Sunday, January 27, 2013

Fortnightly Book, January 27

The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.

Due to the recent Les Misérables movie (which I have not seen), lots of people are reading the book, or at least contemplating it, because it is a very large book. As it happens, I have a two-volume Heritage Press edition on my shelves, so I'll be joining in the fun. I've never actually read the full thing cover to cover, so it should be interesting.

Victor Hugo took over two decades to work out the novel, which was published in 1862. It sold extraordinarily well but did not have a favorable critical reception; indeed, many of France's greatest literary minds, people like Flaubert and Baudelaire, regarded it as a travesty. It was regarded as crude and tasteless pandering, as insincere and manipulative, as a case of an author claiming to provide fair judgment of society while he clearly puts his thumb on the scales, as an elaborate sermon preaching a highly simplistic morality by means of caricatured and stylized characters. It no doubt did not help that the book does in fact preach at extensive length -- literally hundreds of pages of the novel are devoted to moralizing. By a curious irony the book ends up in a rather small group of novels that manage to be extremely long, very preachy, critically panned, and extraordinarily popular, a group that includes Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, with which it actually has much more in common than one might assume. I don't know what Hugo would have thought of the juxtaposition (although many of his fans would screech at the comparison), but Rand, who despised Hugo's philosophy but held up his literary achievements as the proper standard for any decent writer, would undeniably have a certain amount of satisfaction in it.

Les Misérables is a book that is easily regarded in oversimplified terms. There is more to the story than simply the much-remembered interaction between Valjean and Javert. It is notable that Javert's name makes up the title of none of the five volumes of the work, which are, in order, entitled:

Fantine
Cosette
Marius
The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis
Jean Valjean

What these titles tell us is that there is a story here in which Valjean is only one of the major characters. Indeed, one of the ways to read the novel is to read it as actually entirely about Cosette, despite the fact that she is offstage for much of it; but it is Cosette who binds the story together. Read this way, Valjean is the main character only in the sense that his life more than anyone else's impacts Cosette's. There are doubtless other ways to read it; for instance, by splitting the difference and taking it to be a sort of double helix of the lives of Cosette and Valjean. I only bring it up because I think it's important to recognize that we readers should probably assume less about the novel than most of us do when we go into it.

The Heritage Press edition is in the old translation, authorized and approved by Hugo himself, of Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall. It has a very large number of truly splendid illustrations by Lynd Ward, arguably one of the greatest book illustrators of the twentieth century. Ward was politically very active, and seems to have felt a considerable connection to this rather political book, because he really went all out on it. The typeface is quite a lovely one, called Granjon. Whenever I use a Heritage Press edition, I always remark on things like this because the great benefit of the old Heritage Press editions is that with them reading a book is not just a reading of words, but the use of a minor -- but lovely -- work of art, carefully crafted to be an artistic vehicle appropriate to the words. We really need more things like them.

1 comment:

  1. branemrys8:35 AM

    That's a nice thing about Heritage Press at present -- you can often get them for less than it costs to get the same book in a less impressive modern edition, and even when you can't, the difference in quality is usually considerable. And, as you say, it's hard to get well-crafted books anyway, at least without spending hundreds of dollars.

    I've been impressed so far with the Lascelles Wraxall translation -- it holds up extremely well.

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