Aasof on “Les Mis”
This week on Facebook: Or should I say, “Everything you always wanted to know about ‘Les Mis’ but were afraid to ask”. I like musicals but have been put off ‘Les Mis’ by colleagues who cannot fail to talk about it in anything but rapturous, perhaps even reverential tones. Whether they are waxing lyrically about a stage production, the film, a DVD or simply a CD of the music from it, their adoration of ‘Les Mis’ has driven me further and further from any desire to watch or listen to the music from ‘Les Mis’. I don’t know what conclusions I would draw were to see the show in any form.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo has had many adaptations over time, but perhaps non that have induced the fervour of the musical adaptation than what has become known as ‘Les Mis’.
I doubt very much that any of those who wax so eloquently about ‘Les Mis’ have ever read Victor Hugo’s magnum opus and neither have I. However, I have downloaded the novel and anyone who wishes to read all five volumes — which I may try and do — can click on the link below. Alternatively you can click on Librivox for a free audio version.
It turns out that in researching this post I find that am familiar with some of the songs from ‘Les Mis’ although I don’t have any recordings. I now find myself torn between reading the books or watching the film. I think that good singers who can also act are a bonus to a production, whilst good singers who can’t act are not, bad singers in a musical make me wonder if there acting ability can compensate for it. There are plenty of musical offerings on ‘YouTube’ with music from artists in that media (a link to the film trailer is shown below). The comments that accompany the YouTube trailer take us back to this post’s introduction.
I think that Victor Hugo’s influence on the French psyche is more obvious than that of Shakespeare on Les Anglo-Saxons. Then the ‘English’ fail to understand the significance of the 1789 revolution in France, nor the subsequent revolutions depicted by Hugo in his book¹. Just as they fail to appreciate the significance in France of rise and fall of Napoléon Bonaparte, or the popularity of Victor Hugo and of the influences both have on the French psyche.
In Les Misérables, Hugo traces the social impact of the numerous revolutions, insurrections, and executions that took place in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France. By chronicling the rise and fall of Napoléon as well as the restoration and subsequent decline of the Bourbon monarchy, Hugo gives us a sense of the perpetual uncertainty that political events imposed upon daily life. Though Hugo’s sympathies are with republican movements rather than with the monarchy, he criticizes all of the regimes since the French Revolution of 1789 for their inability to deal effectively with social injustice or eliminate France’s rigid class system. Hugo describes the Battle of Waterloo, for instance, in glowing terms, but reminds us that at the end of the glorious battle, the old blights of society, like the grave robbers, still remain. SparkNotes: Les Misérables
There are some, particularly amongst Les Anglo-Saxons, who are not so enamoured with Victor Hugo and until I began researching him I had also made certain assumptions about his personality. As with so many figures who are considered ‘great’ in their particular field of endeavour, we tend not to look for feet of clay.
(Monday) There’s Still Hope for People Who Love “Les Mis”: I want to render a public service. I want to suggest that even if you were deeply moved by “Les Mis,” you can still save your soul. I don’t think you are damned forever. Salvation awaits. I realize that we are not supposed to argue about taste. De gustibus non est disputandum, as some Latin fellow said. But, in fact, critics do nothing but argue about taste. And I realize that emotion is even harder and riskier to argue about. But, as we have new experiences, emotions change. Therefore, in the interest of public health, I will try to bring cures to the troubled. But first, a few words about the movie version of “Les Misérables.”
(Tuesday) The windbaggery of Victor Hugo: So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilisation of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century–the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light–are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;–in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.
(Wednesday) Victor Hugo: Liberty and Justice For All: Hugo’s most beloved work, Les Misérables, nails government as a chronic oppressor. He shows poor people being helped not by government but by the charitable works of a private individual. He tells why a resourceful entrepreneur is an engine of human progress. He celebrates revolution against tyranny, while making clear why egalitarian policies backfire. His hero Jean Valjean does good voluntarily, peacefully.
(Thursday) The Novel of the Century – the story of Les Misérables: David Bellos has written a biography not of Hugo, but of his masterpiece, Les Misérables. Putting recent literary scholarship into narrative form, Bellos traces the life of the 1,500-page novel from conception to publication, mentioning along the way the many film and musical adaptations of Les Misérables that have given it a rich life beyond the printed page.
(Friday) Les Misérables and Its Critics: There’s nothing new about dismissive critical attitudes towards Les Misérables. Whatever the incarnation (text, musical, film), the enlightened response to Victor Hugo’s tale has been condescension. The hostility at first ranged from George Sand’s “Too much Christianity,” or Baudelaire’s “A vile and inept book,”² to Rimbaud’s mother blaming it on corrupting her son.
¹Les Misérables and France’s many revolutions
²JSTOR — Baudelaire on Les Misérables (pdf): To Baudelaire’s credit it must be admitted that not once did he call the novel a great work of art or praise it for anything more than its characterisation or its effective propaganda.
NOTE: For those unfamiliar with JSTOR set up a free account allowing you to have 3 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.
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