Friday 28 December 2018

Les Misérables A Few Pages of History/ Quelques Pages d'histoire V4B1

Well this is a tough book to get through when you're trying to sprint to the end of the volume. A  Few Pages of History, yes. More like Five Chapters of History. Dense, intellectual history that I wish I knew enough to truly appreciate and understand. 

In (very fast) French
but with subtitles

The first five chapters of this book are a history lesson about the two years following the July Revolution of 1830. Much quieter than the well known French Revolution of 1789, the July revolution saw Louis-Philippe installed as King of the French. It seems Victor Hugo was quite the Louis-Philippe fan, even though he said that "the hour has not yet struck when history speaks in its venerable and impartial voice" to pass the "final verdict on this king". Yet he is "one of the best princes who ever sat  on a throne". "He was born a prince and believed that he had been elected king."

Louis-Philippe was a king of total transparency. While he reigned there was press freedom, parliamentary freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
Louis-Philippe sounds a rather fascinating man. 
He was a bit of a builder, a bit of a gardener, a bit of a doctor. He bled a postilion who fell off his horse. Louis-Philippe went nowhere without his surgical knife, any more  than Henri III without his dagger. The royalists jeered at this ridiculous king, the first ever to shed blood as a cure. 
We now know of course that the last thing a horse rider needs after a fall, and presumably decent trauma is further blood loss, and we would do the exact opposite and transfuse them if required, but the 19th century was interesting times. 

There is just so much detail and knowledge jam packed into every sentence of this book. I have a particular fascination with Joan of Arc, and so I was most interested to read:

One of Louis-Philippe's daughters, Marie d'Orléans, won for her distinguished family's name a place among artists, as Charles d'Orléans had won for it a place among poets. She carved a statue of her soul and named it 'Joan of Arc'.
Fascinating! This statue still exists and is on display at Versailles. I've visited Versailles many times. I don't remember seeing this statue in particular, but will have to trawl through my photos sometime, as I always take a picture of any Joan statue that I see. I'd thought that I'd visited Versailles enough but perhaps I will need to return. It seems the original is marble and there are several bronze replicas about the place (New York, Orleans and Domrémy at least), and there is even a painting by Auguste Vinchon of Louis-Philippe visiting the statue that I now need to see. 

The royal family in front of the statue of Joan of Arc
Auguste Vinchon, 1848

Aaaah, If only I could get to Versailles before February 3 I could see the current exhibition Louis-Philippe and Versailles! Louis-Philippe turned Versailles into a museum, and now 32 rooms not normally open to the public will be open for this exhibition. (There is a magnificent 76 page Press Kit to download from that page for those of us stuck in the Southern Hemisphere, or otherwise not near Versailles)

This book is really quite philosophical as well. 

Some people have wanted wrongly to identify the bourgeoisie as a class. The bourgeoisie is simply the contented section of the people. The bourgeois is the man who now has time to sit down. A chair is not a caste. 
And I think gives us an insight into Victor Hugo's own vision of the future. 
Solve the two problems, encourage the rich and protect the poor, eliminate destitution, put an end to the unjust exploitation of the weak by the strong; curb the iniquitous envy, in the one who is making his way up, of the one who has arrived; set the wages for a job fairly and in the spirit of fellowship, foster the development of childhood with free compulsory education and make knowledge the foundation of manliness, develop minds while keeping hands busy; democratise property not by abolishing it but by making it universal, so that every citizen without exception may be a property owner, something easier to achieve than people think. In short, lean how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have both material greatness and moral greatness. And you will be worthy of calling yourself France. 
In chapter 6 Enjolras and His Lieutenants we once again get back to the narrative. Enjolras is assessing the strength of numbers.
How many are we?... Revolutionaries should always feel a sense of urgency, progress has no time to lose.
All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

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. 

Tuesday 11 December 2018

The Teacher's Pet

I finally caught up with The Teacher's Pet recently, having heard about it a lot this year, probably first on Chat 10 Looks 3. The Teacher's Pet is a podcast by Australian journalist Hedley Thomas. It has since been downloaded 29 million times, it won the Gold Walkley Award, Australia's highest journalism award. The podcast started in May this year, and focuses on the 1982 disappearance, and likely murder, of Lyn Dawson, a nurse, wife and mother, from the Northern Beaches of Sydney.

I think most Australians would have some memories of this case over time. I can't remember when I first heard about it, but I certainly did not know then all that I do now. It's just incredible that Lyn Dawson's disappearance was never investigated at the time. Incredible that 36 years have passed since she disappeared. Incredible that two coroners have recommended that her husband be tried for murder, but nothing ever happened.

Lyn Dawson disappeared, never to be heard from or seen again in January 1982. Her marriage had been under severe strain for months and years. Her husband had moved his teenage lover into their home under the guise of her being the babysitter for the couple's two young girls. Lyn was obviously aware of their relationship. She was aware that the babysitter was a high school student at the school where her husband taught PE at the time their relationship started.  She must have felt so much betrayal, hurt and anguish.

It's hard to talk about, or even think about, The Teacher's Pet as entertainment. It's obviously investigative at its focus, rather than pure entertainment. But I'm glad I listened to it. I'm really glad that I managed to time it so that I was most of the way through the podcast, about 10 or 11 episodes in, when Chris Dawson was finally arrested and charged with murder. It gave my listening a real push, just as it was all getting a bit too samey, and I hustled through to the end. The huge success of the podcast, and the timing of the arrest, can be no coincidence. I know the police  have been looking at the case again over the past few years, but an arrest after 36 years at the same time as the most intense public interest and pressure in the case?

There are issues with the sound quality in some episodes, and it does go over the same ground over and over again. The episodes become longer and longer as it goes along. For me it could have done with a bigger pruning. Like every one else who has listened to the podcast I will be very interested in the trial when it happens. I certainly hope that Lyn can be found now and laid to rest.

60 Minutes did a story this year on Lyn Dawson.

Australian Story The Teacher's Wife

Hedley Thomas talks about making the The Teacher's Pet on The Betoota Advocate.