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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:

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries

or

https://groups.io/g/18thCWorlds

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

Join us

https://groups.io/g/TrollopeAndHisContemporaries

or

https://groups.io/g/18thCWorlds

Ellen

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Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

************************************


Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

**********************************


Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

********************************


Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen

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