Friday 30 March 2018

Les Misérables Waterloo V2B1

I wasn't really expecting quite such a history lesson when I took on reading Les Mis this year. But Waterloo certainly gives us one. Even though Hugo tells us "It goes without saying, we have no intention of writing the history of Waterloo in these pages". Which is odd given that he spends 18 chapters doing exactly that. Not that I minded all that much. What did I know of Waterloo? Not much. That 44 years later still not that many people can carry off blue satin knickerbockers?

I really enjoyed this history lesson that isn't. I hope to long remember that I only need to think of a capital A to imagine the layout of the battle ground, and that Waterloo itself was nearby but not really the scene of the battle. 
Waterloo did nothing and remained over a mile away from the action. Mont St-Jean was shelled, Hougomont was set ablaze, Papelotte was set ablaze, Plancenoit was set ablaze, La Haie-Sainte was stormed, La Belle- Alliance witnessed the embrace of the two victors. These names are scarcely known and Waterloo, which made no contribution to the battle, gets all the credit. 
There are always many little acts of fate that conspire to bring about a certain end. 
What we admire above all in a conjuncture such as that of Waterloo is the amazing ingenuity of change. Night rain, the Hougomont wall, Ohain's sunken road, Grouchy dead to the cannon, Napoleon deceived by his guide, Bülow reliably informed by his- the entire disaster is wonderfully orchestrated. 
In modern thinking about error management we call these small actions or events within a system the Swiss Cheese Model. Hugo chose to invoke a higher power. "Napoleon ..... was an inconvenience to God."

I think we can forgive Victor Hugo this lengthy diversion given the import of Waterloo. Both as a political and historical event.
Waterloo is the pivot of the nineteenth century. The demise of the great man was essential to the advent of the great century. 
What is Waterloo? A victory? No. A lottery. A lottery won by Europe at France's expense. 
And the scope of the human tragedy.
Of all pitched battles Waterloo is the one with the smallest front in relation to the number of combatants. Napoleon, three thousand three hundred yards; Wellington, two thousand two hundred yards; seventy-two thousand combatants on each side. It was from this density that the carnage resulted..... One hundred and forty-four thousand combatants; sixty thousand dead. 
On a single day! Nearly as many as those who died instantly when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima in 1945.

And like all great classics there are always passages that leap off the page with their eternal relevance. Here talking of Napoleon of course:
The inordinate weight of this man was disturbing the balance of human destiny. This individual alone counted for more than the rest of the world put together. These excessive quantities of human vitality concentrated in a single person- the world going to one man's head- would be fatal to civilisation if it were to continue. 
And England.
But this great England will be annoyed by what we say. After her own 1688 and our 1789 she still cherishes the feudal illusion. She believes in heredity and hierarchy. 
I think Victor Hugo does his most beautiful writing in passages like these, when he is giving background, and not really developing the narrative. 
The darkness was serene. Not a cloud in the sky above. So what, if the earth is red- the moon stays white. Such is the indifference of the heavens. In the meadows, branches of trees broken by shelling but not brought down with their bark still holding, swayed gently in the night breeze. A breath of air, almost a sigh, stirred the scrub. There were quivering in the grass, like souls departing. 
He really describes the horrors of combat in the 19th century.
Where there had been the agonised moans of that dreadful calamity, all was silence now. The hollow of the sunken road was filled with horses and riders inextricably piled on top of each other. A terrible jumble. There was no embankment any more. The corpses ha levelled the road with the plain, and came right up to the brim like a well filled bushel of barley. A heap of dead bodies on top, a river of blood below, such was this road on the evening of the eighteenth of June 1815.
It's fascinating to know that Waterloo is one of the very last sections Hugo wrote, just before Volume 2 was published. Digressions such as this were very common in 19th century literature (and one of the major reasons I couldn't get through Anna Karenina), Buttontapper pointed out that digressions form up to 25% of Les Mis. A great article came our way from the Paris Review whilst we were reading Waterloo, stating that the publication of Les Misérables is still "widely regarded as the biggest publishing coup of all time." I can't wait to get to reading David Bellos' The Novel of the Century. 

Although after 18 chapters of history lesson we do eventually get back to the narrative arc..... "after the victors come the thieves". "The day after a battle always dawns on naked bodies." We have met this "flying rat" before, it is none other than Sergeant Thénardier, who unwittingly saves a life whilst robbing the dead. 
"I shan't forget that name," said the officer. "And you remember mine. My name is Pontmercy."
I do know from listening to a BBC Radio Dramatisation (do beware of that link, my review contains many rather large spoilers) that the Thénardiers are a much bigger part of the story than is indicated in the musical versions. If you already know the broad story of Les Mis then Pontmercy is a familiar surname. I'll be intrigued though to see how this story line pans out- it is not one included in the stage adaptations. 


Brona said...

As you know, I've never seen or read any version of Les Mis, yet so many of the names are familiar. As soon as Pontmercy popped up I got excited cause it was a name that I knew.

The whole Waterloo diversion was fascinating and made easier by the chapter a day thing, I feel. It also meant that I got to sing the ABBA song in my head (or perhaps out loud at the top of my voice in te shower) once or twice every day too :-D

Louise said...

Oh how do you know the Pontmercy name??