Usually, my summer projects are not exactly grueling.
Trim the hedge. Wash the car. Wax the dog.
Take a beer tour of the world, drinking a beer from a different country every night.
This summer, however, I have set a goal that is so ambitious, so monumental, that it borders on just plain nuts. I am plowing through the entire unabridged version of “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo.
Do you have any idea of the sheer magnitude of this task? My paperback “Les Miz” is 1,463 pages long.
Yes, you read that right. When you get to page 300 of this monstrosity, at the point where a normal book is approaching its exciting finale, you’re still, more or less, reading the introduction.
And these pages are not airy and full of white space. They are densely packed with verbiage, in a font normally used in the “terms and conditions” portion of your credit card bill.
So, you may be wondering, in your polite way: “Jim, what kind of moron are you? Why are you spending your summer reading an 1862 French novel the size of a cinder block?”
Well, I simply felt it was time. I have long been a fan of the musical version of “Les Miserables.” I thought it made sense to actually read the source material. Plus, I didn’t have anything else to read, since my wife, Carol, got first dibs on “ESPN: Those Guys Have All the Fun,” a book in which SportsCenter anchors gossip about one another.
Yet I really didn’t have any clue about how daunting this task would be. I had my first inkling when I realized that the book’s first nine chapters are about the life, the career and the philosophy of the Bishop of Digne – and “Les Miserables” isn’t even about the Bishop of Digne.
This guy dies in the first 100 pages.
No, “Les Miserables” is about Jean Valjean, who first shows up on about page 59; Cosette, who shows up on page 151; Javert, on page 203; and Marius, on page 616.
Page 616? It’s as if J.K. Rowling hadn’t introduced Harry Potter until Volume 4.
And I had no idea that Victor Hugo, besides being a beloved French novelist, is also the king, le roi, of the digression. I should have been ready for this, since the book starts with nine chapters of digression (about that bishop). But that’s child’s play compared to what Hugo does with Waterloo.
In the middle of the book, for no apparent reason, he devotes a few chapters – actually 19 – to the Battle of Waterloo. Now, you must understand, “Les Miserables” is not about Waterloo. It takes place long after Waterloo. But Victor Hugo doesn’t let that little detail stop him.
Hugo also takes about 40 pages to deposit every opinion he has ever had about the subject of: French convents. It’s like an op-ed piece titled, “Nuns: Holy or Just Plain Lazy?” Just when you’re sure he’s tapped out on the good sisters, he begins a chapter with this particularly disheartening phrase: “Just a few words more …”
And yet …
I love this book. I am crazy about this book. The plot, during the hundreds of pages when Hugo sticks to it, is as exciting, gripping and suspenseful as an action movie. The characters, when we finally meet them, are vivid, alive and timeless. Hugo’s mind is brilliant, generous and kind. The novel is as excellent as the musical, multiplied by 10.
I have even grown to love the digressions. One digression is about the street urchins of Paris. We learn about their slang, their dress and their sneaky ways of making (or stealing) a franc. In this case, it leads up to meeting Gavroche, a tough-talking, dirty-faced and altogether cool Parisian street kid.
I am currently on page 953. I have only about 500 left to go.
I’m already feeling a little sorry for myself. I don’t want this little book to end too soon.