I was rather surprised to find that the grand sweeping saga of Les Miserables starts with a 57 page, 14 chapter study of Monseigneur Bienvenu, a character that I see as a rather small figure in the scheme of things- an expectation that is only based on viewings of the film and stage show. But it was so beautifully written and translated, and I was never bored, only impatient for the story proper to start. Those 19th century readers must have been much more patient than folks of today- binge watching everything with attention spans of goldfish.
This long buildup, a 57 page preamble, about what the good, kind nature of Monseigneur Bienvenu is presumably so that we are not surprised with how he interacts with Jean Valjean later, and feel that it is completely within his nature, and we will even expect him to behave as he does.
Monseigneur Bienvenu lives a somewhat spartan existence himself so that he can do even greater work for the poor. He swaps his large bishops residence for the overcrowded hospital next door. He lives on a very modest budget, eating simple meals ("his usual meal consisted only of boiled vegetables and soup with oil") so that he can give most of his stipend to charity. His "winter drawing room" is the cow shed.
Since he made his cassocks last a very long time and did not want anyone to notice, he never went into town without his purple quilted coat. This was a little uncomfortable in summer.His one luxury is eating off the silverware that are relics of his past, six silver forks and spoons, and the two large candlesticks that were an inheritance from a great aunt. Monseigneur Bienvenu is a simple man, acting with charity. He does not philosophise. "He did not study God, he yielded to the radiance of God." A man of "No abstract theories, many practical deeds".
Suffering everywhere was an opportunity for kindness always.Hugo of course discusses the church.
A wealthy print is a contradiction in terms. The priest ought to remain close to the poor.... The first proof of charity in a priest, in a bishop especially, is poverty.And there is even an atheist senator.
Did I exist before my birth? No. Shall I exist after my death? No. What am I? A little dust bound together by an organism. What am I to do on this earth? I have the choice: to suffer, or to enjoy myself. Where will suffering get me? To non-existence. But I shall have suffered. Where will enjoyment get me? To non-existence. But I shall have enjoyed myself.... After that, however long you manage to keep going, the grave-digger is there, the Panthéon for some of us, but all end up in the great hole in the ground.Victor Hugo himself did end up entombed in the Pantheon. He is in a crypt with Émile Zola and Andre Dumas.
There is just so much within these pages, every page is quotable. Not a word wasted, even though there are so many of them. Although I did wonder at the purpose of Chapter IX The Brother as Described by His Sister, except perhaps to show that even those closest to him felt the same way about him as our omniscient narrator.
Victor Hugo wrote his masterpiece with a stated aim of social change, even in these early pages we see mention of the Revolution on the first page, and Napoleon on page 2. Indeed it is a chance meeting with Napoleon that transforms Monsieur Myriel to Monseigneur Bienvenu. Hugo in his rather humble foreward:
As long as through the workings of laws and customs there exists a damnation-by-society artificially creating hells in the very midst of civilisation and complicating destiny, which is divine, with a man-made fate; as long as the three problems of the age are not resolved: the debasement of men through proletarianization, the moral degradation of women through hunger, and the blighting of children by keeping them in darkness; as long as in certain strata social suffocation is possible; in other words and from an even broader perspective, as long as there are ignorance and poverty on earth, books of this kind may serve some purpose.There certainly is still a modern purpose for Les Miserables. Indeed many.
Let it be said in passing, success is a fairly hideous thing. Its false resemblance to merit deceives men.Occasionally a word struck me as particularly modern, perhaps out of place.
He considered these magnificent conjunctions of atoms that lend appearances to matter, reveal forces by putting them into effect, create individuality within unity, proportion within the continuum of space, the numberless within the infinite; and produce beauty through light.Atoms? Victor Hugo wrote of atoms? But yes, yes he did.
Il considérait ces magnifiques rencontres des atomes qui donnent des aspects à la matière, révèlent les forces en les constatant, créent les individualités dans l'unité, les proportions dans l'étendue, l'innombrable dans l'infini, et par la lumière produisent la beauté.I was very interested in the mention of Louis XVII (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), and I remembered my visit to La Basilique de Saint Denis in the summer of 2013. Louis XVII died a child, aged 10, and his heart is on display at Saint Denis. Every little conversation, every paragraph of Les Miserables is loaded with meaning.
Louis XVII is mentioned in contrast with another Louis, not a royal Louis, but Louis Dominique Bourguignon, known as Cartouche, a French highwayman of the Robin Hood type, robbing the rich to give to the poor. Cartouche's brother, Louison, a boy of 15 was hanged for being the brother of Cartouche. The deaths of these two young boys are debated. A dying member of the Convention that Monseigneur Bienvenu visits says:
'Come now! Who is it that you mourn? The innocent child? In that case, very well, I mourn with you. Is it the royal child? I need to think about that. For me, Cartouche's brother, an innocent child hanged by the arms until dead in Place de Grève for the sole crime of being the brother of Cartouche, is no less cause for sorrow than Louis XV's grandson, an innocent child martyred in the tower of the Temple prison for the sole crime of being the grandson of Louis XV.'The absolute hardest thing about reading A Good Man, was not reading ahead. I was so keen to start Les Mis that I just wanted to keep going, and some of the chapters are particularly short- one to two pages that it's very tempting to say "Oh, just one more".
Slow Reading en français: My progress in French is even slower. Indeed I am stalled at Chapter Two, mainly because I've been enjoying a fabulous summer break in Sydney, and have barely had time to read in English let alone French. I will begin again when I get home.
I'm hoping to do a wrap up of each book as we progress throughout the year.