Les Miserables–Capitulation

I have given up trying to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was a little over halfway through the book, and I simply couldn’t take it any more. Some part of me cared about Jean Valjean and Cosette, hoping things worked out well for them, but not nearly enough to slog through any more of Hugo’s lengthy digressions on French history, Parisian society, the Benedictine rule, or anything else. Les Miserables is not a book—it’s a lifestyle, and I had enough of it.

To those who love the book, I am truly sorry. It just wasn’t for me. I am reminded of something I read years ago in the book Great Books by David Denby. He was writing about the Great Books course at Columbia University. For many years, he wrote, the final exam for the course contained this essay question: What is your least favorite book we read this semester, and what is the flaw in your character that made it so?

Perhaps I am too impatient, too much a creature of the 21st century, and not willing to allow for the narrative expansiveness of long novels like Les Miserables. I do like for stories to be more focused. If Jean Valjean is being chased by the detective Javert and a platoon of police officers, I expect that chase to take fewer than five chapters—especially when the chapters include lengthy descriptions of buildings passed along the way.

Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons was the most popular and influential poem in England in the 18th century. It influenced literature and music—Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons was based on it—and countless paintings and sculptures, not to mention bits of decorative bric-a-brac were modeled on scenes in the poem. But who has heard of it today? Thomson’s poem is largely unreadable to a modern audience, too much of that ‘O Muse, do speak to me!’ and other stilted locutions.

Perhaps books like Les Miserables are the same. Or perhaps it just wasn’t to my taste. At any rate, I have moved on, and I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am now going to read Honore Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I like Balzac, and I hope I like it.

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