinions will change drastically before the end.

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