(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Les Miserables (1862)
By Victor Hugo
Book #60 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
First published in installments in 1862, it can be hard to sum up the contents of Victor Hugo's massive, sprawling Les Miserables; after all, this 1,400-page look at the entirety of France from 1815 to 1830 famously covers everything from a full history of the Napoleonic Wars to an examination of the engineering behind the Paris sewer system. If you were to say that the novel is "about" something, though, most likely that'd be reluctant criminal and French everyman Jean Valjean, who starts the book by fleeing to a small town to avoid further punishment for a second crime, becoming a reformist model citizen and eventually being appointed mayor. Ah, but his heroics one day bring him to the attention of the town sheriff, Inspector Javert, who becomes convinced that this athletic do-gooder is the long-missing fugitive Valjean; and thus kicks off a rollicking chase between the two that lasts the length of the story and takes them through a whole variety of social scenes and neighborhoods of 19th-century France, until finally coming to a head during the Paris proletariat rebellions of 1832, the event that inspired the images of barricaded streets that are now most associated with the story and its dozens of subsequent movie and theatrical adaptations.
Then in the meanwhile, we also follow the lifelong fate of a sweet orphan named Cosette (including an entire freaking novella at the beginning just about Cosette's mother, and her slide from middle-class respectability to prostitution in Napoleonic Paris), as she eventually casts her lot with Valjean through a series of convoluted events, then grows older and falls in love with a student radical named Marius. Oh, and let's not forget Marius's fellow protestors, Cosette's abusive foster family, the gang of organized criminals they associate with, military leaders, corrupt priests, minor members of the aristocracy, and a literal minute-by-minute retelling of the entire Battle of Waterloo; add it all together, and you get the tome that had already been highly anticipated even when originally published, and has been a staple of the Western canon ever since.
The argument for it being a classic:
The main argument for Les Miserables being a classic seems to be its historical importance; originally published to almost unheard-of fanfare at a point when Hugo was already a celebrated poet, political reformer and early champion of Romanticism, even from day one this has been perceived by many as one of the defining grand statements of all of French society and history, a reputation that has only grown in the 149 years since. And hey, why not? After all, fans claim that this is an almost perfect culmination of all the things European Romantics found important about the arts, published right at the height of the Victorian Age when Romanticism was at its strongest -- it ties together a highly personal love story with the grand epic sweep of history, all while playing up its action-based plot and throwing in a decent amount of criminals and scoundrels for good measure. Now add its Francophilic nature, its obvious advocacy for secular democracy in an age of Catholic-backed royalist restoration, and its sheer entertainment value; and it's easy to see why this continues to be a well-loved saga from one generation to the next (not hurt at all by a massively popular Broadway adaptation in the late 20th century), and why its fans claim this to be not only a literary classic but the very definition of the term.
The argument against:
The argument against this book being a classic is an unusually short one, but powerful and persuasive all the same -- namely, no one wants to read a 200-page guide to the Paris sewer system in the middle of a love-story action-adventure tale. And this of course is a pithy way of stating the more general problem, that its endlessly digressive nature makes the book nearly unreadable from start to finish, and that a lot of "fans" of this book are in fact only fans of the legitimately exciting cat-and-mouse game between Valjean and Javert that serves as the plot's spine; and while it's perfectly fine to be a selective fan of a project, and more power to all you "Les Mis" t-shirt-sporting fans of musical theater, this doesn't mean we should automatically declare the original 1,400-page novel an undisputed classic that every person should read before they die. And that's pretty much it -- you see few people online question the quality of the actual writing, simply its total length.
Unfortunately, today I find myself falling firmly on the side of Les Miserables' critics, and in fact I have to confess that today's title is probably the one book out of the entire CCLaP 100 that I read the least of before coming to my decision; to be frank, I'm not sure I made it through even a third of this unending manuscript before finally giving up on it out of sheer frustration, although in my defense that's still almost 500 pages of the novel I ended up reading, far more than enough to at least have a simple opinion about it. And as I've discovered over the last several years of doing this essay series, this is simply a common side-effect of modern eyes trying to read Victorian-era literature, which let's not forget was designed tech-wise for a world we can barely even imagine anymore; in the years when books like this, Vanity Fair, and the work of Charles Dickens were coming out (just to name a few), there were no movies or television, no recorded music, not even home electricity, which meant that literature was required to serve a very different purpose, and to let a person literally wile away the hours that today we would do by plopping ourselves in front of the boob tube with a six-pack and a bag of chips.
Although ultimately I found Les Miserables to be a pretty dreadful reading experience, it's important to acknowledge that in many ways, we are simply ill-prepared to enjoy these kinds of books the way their original audiences did; we have much shorter attention spans now, require much more stimulus to remain entertained, are bombarded with tens of thousands more distractions every single day than any 19th-century citizen ever had to deal with, and frankly a lot of people are no longer even mentally capable of reading for pleasure four to five hours a day, every single day, 365 days a year, like used to be common among men, women and children a century and a half ago. Although I am most definitely not recommending that everyone read this at least once before they die, I also acknowledge the cultural factors that are influencing that decision, and acknowledge that in different circumstances I would likely be singing a very different tune. This complexity should all be kept in mind before deciding for yourself whether or not to tackle this intriguing and worthwhile yet way too long book.
Is it a classic? No, but you should probably try reading it anyway
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)