Tag Archives: Napoleon

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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Part 7: Waterloo

Les Misérables: WaterlooI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, go back to part 6, or read on.

Previously: Fantine dies, Cosette is still stuck with the Thénardiers, Javert’s a jerk, and Valjean exposes himself.

Let me rephrase that: Valjean reveals his secret identity.

Anyway, Victor Hugo figured this was the perfect time to stop and spend forty-five pages on the Battle of Waterloo. As much as I snark about Hugo’s digressions and long-windedness, and tangential as it is to the rest of the book, this chapter really is fascinating.

He starts by recounting his own visit to the battlefield nearly fifty years later, describing what it’s like now (well, then). The style of the time allowed him to refer to himself, but only in third person and not by name: “the traveler” or “the author of this tale.”

The flashback structure sets up an effective contrast between the peaceful farm of Hugo’s day and the carnage of snipers, cannon balls, soldiers scaling a wall with their fingernails, a burning chapel and a well full of skeletons before it moves on to the main portion of the battle.

It’s easy to think of Napoleon as being serious and impassive. Hugo points out his sense of humor and high spirits at Waterloo — well, the beginning of it.

If the Temeraire books retell Waterloo (and I doubt they will, since the history of the war has diverged so much at this point), it’ll be vastly different just having aerial views of the battlefield. So much depends on tiny patches of cover as seen from the ground, in particular a sunken lane that Napoleon’s cavalry charge doesn’t see until the front lines fall into it. (Plus, well, dragons.)

It turns out Victor Hugo could get away with “merde” as long as it was historical. He then spends two pages describing how sublime it was that this particular French officer, Cambronne, chose that single word to reply to his chance to surrender. I shit you not.

Aftermath

At one point he describes the English and German memorials at the site, adding, “There is no French memorial. For France the whole plain is a graveyard.”

It’s interesting to see a French perspective of Waterloo try to reconcile the defeat of the French army with the idea that it was a victory for civilization. Hugo takes the opinion that Napoleon’s defeat was pre-ordained by God because the “tide of the nineteenth century” required his removal from the stage. This conveniently absolves the English and German commanders of greatness, though he stresses that the common soldiers were great, even if Wellington was a mediocre leader who by all rights should never have triumphed against Napoleon’s genius.

He goes on to say that Waterloo, in itself, represented the revenge of the old guard, counter-revolutionary forces, but that changes in the political landscape prevented them from reasserting themselves completely afterward, creating a post-war Europe with greater liberty than before, even under the old leadership.

Forty pages on, we’re back to the story as we meet Thénardier looting the bodies of dead French soldiers. One of them isn’t dead yet: Sgt Pontmercy, whom the future innkeeper pulled out of the pile of dead bodies at the critical sunken lane in order to rifle through his pockets, accidentally saving his life.

That one scene is the only part of “Waterloo” that factors into the rest of the story as anything but historical background, but it’s important for Marius’ interactions with the Thénardiers. Not long after I read the book the first time, I caught a glimpse of a student’s essay written as a character study of Thénardier. Because the class was reading an abridged version, the later misrepresentation of his actions at Waterloo was taken at face value. It significantly altered the character by giving him a noble past that he never actually had.

Pages covered this week: 279-324. You might also be interested in my review of the movie. Next up: Valjean returns to prison in Part 8.

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