Tag Archives: Jean Prouvaire

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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Hey Barricade, Who’s in Charge Here?

Initial skirmishes on the barricade, the first deaths, Marius’ suicide mission, Gavroche pushing things a bit too far, and Valjean reaching another crisis point.

Back to the barricade. Night falls, and the defenders are gearing up for an attack. There’s a wonderfully creepy description of the glimpses they see of the soldiers at the far end of the darkened street, a “multitude of metallic gleams, needle-thin, scarcely perceptible and constantly in motion.”

The soldiers really do ask “Who’s there” and Enjolras really does respond, “The French Revolution!” Now I feel like an idiot for thinking it shouldn’t be in the movie. Of course, now that I’ve read up to this point, it’s clear that the ABC Society feels like they’re the heirs to the original revolution, keeping its spirit alive.

The First to Fall

80-year-old Pere Mabeuf has been sort of lost in his own little world since he arrived, talking silently to himself and not noticing events around him. But when the first hail of bullets hits the barricade, stunning the rebels and knocking down the flag, he stands up, walks over to Enjolras, picks up the flag, and climbs the barricade. “Long live the Revolution! Long live the Republic! Fraternity, Equality – and Death!”…with predictable results.

Enjolras does what he does best, which is to quickly spin it into motivation: He’s set an example for the rest of us, and we’ll fight with his bloodstained coat as our new flag. Basically what he does with Éponine’s death in the musical. I remember thinking that ability and focus was impressive the first few times I saw the show, but these days I want to shake him and shout, “Give them a moment, for pity’s sake!”

Marius to the Rescue. No, Really!

Marius shoots the guardsmanThe next attack almost takes the barricade. Bahorel is killed (the first of the students to die), Courfeyrac is shot, Gavroche faces a bayonet thrust…

And then Marius rushes in, guns blazing. The fact that he has two is important, because he doesn’t have to stop and reload. One shot saves Courfeyrac, the other Gavroche. Who the hell knew the “little nincompoop of a lawyer” could aim?

Irony: Gavroche was armed with the pistol Javert had been carrying, which hadn’t been loaded, while Marius was armed with the pistols Javert gave him four months earlier, which have been loaded since February. (But not as loaded as Grantaire.)

It’s only a few seconds, but it’s enough of a reprieve to rally the group, and they hold out long enough for Marius to grab a full powder-keg and threaten to blow the whole place sky-high — rebels, soldiers and all — if they don’t retreat. Since he actually wants to die, they take him seriously and run like hell.

Marius asks who’s in charge. Enjolras says you are now. It’s not exactly what he had in mind. I find myself thinking of the missing comma in The Prisoner: “Who is Number One? You are, Number Six.”

Jean Prouvaire dies next, captured in the melee. They’re just about to trade Javert for him, when they hear him shout, as the chapter title puts it, his last poem: “Long live France! Long live the future!” — then a gunshot. It’s reminiscent of how Javert doesn’t get executed later on.

One of the things that I always wondered about is why the army didn’t just go around and come at them from the other side. Hugo actually addresses this as “a peculiarity of this type of warfare” and the risk of getting trapped in narrow, winding streets. I guess it depends on where you build it. There’s something to be said for making your own battleground.

A Breath Away

Marius is trying to absorb what’s happened, when he hears his name and sees a shape crawling along the street toward him. It’s Éponine, who, as it turns out, had just saved his life by thrusting her hand in front of a gun that was aimed at him, deflecting the bullet. I can’t help but picture her dragging herself along the ground like the Terminator skeleton at the end of the first film.

“What are you doing?” “I’m dying.” Eh, give him a break. He’s not very observant.

Éponine confesses her role in sending him here, and the fact that she had a letter from Cosette (with their alternate address) that she couldn’t bear to deliver to him. She also identifies Gavroche as her brother. Her life has basically sucked, so she doesn’t mind dying…as long as she dies with him, and first. Her last words are an understated confession: “You know, Monsieur Marius, I think I was a little bit in love with you.”

I don’t think it’s raining at this point, but it has been off and on all day.

“Éponine was responsible for everything.” Everything? Wow! Busy girl. Seriously, though, she has been playing puppet master the last few days in her efforts to separate Marius and Cosette from each other: Keeping her father and Patron-Minette out of the picture, convincing Valjean to leave the Rue Plumet, holding onto Cosette’s letter so Marius can’t find them, telling Marius to go to the barricade…

Any hope Marius had of focusing on the rebellion is now gone, just minutes after being appointed leader. Ashamed by his failure to protect Thénardier’s daughter, he sets upon a scheme to save her brother and bid a proper farewell to Cosette at the same time by sending him as a messenger. Gavroche only agrees because he figures he’ll have time to get there and back before the fighting starts. So much for that idea.

Valjean Finally Catches On

“Man the individual is a deeper being than man in the mass.” In mass they’re dumb, panicky animals and you know it.

Ah, that makes sense: the “inseparable” box contains the child’s clothing that Valjean bought for Cosette way back when he rescued her from the Thénardiers.

At the point Gavroche reaches the remote house in the Rue de l’Homme Arme, Valjean has just spotted the blotting paper which Cosette had used when writing her note to Marius the day before. He goes into full papa bear mode…but he’s also deathly afraid of losing the one thing that’s made his life have meaning, as he hasn’t been able to love anyone other than Cosette.

“For the first time in their life together her wishes and those of Jean Valjean had shown themselves to be separate matters.” Not the first time they’d been separate, but the first time he’d noticed.

And since Valjean is sitting out on the curb, Gavroche is happy to just leave the note with him and leave. Especially since Valjean has already handed him a coin. (Still trying to make up for that autopilot theft, perhaps?) “He had heard of five-franc pieces, he knew them by reputation, and he was delighted to see one at close quarters.”

We cannot be said to read when in a state of violent emotion. Rather, we twist the paper in our hands, mutilating it as though it were an enemy, scoring it with the finger-nails of our anger or delight. Our eyes skip the beginning, hurrying on to the end. With a feverish acuteness we grasp the general sense, seize upon the main point and ignore the rest.

True. And yet it contradicts the statement made during Marius’ dilemma about reasoning calmly and detached even under great stress.

Valjean is relieved to realize that the boy threatening to take Cosette away from him will soon be dead. Yaaay!

Strangely, we step out of Jean Valjean’s head just before he decides to leave for the barricade. It might be that he wants to be there to make certain, or it might be like Spike deciding “I’d better help her out” after convincing himself he should let Buffy die in “Once More With Feeling.” After such a detailed account of his thought processes up to the moment of the decision, it’s odd to lose that perspective…and we don’t get it back until after the flight through the sewers. The thought process in “Bring Him Home” is entirely hidden from the reader. Update: I have some more thoughts on this after reading it a third time.

Gavroche, meanwhile, has an adventure on the way back to the barricade: breaking street lamps, stealing a cart (yes, he leaves a receipt), and singing at the top of his lungs until he almost gets shot by a patrol. The adventure of one small boy running amok has since entered the folklore of the neighborhood, remembered as a horrific nighttime attack.

And that brings us to the end of Part Four! I may be able to finish this by the end of the year after all! Next: future revolt and overnight at the barricade.

Pages covered: 953-984. Image by Jeanniot from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery.

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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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