I’ve been lately toying with the idea of reading Hugo’s Les MisÃ©rables again. I was with Isaac and Greg at Barnes & Noble a week or so ago and bought a copy. (I’ve always been irritated with myself about the fact that I love the book so much and yet do not own a copy.) I got a nice Modern Library hardcover.
I’ve been trying like mad to find an electronic version in the original French, but to no avail. Plenty in English, though. I can just imagine that the French is amazing. Amazon has a copy, but I don’t want to spend the money right now.
As we sat in the cafÃ©, sipping espresso-derived drinks, I flipped through the pages, each one a mine of literary gems. It’s not difficult to open to any random page and be blown away at how beautifully written the novel is (even in English! a credit to the translator as well, I suppose…).
I remember when I read it for the first time in high school I dreaded the sections in which Hugo digressed into descriptions of battles and other things for which my teenage mind had neither the time nor the patience. At our table at Barnes & Noble, though, I came across one part that was about the battle of Waterloo, a battle we Americans hear very little (if anything) about in our history classes (because no Americans were directly involved, I wonder?). I still am not a fan of reading accounts of battles that have taken place at any time anywhere, but a certain passage I came across was so well-written that I forced mes pauvre amis (and the other cafÃ© patrons) to listen to me read it out loud (sorry guys!).
As I mentioned before, Waterloo is not well-known to us Americans. I myself don’t know much about it, other than the fact that it signaled the victory of the British over Napoleon and the French. However, to Hugo (and to the French in general, I’d imagine) the battle was of the most immense import. About twenty pages before the passage I read to my poor friends (in my spiffy Modern Library edition, of course) is an interesting statement about Waterloo:
Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed.
He vexed God.
Waterloo is not a battle; it is the charge of front of the universe.
All I can say is, I’d love to take a French History course from this guy! He recounts historical events in such captivating and literarily artistic ways that you forget that he’s teaching you history! That’s how history should be taught, in my opinion.
I like the passage so much, in fact, that I will post it here. This is at the very end of Les Mis “Cosette” I.XVI
The field of Waterloo to-day has that calm which belongs to the earth, impassive support of man; it resembles any other plain.
At night, however, a sort of visionary mist arises from it, and if some traveller be walking there, if he looks, if he listens, if he dreams like Virgil in the fatal plain of Philippi, he becomes possessed by the hallucination of the disaster. The terrible 18th of June is again before him; the artificial hill of the monument fades away, this lion, whatever it be, is dispelled; the field of battle resumes its reality; the lines of infantry undulate in the plain, furious gallops traverse the horizon; the bewildered dreamer sees the flash of sabres, the glistening of bayonets, the bursting of shells, the awful intermingling of the thunders; he hears, like a death-rattle from the depths of a tomb, the vague clamour of the phantom battle; these shadows are grenadiers; these gleams are cuirassiers; this skeleton is Napoleon; that skeleton is Wellington; all this is unreal, and yet it clashes and combats; and the ravines run red, and the trees shiver, and there is fury even in the clouds and, in the darkness, all those savage heights, Mont Saint Jean, Hougomont, Frischemont, Papelotte, Planchenoit, appear confusedly crowned with whirlwinds of spectres exterminating each other.
Talk about your flashback! I hope someday I will be able to write like Victor Hugo. Amazing.
So should I read it again? This will be the third time. My problem is that I’m already reading a ton of stuff!