Part 15: Get to Know Your ABCs

Party in the ABCI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to meeting Marius, or read on.

If you only know the musical, you may know that the student rebels meet at the “ABC Café.” The café is actually called the Café Musain, and they are officially the Society of the Friends of the ABC (ostensibly promoting children’s education), because in French, “ABC” sounds like “abaissé” — the underdog.

In the novel, the band of students really are individual characters — not just Enjolras the Leader, Grantaire the Drunk, Marius the Lovestruck and a bunch of indistinguishable backup students.

Enjolras is logic, utterly focused on justice to the exclusion of everything else.

Combeferre is philosophy, broad-minded, scientifically curious, in tune with the world and its people.

Enjolras and Jean Prouvaire are both rich, only children.

Feuilly, “Being an orphan he had adopted mankind as his parents.” He’s particularly incensed by and obsessed with the First Partition of Poland, finding one way or another to blame it for all of the modern world’s political ills.

Courfeyrac is described as Felix Tholomyès (Fantine’s ex-boyfriend) if he’d been “a decent young man.” Pander vs paladin.

Bahorel is “a creature of good intentions” but “a born agitator: that is to say, he enjoyed nothing more than a quarrel except a rebellion, and nothing more than a rebellion, except a revolution.” He hates lawyers despite going to law school. Or at least being enrolled in it. He’s not in the stage musical, or at least not mentioned by name, though he is credited in the movie.

Lesgles’ family name was officially changed to L’Aigle by Louis XVIII (being a law student, this makes him a legal eagle — the pun isn’t pointed out, so I don’t know if it works in French too or if it’s a coincidence), though his friends call him Bossuet. He’s known for being unlucky.

Joly is a medical student and a hypochondriac (but I repeat myself).

Grantaire is a hipster (before hipsters were uncool). He’s skeptical of everything, has a wide knowledge of Paris, and “lived in irony.” Always drunk, womanizing, dismissive of everything. He was probably into rebellion back in the day, but now everyone’s into it. Even so, he loves Enjolras and insists on following the group around. (Enjolras is not impressed.)

Marius gets involved by accident: L’Aigle answered roll call for him on a whim in class one day (and was himself dropped from the rolls as a result). He spots Marius’ cab a few days later (as he’s moving out), recognizes the name on his luggage, and strikes up a conversation. Courfeyrac recommends the hotel where he’s staying, and a few days later invites him to a meeting.

Marius mostly listens for a while, but it’s a huge change from the royalist salons he went to with his grandfather. Nothing is sacred, and they discuss a wide range of ideas.

One night, Grantaire rambles about how everything sucks while everyone else is involved in their own conversations: playwriting, dating advice, mythology, politics. Courfeyrac argues against half-measures, saying “Rights must be whole or they are nothing.”

Whoa — don’t disparage Napoleon in front of Marius.

Marius: Corsica made France great. Enjolras: “France did not need Corsica to make her great. She is great because she is France.”

Marius goes on a tear about Napoleon. What could possibly be greater than to follow such a man? Combeferre replies: “To be free.”

Feeling out of place, Marius stops going. Having no income, he sells his few possessions, leaves the hotel, and, too proud to accept charity from his grandfather, declines the allowance that his aunt tries to send him. Next: Poor Marius.

Pages covered: 555-583. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via this fantastic illustration gallery.

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