Some tips for tackling the long novel Les Misérables

The convict Jean Valjean repents and finds redemption in loving the orphan Cosette. Relentless police inspector Javert, however, keeps him on the run. French society, rife with poverty and inequality, is erupting. Cosette’s marriage to young idealist Marius puts a wedge between her and her “father” Valjean, who wastes away from the loss but is reunited with her on his deathbed.

Sorry about the spoilers, but chances are you already knew the outline of Les Misérables. You may have seen a live performance of the musical, or maybe a movie version. Most recently, there was a 2012 film of the musical starring Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe.

I’m guessing only a minority of people are intrepid enough to read Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel.

The novel-reading group to which I belong usually limits our selections to books of under 350 pages. Since the page limit eliminates some great novels, every so often we read a long classic in segments. Last August we chose Les Misérables, French writer Hugo’s masterpiece. Topping 1,400 pages in some editions, Les Mis might be twice as long as any book I’ve ever read. That seemed okay to me as we discussed the choice; when I like the characters, I don’t want to be done with a book quickly.

We broke Les Mis into three: parts 1 and 2 (432 pages in the Norman Denny translation I read), parts 3 and 4 (490 pages), and part 5 (246 pages), allowing longer-than-normal reading times before our three discussions.

A couple of years ago we read Bleak House (726 pages) in two sections, and I don’t remember having trouble with the arrangement. The Les Mis game plan didn’t work for me, though. My usual problem with pacing was exacerbated by the longer timeline. When I finish a book well before our group meets, I forget details. By the time of the third Les Mis discussion on Monday, seven months after we chose the book, my brain could recall Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, and Javert but not the names of the lovable street urchin or the student radicals or the evil innkeeper, let alone the minor characters.

But I wasn’t the only one. “Vague” was the word Megan used for her memory of details. She had finished the final section too long before.

Kingsley noted that we didn’t have much to say for such a long and acclaimed novel. Maybe we’d said all we had to say about the characters and themes in the first two discussions.

Maybe it was the drawn-out timeframe.

Or maybe it was the book.

Hugo’s most celebrated novel is not an easy read. It’s not only the length. Hugo was fond of digressions — 59 pages on the Battle of Waterloo alone, for instance, and only the last two pages have a direct bearing on the plot. Readers who haven’t studied French history may be in the dark about the historical references; readers who don’t speak French may have trouble remembering names.

Yet most of us said that we were glad to have read it, and the past tense didn’t mean that we were happy to be done with it. Les Mis encompasses such a vast sweep — love, evil, forgiveness, oppression, second chances, compassion, intransigence, collective effort, endurance, saintliness, meanness, courage, self-sacrifice — that it can be said to be about all of life. It’s both a personal story of redemption and a denunciation of early-19th-century social ills. It is inspiring, moving, and even suspenseful.

So, if Les Misérables has been on your reading list and you’re motivated to plunge in, here are some suggestions that I wish I’d had before I began.

* Read a little French history of the era (1816 to 1832) beforehand. You don’t need to go into depth; Wikipedia would likely do fine.

* Get a good translation. Norman Denny’s, which I read, is often recommended as comprehensible for modern readers, but it’s not annotated. Notes would have helped when I came across references to French history that were obscure to me.

* If you’re reading it with a book group, think about apportioning your reading. Divide the number of weeks before your discussion into the number of pages and let the result be how much you’ll read per week. Don’t exceed the allotted time each week or you’ll have the problem I did of finishing too soon and forgetting details.

* Take notes to keep track of the characters.

* If you’re tempted to give up, find an abridged version. Julie Rose’s 1996 abridgement (only 336 pages!) gets good reviews on Amazon.

* Feel free to skip the digressions about the Battle of Waterloo (except the last two pages), the history of convents, and the Paris sewers. There may be other digressions that I don’t remember. After a while, you’ll be able to sense when Hugo is about to set off on a tangent. You won’t miss anything essential to the plot by skimming over these.

* Go ahead and use CliffsNotes or Shmoop or a movie version — not as a substitute but as a supplement — if it will help your understanding.

I hope to keep these tips in mind the next time our book group takes on a long (and maybe difficult and/or foreign) novel. When we met on Monday, we decided our next longer classic should be short enough to split into two halves. The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, Moby-Dick, and Middlemarch — all of which are on our list — should make the cut. War and Peace, at 1,296 pages in the Vintage Classics edition, probably won’t, unless we ignore our experience with Les Mis and divide it in three.



“It’s not that unrealistic to be concerned that if the president is in a petulant mood, he will start an actual war.”

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    This podcast might also help with takling Les Misérables: I take it 30 pages or so at a time (most of the time), and try to demystify language and cultural trickiness, and offer some commentary. Check it out!

  • Thanks for the tip. Sounds like you going about reading Les Mis in a well-paced way. Marianne

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