Archive for October 4th, 2021

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age – the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night – are not solved; as long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
Victor Hugo, preface to Les Misérables (Hauteville House, 1862)

Dear friends and reader,

As I started to read it, the text seems to me utterly contemporary and referring itself to what is all around us today; a book again
for our time … I became so excited with the beauty of the prose and the incisive suggestively rich allegorical underpinnings …

I’m hope I am not giving an impression that I spend my life making schedules for reading with other people: this the sixth such calendar I’ve put on this blog this year. In four cases they were part of syllabi for classes I teach (this year all online) but in two they are schedules for me and several other people (thus far we have 7) to read together over several weeks (here months) on a listserv. I put this one on because most unexpectedly when I shared a previous schedule for this book with two FB pages I found a couple of people joined the listservs where we are reading them, and more people were planning to read along than I thought would. It is a famous book, many movies, a stupendously successful musical, many editions, many translations, and a full secondary literature.

I then discovered I had been far too optimistic or naive about quite how long Victor Hugo’s profound masterpiece is. In the 2013 Deluxe Penguin edition I am reading the text in it’s 1416 pages, including notes bit excluding the introduction. So I revised it, and will now put it here and the URL to this blog in those two places as an amendment. I am also inviting people to join us this way. Go to:




The novel is divided into 5 books, corresponding (as David Bellos shows in his wonderfully lucid nformative and enjoyable book on Les Miserables as The Novel of the Century) to five stories or narratives, the first three centered more or less on three of the major characters: 1) Fantine; 2) her daughter, Cosette; 3) the young man who falls in love with Cosette, Marius; 5) and our hero whose lifeline is the general backbone of the book, Jean Valjean. 4 appears to be centered on the rebellion that occurs in the novel in Paris, which all our still living major characters, even Javert, the police guard who goes in pursuit of Valjean, take part in. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 5 are 8 to 9 books each, with Part 4, 15 books.

I will be reading the recent Penguin translated by Christine Donougher (used by Bellos, recommended by him) and have followed the numbers I found there but also have the older Penguin Norman Denny (where two chapters said to be straight history are placed in the back of the book). This time I do not have the text in French (as I did when on these same listservs we read Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris).

For the week beginning Sunday,

Oct 3: Part 1, Bks 1-2
Oct 10, Part 1, Bks 3-5
Oct 17, Part 1, Bks 6-8
Oct 24, Part 2, Bks 1-3
Oct 31, Part 2, Bks 4-6
Nov 7, Part 2, Bks 7-8
Nov 14, Part 3, Bks 1-3
Nov 21, Part 3, Bks 4-6
Nov 28, Part 3, Bks 7-8
Dec 5, Part 4, Bks 1-3
Dec 12, Part 4, Bks 4-6
Dec 19 Part 4, Bks 7-9
Dec 26 Part 4, Bks 10-12
Jan 2, Part 4: Bks 13-15
Jan 9, Part 5, Bks 1-3
Jan 16, Part 5, Bks 4-6
Jan 23, Part 5, Bks 7-9

So we finish just as February is rolling round …

As you can see we’ve started already but we will take a longer time over the first Part (Fantine) to give people a chance to join in, get the book and catch up, become (we hope) immersed.

Harriet Walter reading aloud poetry (so did Tobias Menzies) from Simon Schama’s The Romantics and US: the third part includes an impressive meditation on Hugo

Translations and editions. For what it’s worth, here is an article about the merits and flaws of several central translations. The Wilbour translation is contemporary with Hugo, and the Isabel Hapgood is another good 19th century text (with pictures), but Hugo sanctioned and gave advice on a translation by Sir Lascelles Wraxall, which is online at Gutenberg. If you go to Part 1, Fantine, that will take you to the later books. Hugo’s original French is also online at Gutenberg: you begin with Part 1, Fantine. There is a venerable Everyman whose translator is not named. Here is my old Denny, quite lively English, with a good introduction. And the latest, an award winner by the highly praised Julie Rose for Modern Library

Group photo of actors in 2018/29 Les Miserables

Movies galore: I’ve watched several and think nothing competes with the most recent, however too short, by Andrew Davies, 2018/19: Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Adeel Akhtar; Lily Collins, Olivia Coleman; Ron Cook. Dir: BBC/Masterpiece. I’ve never seen a more terrifying poignant depiction, Lily Collins astonishing, unforgettable, without hair, without teeth, laughed at, spurned and finally dying without retrieving her child in time.

The musical needs no description here. Here is a blog where they read Les Miserables one chapter a day and compared the movies (it includes clips).

Signature theater production in Arlington (my husband, Jim, loved this one and wrote a now lost blog on it)

Here is Peter Brooks’s just, apt, enthusiastic review of David Bellos’ book (you can find none better in the new biography of a book mode) through having read about Hugo thoroughly and Les Miserables too. I’m also reading slowly as we go Graham Robb’s suave biography

Victor Hugo on the terrace of Hauteville House, Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables, 1868

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