Tag Archives: Self-Reference

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.

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Part 28: A Revolting Development

June 5 has come, and Paris does indeed rise up, with insurgents taking control of a third of the city by the end of the day. Gavroche has a great time playing at war as he runs off to join the unrest, and even Enjolras and his followers are exhilarated at this stage.

The band increased at every moment.At last, the day of the barricade — or rather barricades — arrives, and Victor Hugo spends a great deal of time discussing the difference between an insurrection and a mere revolt. A lot of it retreads the opening section of part four which established the political climate in 1832, but he makes his philosophical points a bit clearer here: an insurrection moves society forward (or tries to). “Insurrection is a thing of the spirit, revolt is a thing of the stomach.” He considers revolution to be a valid form of societal change, then compares historical revolts to state which ones were justified and which were not.

Some interesting observations: Any revolt that fails “strengthens the government it fails to overthrow.” Hugo really disapproves of political philosophy that analyses only effects and not causes (he applies the term “moderate” here, or rather the translator does, which I imagine is a case of changing terminology). The battle of students vs. soldiers was a battle of age: Young men ready to die for their ideals vs. older men ready to die for their families.

He naively believes that giving everyone the vote will prevent future insurrections.

“The riots threw a garish but splendid light on what is most particular to the character of Paris” — Yes, Paris has the best riots, too.

Rather than trying to show the whole insurrection of June 5-6, 1832, he explains that he’s chosen just one incident, “certainly the least known,” so that he can show us a detailed picture.

Funeral Spark

One of the things that bothered me when watching the recent movie was the way the students essentially hijacked General Lamarque’s funeral. At the time I figured it was a moviemaking choice to be more dramatic. It turns out it was another case of returning to the book. Speeches were made, the hearse was dragged around, and people actually started shooting.

Barricades were apparently very popular. One quarter had 27 spring up within an hour. Rioters “recruited” the populace, requisitioned weapons (sometimes leaving receipts!) seized garrison-posts, and held a third of Paris! The ABC group isn’t a tiny revolution — they’re a tiny part of a bigger one.

Meanwhile, outside the rebellious districts, it’s business as usual.

Some odd occurrences amid Parisian uprisings: “in 1831, the firing stopped to allow a wedding to pass.” In 1839, an old man with a beverage cart went back and forth between lines, selling drinks to both sides. In this particular insurrection, Victor Hugo himself (excuse me, “the marveling author of these lines”) walked out of a calm street into a war zone and was pinned behind a pillar for half an hour.

We’re off to Build a Barricade!

Gavroche is having a blast as he wanders around town, singing (“with the voice of Nature and the voice of Paris”), playing pranks, insulting passers-by, waving a broken gun that he’s found, shouting revolutionary slogans…and then helping a national guardsman to his feet when he falls from his horse. At one point he’s bitterly disappointed that he doesn’t have any money to buy one last apple-puff before his next adventure. Gavroche has got his priorities, after all!

He’s lost track of his brothers since that one night, though he offered to put them up again if they came back. He’s wondered about them, but (as mentioned previously regarding Valjean’s sister and her family) disappearances are common enough that he hasn’t put too much thought into it.

Scanning error: A veteran is reciting his wounds, “nothing to speak of,” and goes into a long list, in the middle of which is a bullet “in the left thing.” It’s supposed to say “thigh,” but it reminds me of one of Liam Neeson’s lines in Kingdom of Heaven.

Gavroche just sort of happens to run into Enjolras’ group by accident. They’ve got a rag-tag collection of weapons, and Feuilly is shouting “Long live Poland!” Bahorel wins Gavroche’s admiration by tearing down a public notice about eggs and Lent.

The group also picks up two old men who catch the eyes of the leaders: M. Mabeuf, whom Courfeyrac recognizes as Marius’ friend, and a bold, vigorous man whom no one recognizes as Javert (because Gavroche isn’t paying attention).

Courfeyrac realizes that they’re walking past his house, so he pops in to grab his wallet and his hat. A good thing too (maybe), because he runs into someone who’s looking for Marius. He thinks the boy looks like a little like a girl dressed as a boy, but hey, if he was a girl, he wouldn’t be dressed as a boy, right? I’m reminded of the Hob Gadling story in Sandman: World’s End, and his comment about seeing what you’re actually seeing instead of what you expect to see.

There’s a sort of casual exuberance about it all. Some of it is because we’re seeing it from Gavroche’s point of view, but it’s also in the early, intoxicating stage where they’re being driven entirely by idealism, before the harshness of war sets in. Next up: Building the barricade.

Pages covered: 883-914. Image by Mead Schaeffer from an unidentified edition of Les Misérables, via the Pont-au-Change illustration gallery. I don’t know if I’m going to make my goal of finishing commentary by the end of the year, but I’ve already got three more sections later on mostly written.

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Part 14: Meeting Marius

Les Misérables near the halfway point.I’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1, or read on.

After meeting Gavroche, we’re told that we will learn about Marius Pontmercy. As it happens, though, we’re instead introduced to Monsieur Gillenormand, an old upper-middle-class man of 90. He’s one of those people who are interesting because of their age, and “peculiar because whereas they were once like everyone else they are now like no one else.”

Still in perfect health, he has two emotional states: happy/mocking, and furious. He loves to tell story of how he escaped the Revolution with his head intact, but for once Hugo doesn’t relate the tale to the reader. He hates the Revolution, the Republic and the Empire, and he hates that his son-in-law fought for Napoleon.

Marius’ aunt is so prude that she’s haunted by the memory that a man once saw her garter.

An ex-servant of his claims he fathered her baby. He insists he didn’t, but also insists that he could have done the deed even at his advanced age, and takes the child in anyway…until she drops a second baby on his doorstep and he sends them both back. He still pays a stipend on the condition that she not do it again. (Added. When I read through this section I thought it sort of funny but not enough to comment on, but it turns out that La Magnon comes back.)

“Anyone walking through the little town of Vernon in those days, and crossing the beautiful stone bridge which, let us hope, will soon be replaced by some hideous construction of cables and girders…”

Georges Pontmercy’s distinguished military career includes one battle alongside Victor Hugo’s uncle. For someone who doesn’t like to speak of himself, he sure sneaks in a lot of references to “the present writer.”

Upon Marius’ mother’s death, Gillenormand demands custody from his father under threat of disinheriting the boy. He agrees, but every few months visits Paris to sneakily steal a glimpse of his son. Both Marius and Cosette are given up by a single parent for their own good.

M. Gillenormand is part of a salon of mostly returned aristocrats, described as being in their 25th year of adolescence. This is the only real experience of the outside world that young Marius gets.

Ultraism (n): To be so vehemently for something as to be in fact against it.

Nice. After years of intercepting his letters and telling Marius that his father is a no-good brigand, M. Gillenormand finally tells him to go see him…on his deathbed. Marius arrives too late. He’s unmoved, however, having believed himself abandoned rather than surrendered.

Not long afterward he has a chance meeting with one of his father’s friends, Pere Mabeuf, who remarked on his surreptitious visits, and Marius realizes (1) he’s been lied to, and (2) he’s been wholly unfair to his father. He starts researching, and changes his opinions not only of his father, but of Napoleon and politics in general. Because he was so sheltered and shown only the negative side, he ends up being the more strongly for his father, the Republic, the and the Empire. It’s the zeal of the convert. “What was right seems wrong, and what was wrong seems right.”

Nowadays you might call him radicalized.

Marius has been disappearing off somewhere. When G. approves of Marius’ cousin because he’d never “go gallivanting after some shameless hussy,” “Théodule grinned the grin of a pickpocket commended for honesty.”

They finally fall out when Gillenormand talks Théodule into spying on him, and finds out that Marius has been visiting his father’s grave and not just sneaking out to see some girl. Next, in Part 15, Marius gets to know some ABCs. Students, that is.

Pages covered: 512-554.

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Part 10: Valjean sure knows how to pick a hiding place

Hunt in DarknessI’m re-reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables after 20 years. Start with part 1 or read on.

Now that Valjean has rescued little Cosette from the Thénardiers, the story moves to Paris! But not to the greatest neighborhood. Victor Hugo describes it in such loving details as:

“An interesting and picturesque feature of buildings of this kind is the enormous size of the spiders that infest them.”

“It is possible to conceive of something even more terrible than a hell of suffering, and that is a hell of boredom. If such a hell exists, that stretch of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have been the road leading to it.”

It’s to this cheerful spot that Valjean brings Cosette. It’s still better than the Thénardiers’ inn, though.

Becoming Cosette’s surrogate father is as major a turning point for Valjean’s soul as the incident with the bishop. This doesn’t come through in the stage musical at all, but they made it central in the movie, and Victor Hugo flat-out compares the two epiphanies in the novel: The bishop taught him virtue, while Cosette taught him the meaning of love. Hugo even ponders whether Valjean’s no-good-deed-goes-unpunished experience would have sent him back into bitterness if he hadn’t met her.

Les Misérables SoundtrackIf I may digress for a moment (and since I’m writing about Les Misérables, it would only be fitting), I finally listened to the movie soundtrack on its own last night, two months after seeing the film…and I’ve finally placed what “Suddenly” reminds me of: “Someone Else’s Story” from Chess. No wonder it felt like it didn’t fit in this score: it reminds me of a different show!.

Valjean brings his money to Paris sewn into the lining of his coat. I wonder if they used serial numbers in those days.

He hasn’t quite learned how to keep a low profile yet. He becomes known for being generous to the local beggars, and one night one of the regulars doesn’t quite look right when he hands him some money.

Then Javert rents a flat in the same tenement. Uh-oh…

Exit, Pursued by Javert

Before the chase through the nighttime Paris streets, Hugo apologizes for not knowing how much of the area he’s about to describe is still around. Before that apology, he apologizes for mentioning himself. These days it would just be an author’s note, not part of the text.

Streetlights haven’t been lit because of the full moon. That’s not something I would have considered, but if the lights have to be lit by hand, it makes sense that you’d take advantage of efficiencies like that.

Trapped in a dead end, Valjean takes the only escape route he can: up. But he can’t free-climb with Cosette.

Cosette finally starts breaking down over the flight. He tells her she must be quiet, because Mme Thénardier is following them. This works, but only because it scares her even more — after they reach safety, he has to assure her that she’s gone.

An empty garden, a ruined building, sounds of pursuit, midnight hymns, a body with a rope around its neck…and an incredible coincidence, as the gardener (who happens to be awake at midnight) is the man Valjean saved from the runaway cart.

The Hunter

The viewpoint returns to Javert and Valjean’s arrest months before. He actually forgot about him — a job well done, but it’s been done and over with — until reading the news of his death. Then he read about a little girl being “abducted” in Montfermeil, whose mother Fantine had died in a hospital earlier that year, and started to wonder.

By the time Javert shows up to interview the Thénardiers, they’ve realized they don’t want police looking too closely at them, and changed their tune: she left with her grandfather, and Thénardier had simply wanted to keep her around a few more days.

“Javert went back to Paris. ‘Valjean is dead,’ he said to himself, ‘and I’m an ass.'” Well, you’re half-right.

He keeps seeing odd reports, though, and tries to put together enough evidence to make an arrest. He even poses as one of the beggars, hoping his suspect will show up and give him a good look at his face (establishing Javert as a master of disguise). His lack of certainty, coupled with police PR problems at the time, give Valjean enough time to flee. Once he flushes Valjean into a dead end, though, he decides to toy with his prey, which gives him just enough time to escape.

Notes

Someone landed on one of these articles this week by searching for “How to read Les Misérables.” I did a search myself, and found WikiHow’s article by that title. “Things you’ll need: Willpower. A copy of Les Misérables” – So true!

Bad reception at the place I had lunch on Wednesday kept me from tweeting my comments, so I had to write them offline. This is probably better, since I don’t have to clutter up my Twitter feed with my notes, and I can still tweet highlights if I want to. I’m going to stick with that plan going forward.

Also, like last week, my commentary ended up being a lot longer than I wanted, so I’ve split it into two articles. The second one will go up in a few days.

Pages covered: 385-424. Continue on to Part 11: the convent.

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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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