Last summer I saw Les Miserables, the musical, for the first time. The story, the music and the acting were all great. I felt, however, that I was missing something. I felt that the musical moved pretty fast (it does) and that there was a lot more to the story than I was actually seeing (I was). I determined to read the book. Except that it’s a pretty long book. Should I take the abridged version, or go for the unabridged? Since I wanted the entire story, since I didn’t want to miss anything, I decided to tackle the unabridged version. My coworker had a copy translated by Charles E. Wilbour, and offered to let me read it. It took me about 2 months to get through 1200+ pages. It was well worth it; I was sad to come to the end.
Whereas the musical stats with Jean Valjean, who later meets a priest, the book starts with the story of the priest, who later meets a traveler. By the time the priest gives Valjean the silver candlesticks, which in the musical is an extraordinary event, it’s only what you would naturally expect of the priest, whom we know to be an extraordinary person.
Victor Hugo is incredibly descriptive. He spends pages of long paragraphs in one place, describing a single scene, and then throws in a singe sentence which changes the course of the story, one additional insight which changes the way you’ve been looking at everything. For example, Hugo spends 50 pages describing the history of the battle of Waterloo to set the scene for a single paragraph. The actions of this paragraph reverberate, however, through the rest of the story, through the very last pages. When Jean Valjean escapes a raging battle by crawling into the sewers, Hugo pauses to give us a 20 page introduction to the Paris sewer system, starting with the history of the sewers in medieval times. As the story continues, you know exactly what Jean is getting into, and exactly what he’s going through (literally). A few of the histories and speeches drag, but the story itself is riveting. The context is complete, and well worth it.
I think I ended up with a good translation. Some people say that other translations, with their modernized language, are easier to read, but I didn’t find the language an impediment at all. In fact, I enjoyed the slightly higher language than we find in our day-to-day speech.
Consider this passage, the first paragraph of the 6th chapter of the 6th book of the 3rd volume, the first from Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation, and the second from Charles E. Wilbour’s. I find Wilbour’s translation both clearer and more enjoyable on many points. Had I read the Hapgood translation I fear there would still have been much which I would have missed.
On one of the last days of the second week, Marius was seated on his bench, as usual, holding in his hand an open book, of which he had not turned a page for the last two hours. All at once he started. An event was taking place at the other extremity of the walk. Leblanc and his daughter had just left their seat, and the daughter had taken her father’s arm, and both were advancing slowly, towards the middle of the alley where Marius was. Marius closed his book, then opened it again, then forced himself to read; he trembled; the aureole was coming straight towards him. “Ah! good Heavens!” thought he, “I shall not have time to strike an attitude.” Still the white-haired man and the girl advanced. It seemed to him that this lasted for a century, and that it was but a second. “What are they coming in this direction for?” he asked himself. “What! She will pass here? Her feet will tread this sand, this walk, two paces from me?” He was utterly upset, he would have liked to be very handsome, he would have liked to own the cross. He heard the soft and measured sound of their approaching footsteps. He imagined that M. Leblanc was darting angry glances at him. “Is that gentleman going to address me?” he thought to himself. He dropped his head; when he raised it again, they were very near him. The young girl passed, and as she passed, she glanced at him. She gazed steadily at him, with a pensive sweetness which thrilled Marius from head to foot. It seemed to him that she was reproaching him for having allowed so long a time to elapse without coming as far as her, and that she was saying to him: “I am coming myself.” Marius was dazzled by those eyes fraught with rays and abysses.
On one of the last days of the second week, Marius was as usual sitting on his seat holding in his hand an open book of which he has not turned a leaf for two hours. Suddenly he trembled. A great event was commencing at the end of the walk. Monsieur Leblanc and his daughter had left their seat, the daughter had taken the arm of the father, and they were crossing slowly towards the middle of the walk where Marius was. Marius closed his book, then he opened it, then he made and attempt to read. He trembled. The halo was coming straight towards him. “O dear!” thought he, “I shall not have time to take an attitude.” However, the man with the white hair and the young girl were advancing. It seemed to him that it would last a century, and that it was only a second. “What are they coming by here for?” he asked himself. “What! is she going to pass this place! Are her feet to press this ground in this walk, but a step from me?” He was overwhelmed, he would gladly have been very handsome, he would gladly have worn the cross of the Legion of Honour. He herd the gentle and measured sound of their steps approaching. He imagined that Monsieur Leblanc was hurling angry looks upon him “Is the going to speak to me?” thought he. He bowed his head; when he raised it they were quite near him. She looked at him steadily, with a sweet and thoughtful look which made Marius tremble from head to foot. It seemed that she reproached him for having been so long without coming th her and that she said: “It is I who shall come.” Marius was bewildered by these eyes full of flashing light and fathomless abysses.