From the Library: Les Misérables – Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the January 11, 2013 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Victor Hugo was born in 1802 of a French military officer and a royalist mother. In his younger years, perhaps due to his privileged birth and upbringing, Hugo was not a denigrator of the French throne and the Church. Hugo’s early literary fame actually came from his poetry and other dramatic works. He wrote his first full-length novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, over thirty years before his second most-famous novel, Les Misérables.

In between the publication of both of his most famous works, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables, Hugo became a unspoken critic of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. This was a period, of course, when much of Europe was in political turmoil. Hugo’s influential writings made an impression on others of the time, most especially Charles Dickens in England and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Russia. Both of them also wrote lengthy novels about social misery and injustice experienced in their own countries. Hugo’s novels met with some mixed reviews although they were enormously popular and translated the world over into native languages.

Hugo also became a critic of the death penalty. His powerful writings resulted in the removal of the death penalty in some courts around the world including Geneva, Switzerland, Colombia and Portugal. In fact, he wrote a letter to officials in the United States pleading to spare the life of American abolitionist John Brown but Brown was executed in 1859.

After the publication and popularity of his first novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sadly-neglected pre-Renaissance cathedral in Paris was restored as popularity for this architecture increased and public outcry was heard.

The period of history that Les Misérables covers is 1815 with the release of fictional Jean Valjean from prison until the unsuccessful anti-monarchist June Rebellion, also known as the 1832 Paris Uprising. Les Misérables is the epic tale of injustice, heroism and love and is compelling for many readers. The English translation of Les Misérables was published only months after the French edition in 1862. Hugo was an open detractor of Louis Napoleon III. Hugo lived in exile in England from 1855 until 1870 and did not return to France until Napoleon III fell from power in 1870 and the Third Republic was proclaimed in France.

The first two volumes of Les Misérables were finished in 1862 and published. The completed book is actually five volumes with three hundred and sixty-five chapters which are very short at less than ten pages. However, the entire book was nearly 1600 pages long when it was first translated into English. The French original was over 2000 pages long.

I opened the copy I had on my bookshelf at home for the first time last week. It is one of the largest books and takes up the most space of any other hardback novel. It’s survived through many purges on my bookshelves through moves and honest assessments of my reading tastes. I had high hopes one day that I would read Hugo’s famous book.

I can say that reading Les Misérables would have helped me immensely when I went to see the musical at the Wang Center in the 1990s. We were seated at the back of the orchestra section with no elevation and I could not make out the faces on the stage. The sound wasn’t much better as I found the lyrics impossible to distinguish. I love Broadway and musicals but I was no fan of one of the most dramatic and beloved productions around the world! I never saw it again. What a sad mistake!

The publicity surrounding the Christmas Day release of the latest Hollywood production of Les Misérables intrigued me. The media promos, teasers, interviews and min-documentaries caught me in their spell.

To my delight, my husband Gerry and I managed to be in one of the thousands of audiences soon after its release in the United States. When the film ended, Gerry heard someone behind us murmur “Thank goodness. I finally understand this. ” When Gerry repeated these words to me, I had to laugh because that was my sentiment exactly.

Tom Hooper, the director of Les Misérables, insisted that songs be recorded live on the set instead of in post-production sound studios. The orchestration was then dubbed in. The result was heartfelt and imperfect renditions that were magical for me, just as Tom Hooper had hoped. Much has been criticized about the singing in this latest musical, especially of Russell Crowe. For me, it made the entire production more real, more emotional and more endearing.

Since that first publication of the book there have been many editions and adaptations. In 1937 Orson Wells directed a seven-part radio series broadcast on Fridays at 10 in the evening between July 23 and September 3, 1937. The stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh with lyrics by Alain Boublil and music by Claude-Michel Schönberg opened in 1985 in London where it now has been performed over 11,000 times. It is the longest-running musicals on Broadway in New York with nearly 7000 performances. Additionally, Liam Neeson starred in the 1998 dramatic film and Gerard Depardieu starred in a 2000 TV miniseries.

Of course there are many versions of Hugo’s novel available, including a most-recent (and purportedly readable) translation by Norman Denny. There are abridgements available, as well.

If you need help finding any of the adaptations of Hugo’s Les Misérables, please call a reference librarian or stop into the library to speak with a librarian. If you are searching yourself in the Minuteman Library Network catalog by title be sure to leave off the French article “les” and search using the word “miserables.” Alternately, a keyword search “les miserables” will also lead you to the many editions and adaptations in the network.

I know that had I seen the musical version of Les Misérables in the small, intimate theaters in New York I would have undoubtedly become a fan. Easier still, had read the book I would have appreciated any of the adaptations of the story. I’m not sure I will tackle all 1250 pages in the book that sits on the shelf in my home library but you might say that I’ve always “dreamed a dream” and the book will remain on my bookshelf for years to come.

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