Thursday, 27 December 2018

Les Misérables V3 Marius

Oh dear. I've had such a bad reading (and blogging) year. I've been becalmed for months, and not just in Les Mis. I was so excited about the #LesMisReadalong at the start of the year. I really thought I could keep up with it. It seemed doable. Manageable. Even though I am notoriously bad at books over 500 pages I thought that tackling a chapter a day might help me get over the line on time. Well, nope.

I was stalled in May for a long time, and then managed to get caught up to August. Although sadly in the Real Life World it's December, and not August. It's not like I don't like Victor Hugo's writing- I really do. There is something quotable or profound on pretty much every page. I do still very much want to finish it, I don't want to DNF Les Mis. I'm always more optimistic about my reading capabilities than I will ever achieve in this life time (which goes much of the way to explaining my TBR) , so much so that it was only yesterday that I realised that I really wouldn't finish Les Mis in the allocated 2018 reading time. 

But last night I finished Volume 3, Marius, and now I'm going to make a last ditch effort and try to read V4 The Rue Plumet Idyll and The Rue St-Denis Epic before the end of the year. This is optimistic I know. Especially as I go back to work on Sunday, and have multiple social engagements to fit in too. 

Marius is of course very much the subject of his own volume. Despite qualifying as a lawyer Marius falls onto very hard times after his estrangement from his grandfather. 

Life became hard for Marius. Using his clothes and his watch for food was nothing. There was much worse he had to stomach. Terrible hardship, consisting of days without bread, nights without sleep, no candle in the evening, no fire in the hearth, weeks without work, a future without hope, a coat worn through at the elbows, an old hat that makes young girls laugh, a door found locked a night because the rent was not paid, the insolence of the doorman and the eating-house keeper, the sneering of neighbours, humiliations, dignity trampled underfoot, having to accept any kind of work, demoralisation, bitterness, despondency. 
We learn that "Marius was now a handsome young man of medium height, with thick jet-black hair, an intelligent high forehead, flared, sensuous nostrils, an air of sincerity and calm", and when he first sees a young girl sitting with an old man in the Luxembourg Gardens, she is "a slip of a thing of thirteen or fourteen years of age, so thin as to be almost ugly, awkward, unremarkable, but with some promise perhaps of having quite attractive eyes."

Having all my prior Les Mis knowledge based on the stage and movie versions I was quite surprised at this first description of teenage Cosette (not that Marius knows her name yet, and doesn't throughout this whole volume). Still, six months passes without Marius seeing the girl on the bench, and she has become quite changed when next he sees her. 

Only, when he came close, it was certainly the same man but it seemed too him it was no longer the same girl. The person he now saw was a tall and beautiful creature with all the loveliest of womanly curves at that very moment when they are still combined with all the most artless of childish graces. A fleeting and innocent moment that can only be conveyed by these three words: fifteen years old. 
Which almost sounds a bit creepy to the modern reader. Although Marius is a young man and he soon falls in love with Cosette merely by sight. I was delighted that there was some hanky dropping as in The Three Musketeers. 

Most of the rest of the volume is Marius trying to find Cosette again after having become too obvious and drawing her father's attention, and the rather dramatic events in the Gorbeau tenement when  Jondrette lures his benefactor into an ambush. There is much beauty in Hugo's prose about poverty and the misery of the 19th century French human condition. 

Cities, like forests, have their dens, and inside them lurks whatever they have that is most savage and fearsome. Only, in cities, what lurks there is ferocious, foul and small, that is to say, ugly. In forests, what lurks there is ferocious, wild and big, that is to say, beautiful. Den for den, that of the beasts, is preferable to that of man. Caves are better than slums. 
The contrast between rich and poor. 
"Villain! Yes, I know that's what you call us, you rich folk! Well, it's true my business went bust, I'm in hiding, I've no food, I've no money, I'm a villain! I've not eaten for three days, I'm a villain! Ah! you lot keep your feet warm, you have shoes made by Sakoski, you have padded overcoats like archbishophs, you live on the first floor in houses with caretaker, you eat truffles, you eat asparagus at forty francs a bunch in the month of January, and green peas, you gorge yourselves, and when you want to know whether it's cold you look in the newspaper to see what Engineer Chevallier's thermometer says. We're our won thermometers, we are! We don't need to go down to the embankment and look on the corner of the Tour de l'Horloge to find out how many degrees below zero it is. We feel the blood freezing in our veins and the ice reaching into our hearts, and we say: "There is no God!" And you come into our dens, yes, our dens, and call us villains!"
I was surprised at one of the villains of the Patron-Minette gang was called Montparnasse, and wondered if the famous left bank region was named after a fictitious criminal, or indeed a real criminal. Although I can't find anything out there to suggest that this is the case. Wikipedia suggests that Montparnasse has been part of Paris since the 17th century, obviously long predating Victor Hugo. 

Also fascinating to see a direct reference to the les misérables of our title:

They seemed very depraved, very corrupt, very debased- heinous, even - but rare are those who fall without sinking into vice. In any case, there is a point where the poor and the wicked become mixed up and lumped together in the one fateful word: les misérables- the wretched.

And now onward and upward to Volume 4...

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

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