Tag Archives: Combeferre

Getting Schooled

I’ve mentioned that Donougher’s translation preserves a lot more of Hugo’s wordplay than Denny’s. Here’s a pun that Denny couldn’t get rid of: the Friends of the ABC (abaissé). It’s literally the whole point of the name.

Just as each main character or group represents a part of society, each of the major students represents a part of revolution: Enjolras is purpose, Combeferre wisdom, Jean Prouvere the artist, Feuilly the world perspective (well, the broader European perspective anyway), Courfeyrac the center of the group, Bahorel the fighter, and so on.

There’s a lot of humor and, again, wordplay. Grantaire is nicknamed “Grand R” (capital R). Bossuet’s bad luck is described in great detail, as is Joly’s hypochondria, Feuilly’s obsession with the first Partition of Poland as the root of all the world’s ills, and the story of Lesgle/L’Aigle/Lègle/Lesguelles/Bossuet’s many names. (I don’t think “legal eagle” is a thing in French, which is a pity, because it would add another layer of puns to the law student’s name.)

I’ve said it before, but Grantaire is totally a hipster, before hipsters were uncool.

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Part 32: Passing Peak Ammunition

We take a break from the barricade for a brief interlude at dawn: Cosette wakens, unaware of what’s happening in the rest of the city, and wonders why people are slamming doors so early in the morning. Like Marius, she knows she cannot live without him. Unlike Marius, she takes that to be proof that he’ll arrive soon.

“The reader may at a pinch be introduced into a marital bedchamber, but not into a young girl’s bedroom.” Hugo then goes on to hint at this, that and the other thing about her pajamas and morning routine for another page before saying that “Even to have hinted at them is too much.” Uh, sure…

Tactics

When a well-equipped army faces a street barricade, they’ll often just keep up steady fire, hoping to trick the insurgents into using up their ammunition and then launch an assault when they run out. Enjolras is too smart to fall for it.

The scale of the forces available really points up the silliness of musical-Javert’s fake intelligence report: when they can fill the street with soldiers, why would they choose to “concentrate their force” on one side?

Jean Valjean shows his marksmanship again when look-outs appear on the roofs. He shoots two helmets in a row, and they back off. He won’t answer when Bossuet asks why he aimed for the helmets instead of kill shots. Combeferre remarks, “He’s a man who does kindness with bullets.”

The commander of the guard at the Rue de la Chanvrerie is a hothead, and attacks too early. Not only do the rebels fight them off, but they get caught by their own cannon too. Enjolras is infuriated. “‘The idiots!’ he exclaimed. ‘They’re getting themselves killed and wasting our ammunition for no reason.’”

The rebellion actually gains a little momentum that morning in several places around the city, but the army crushes it swiftly before it can spread. “When we get the old women emptying chamber-pots on our heads we’re done for.”

Bossuet admires Enjolras’ ability to be brave without a mistress to rob him of his wits like the rest of them. Enjolras is basically asexual, his whole being focused on social change, but in a sense, he does have a mistress: Patria, he whispers: the homeland.

When the army brings up a second cannon, things start getting serious. They repel the attack just barely, but it takes most of their ammunition.

Death and Rise of an Urchin

Gavroche at the BarricadeCue Gavroche, who sneaks around under the smoke collecting bullets, singing rude songs about Voltaire and Rousseau, and thumbing his nose at death. I checked the original French against the concept album: Schönberg and Boublil set the actual words to music in the first version of what later became “Little People.” The scene in the book is even tenser than it is in the play (well, the original version, where you can actually see him, as opposed to the 25th anniversary version where they can’t turn the barricade around). “A Paris urchin touching the pavement is a giant drawing strength from his mother earth.”

Let me just say: Watching or reading Les Misérables is really different before and after you have kids.

Interlude: Gavroche’s anonymous brothers, roughly five and seven, are still alive, still on the streets, though they’ve somehow managed to get into the Luxembourg Gardens. I wasn’t expecting to see them again. A middle-class gentleman is there, with his son, who has decided not to finish his cake. The father advises him to throw it to the ducks — not to the two ragamuffins who clearly need it more than the ducks do. “We must always be kind to animals.” But apparently, not to one’s fellow man. The boy reluctantly tosses it, and they leave, but the older boy retrieves it, offering the larger part to his brother. The implication is that they’ll be okay…or at least as okay as any Paris urchin is.

Back at the barricade, Marius retrieves Gavroche’s body, seeing an echo of their fathers’ encounter at Waterloo — only Col. Pontmercy had still been alive. Gavroche is laid on the table with M. Mabeuf: the oldest and youngest of the defenders.

Siege

Hugo briefly discusses the sense of unreality that pervades both the experience and memory of street warfare.

At midday, Enjolras decides it’s time to reinforce the tavern with paving-stones, forming a fortress with the tavern as keep and the barricade as its outer wall. He also finally allows them to bring out the wine bottles that he confiscated at the beginning of the whole thing. The wounded are locked into the kitchen.

By this time Marius has recovered somewhat and is able to actually help run things again. A good thing too, since they’re down to twenty-six from the original fifty. And that presumably includes Valjean, who refuses to shoot anyone.

Enjolras “felt that since men such as these were about to die, their death must be a masterpiece.”

Removing Javert

Enjolras: “The last man to leave this place will blow out this spy’s brains.” Random rebel: “Here?” He suggests taking him over the lower barricade to the alleyway.

Valjean asks that he “may be allowed to blow that man’s brains out.” Javert looks up, nods slightly, and says, “That’s fair.” Everyone else rushes out to deal with an attack, and Javert calls after them, “It won’t be long!”

It’s interesting how calm Javert is in the book. In the musical, he’s seething with contempt and frustration. Here it’s only contempt.

Javert is the first person at the barricade to actually recognize Éponine, or the fact that she’s a woman, without prompting.

“A knife-thrust! You’re quite right. That suits you better.”

Valjean does indeed give Javert his address (and his current alias). Javert repeats it back to him to make sure he got it right.

“I find this embarrassing. I’d rather you killed me.” He doesn’t even notice switching from familiar tu to formal vous. That’s something that doesn’t really come through in translation, since English has long since dropped the formal/familiar you/thou split, so it has to be conveyed in footnotes, or in titles, or in narration. In this case, Hugo remarked on it himself to drive the point home.

You know, Javert doesn’t call Valjean by his prison number even once. “24601” is such a powerful hook for identity in the musical, and with Javert I think it serves as a replacement for tu, but it’s merely an incidental detail in the novel, mentioned only twice: once in Valjean’s backstory, and once in a chapter title when he’s recaptured.

Back in the stronghold, Marius has just put two and two together and recognized the inspector who gave him those two guns way back when. And as near as he can tell, Valjean has just executed him in cold blood. This will be important later.

Next: The last stand.

Pages covered: 1015-1041, the middle third of “War Within Four Walls.” Image by Flameng from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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Part 31: Barricades of Future Past (Plus Cannon Geekery)

And now we’re into the last of the five main divisions of Les Misérables: Part Five: Jean Valjean. Naturally, it starts with a history lesson. Not about 1832…but about 1848, reasoning that his 1860s audience would be more familiar with the barricades of the June 1848 revolt.

I was reading this and thinking, “Another digression? Now? Eh, I guess it’s still thematic.” I turned the page, and read the sentence, “Where the theme is not lost sight of there can be no digression.” Well, then, there you go!

Hugo contrasts the two main barricades of that event: One in the Saint-Antoine neighborhood, massive, three stories high and seven hundred feet long, a jumble of anything that could be scrounged up and manned by a passionate leader, the other in the Temple neighborhood, built seemingly overnight of paving-stones lined up with the precision of a mason, and defended silently…but with ruthless efficiency.

Victor Hugo refers to himself in a number of places, but always obliquely — except here, when describing the silence of the no-man’s land in front of the Temple barricade: “I remember seeing a butterfly flutter up and down that street. Summer does not abdicate.” It surprised me enough when I first read the book that I remembered it, and it’s not a translation error. The original French reads “Je me souviens d’un papillon blanc qui allait et venait dans la rue.”

Back to the Past

Marius’ time as leader lasts about five minutes before he discovers he has something to lose after all, and sinks into paralyzing despair.

Continue reading

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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 the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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