Wikipedia reports that a quarter of Victor Hugo’s voluminous Les Miserables is taken up with “digressions”, wherein Hugo stops the narrative dead in his tracks and gives us something entirely different before returning to his thrill-packed adventure of Jean Valjean and his unflagging hounding by the relentless Javert.
As a nod to the motif of Hugo’s classic I had chosen to Kindle on my Hawaiian vacation, I am interrupting my thrill-packed adventure of our family’s lounging on the beach in Oahu for a digression of my own, on the subject of…
Hugo’s Les Miserables calls to mind Charles Dickens’ writing, in that it focuses, as its structural themes during a relatively similar period of history, on the devastation of the poor, the degradation of women, and the inflexibility of the law.
Both authors write inordinately lengthy novels. I remember reading Dickens’ David Copperfield in High School, a book, as I recall, of well over eight hundred pages. My mind returns to the agonizing difficulties I experienced when it came time to study for my exams.
It’s the night before the “English Literature” examination, and I’m looking at this bloated volume, thinking, “How am I going to study this? Just randomly flip through the eight hundred plus pages, hoping that I accidentally land on the answers to the following day’s questions?”
I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I have a powerful recollection of staring at this mountainous tome, praying that its contents would somehow magically osmosify into my brain.
They’d ask questions like, “What is the significance of the rose?” and I’d go, “What rose?” It took me six months to wade through this book. How are I supposed to remember a rose?
Right off the top, Hugo opens Les Miserables with, like, thirteen chapters about a bishop who has nothing to do with the plot. At a later juncture, when Jean Valjean escapes capture, he happens to come upon the location where the Battle of Waterloo was fought. The author then proceeds to halt the progress of Valjean’s desperate plight to devote nineteen chapters to a rather detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo.
(It is really quite informative. Check out this little tidbit. The Battle of Waterloo was lost, Hugo tells us, because the rains prevented Napoleon from setting up his artillery until eleven-thirty in the morning, allowing time for the Germans to arrive and rescue a, by then, almost defeated Wellington later in the day.)
Hugo subsequently expounds extensively on the convent system (where he asserts that nuns are simultaneously extremely selfless and self-righteously superior, reminding me of the Jewish joke on the same subject whose punchline goes, “Look who thinks they’re ‘nobody’!”)
There is also a meaty chunk concerning the appropriate way to argue, a paragraph of which I shall reproduce at the end, as, inserted here, it would make the narrative lumpy, like a forgotten pillow in the middle of a remade bed.
Two thoughts came to mind reading these “digressions” that made the book twenty-five percent longer. One: “I’m glad I don’t have to study this for an exam.” And
Two: What was it about readers in 1862 (when Les Miserables was published) that made it acceptable to produce for their enjoyment a book that tops out at 1488 pages?
I pondered that question as a lolled before the gentle, lapping Hawaiian waves. Today’s culture requires content to be communicated rapidly. See: Twitter. One hundred and forty characters, and goodbye. And texting, where the communicators are in too much of a hurry to spell out the entire word.
Different times, right? That has to be it. In the mid-nineteenth century, other than reading, what else was there for people to do? The option for country folk:
“I think I’ll go outside and get eaten by a wolf.”
Alternatives for city folk:
“Mayhaps I shall take a stroll through the city and contract a disease they, as yet, have no idea how to cure.”
No. Much preferred would be to stay at home and read a book.
To a lesser degree – and for different reasons – the directive for slowing down – at least somewhat, because it is impossible to entirely turn off the contemporarily ticking clock – returns on lazy and languorous tropical vacations.
I have nowhere to go. There are no people I need to see. Why not relax and immerse myself in a novel that has more pages than the Manhattan telephone directory? (If they still have those.)
Currently – now at home – I am “bookmarked” at “Part 9606” of 25939 “parts”, which, Kindle informs me, means I have completed 37 percent of the whole book. Sadly, I fear that, being home, away from the lulling lassitude of Hawaii, my congenital “Mainland” jumpiness will return, robbing me of the patience and the sitzfleisch (a German word meaning, essentially, the ability to sit still) required to persevere and ultimately finish the task.
There are SVU’s on TV – not that I haven’t seen but that I do not remember having seen or I remember having seen them but not how they turned out – competing mightily for my attention. And if past history is predictive, Olivia and Stabler are very likely to prevail.
But even if I proceed no further, I shall be eternally grateful for the already read nine thousand and six “parts” of elegant and engrossing writing, including the equally essential “digressions”, such as the following which provides the template for what I believe is the right way to approach ideological conflict:
“Let us fight but let us make a distinction. The peculiar property of the truth is never to commit excuses. What need has it for exaggeration? There is that which it is necessary to destroy, and there is that which it is simply necessary to elucidate and examine. What a force is kindly and serious examination! Let us not apply a flame where only a light is required.”
I myself harbor similar beliefs.
But Monsieur Hugo said them first.
End of “Aloha Diaries 2013” Digression. Next stop –
“The Beach Chair Wars”: