Wednesday, March 12, 2014

"Kudos For A Classic"

Today I celebrate the completion of my reading of Les Miserables – 1800 pages, or, according to counting system of the Kindle on which I read it, 25939 “parts.” 

It is a towering achievement.  Les Miserables, not my finishing reading it. 

Okay, both. 

First of all, a book written in 1862 that is still enormously worth reading in 2014 – I mean, check the latest New York Times “Best Sellers” list and tell me which books they will still be enjoying in 2166.  *

(* At this point, “Conventional Comedy Writing” requires me to insert, by way of contrast, the name of a book whose popularity is unlikely to last beyond next month.  In our business, we call that a “Name Joke”, where an appropriate person’s name or, in this case, a book title, is a clay pigeon for hilarious ridicule.  Though they appeal to others, I myself have little enthusiasm for “Name Jokes.”  Though you may feel free to insert and example of your own.  Maybe something by Bill O’Reilly.  Man, I just could not help myself.)

What I just did there in the parentheses was a diversion, which, aside from the fact that I like to do them, is entirely appropriate in this context, because, as I mentioned earlier, interspersed between the chapters involving love and redemption played out against the backdrop of a popular rebellion (not that popular, it turned out, the result being that the insurgents were brutally massacred), Les Miserables author Victor Hugo chooses on numerous occasions to stop the narrative dead in its tracks, and to discourse at length upon various topics of personal interest.

I have already talked about the one in which the protagonist Jean Valjean, escaping apprehension, inadvertently stumbles upon the terrain upon which the Battle of Waterloo was fought, providing Hugo the opportunity – actually, he provided it to himself; Jean Valjean could have run away anywhere – but anyway… Hugo determines to give Valjean a breather, according a substantial number of chapters that advance the story in no way whatsoever to discussing the monumental confrontation between Napoleon and Wellington.  (For those of you who missed the paper that day, Wellington won.)

That digression, I actually enjoyed.  It occurred relatively early in the storytelling, and so, did little to impede the narrative momentum.  Plus, the specifics of the
Battle of Waterloo were of interest to me.  Later digressions, however, tried my contemporary “Get on with it!” patience to a substantially greater degree.

For example…

At the climactic moment in the story, Jean Valjean is struggling through the cavernous underbelly of the city, carrying a dying Marius on his shoulders, in an effort to rescue him from certain death at the barricades, and to get his “ward’s” seriously wounded lover to a doctor.

Once again, Hugo places the story on “Pause” – this time, just when it is getting exciting – halting the narrative to treat his readers to an extended lecture on the derivation and general functioning of “Sewer System of Paris.”

That one, I pretty much skimmed over, a reflection of, in contrast to the author’s, my minimal interest in subterranean sludge.

I realize that novels from other eras are subject to the stylistic differences of their Period (he said, like the inveterate reader of fiction he is not.)  Les Miserables’ approach, I would imagine, is a natural consequence of the era in which it was written.

Melodramatic plotting, maddening coincidences (There is a grate at the end of the sewer blocking Valjean’s escape, until, out of nowhere, a character with a key for the gate materializes), the surfeit of verbosity – leading one to secretly wonder whether the author was perhaps being paid by the word – and the aforementioned extensive digressions. 

Maybe that’s just the way books were written back then.  And nobody was surprised.  (And, as I suggested earlier, they were possibly even grateful, because completing the book created the option of going outside, into an uncertain world of pestilence and crime.)

There was, however, one stylistic device that simply threw me for a loop, rendering me unsure of my comprehensional footing, my reaction being similar to the response I experienced upon first glimpsing that cartoon where the skier sees his ski treads surrounding both sides of a tree.

Now understand here.  Hugo is nothing if not painstakingly detailed in his description.  A defender of the barricade about to be killed by the National Guard is shot down by “eight bullets.”  That is the number of bullets the author has chosen to riddle him with.  Not nine bullets.  Not seventeen.

Monsieur Hugo is writing at his desk, he arrives at the “Mowed Down In a Hail Of Bullets” moment, he considers the number of bullets he would like to have rain down upon the victim, and he decides that the appropriate number for this slaughter will specifically be eight.  Not seven – okay, we’ve been there.

Later in the book, however, Hugo describes a man’s escape from incarceration, during which, after freeing himself from his cell, the felon finds himself stranded high on the rooftop of the prison that was previously holding him captive. 

Then Hugo, in more or less the following words – the precise words I do currently not recall, and am unwilling to dive back into the 25939 Kindle “parts” to find them – writes this: 

“How he escaped has never been entirely explained.”

Say, “What!?!

The man is writing this story.  Every detail is entirely under his control.  Why?  Because he is making the whole thing up!

He made up “eight bullets.”

Why didn’t he make up how he escaped?

I’ll tell ya, that one made me dizzy.  “Never entirely explained"?  I could not get my head around that.  The only thing that came to mind was that Victor Hugo, in an attempt to simulate being a reporter of actual details, pretended that some of the events, like the “eight bullets”, were journalistically knowable, and some of them, like how the guy escaped, were not. 

I just wonder how he decided when he knew them and when he didn’t.

I feel honored to have experienced Les Miserables.  (And my reading of the source material speaks well of the musical version’s successful condensation.)  Kindle permits me to take on big, heavy books without straining my arthritic thumb joints.  So I will probably do it again.

Let us hope, however, that I will never be subjected to the muck and mire of any further sewer excursions.

I mean, going into the sewers literally is okay. 

But I can easily do without the blueprints.

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

So the man's escape is the pineapple in HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, and the sewer digression just needs Art Carney to make it hilarious.

Good to know that there is such perfect contuity from Hugo's time to ours. :)

PS: I'm fairly sure that the Kindle has a search function that will allow you to locate anything in those 28000 parts with great efficiency. Or at least, greater efficiency than searching the physical book.