Janet reads Les Mis: Victor Hugo could have used an editor

So. Anyone mind if I grumble a little? (These Les Mis posts are going to be gossipy types instead of the usual academic sort, fyi.)

It’s just. Victor Hugo REALLY could have used an editor. Norman Denny (translator) wrote in his introduction that he slightly curtailed the worst of Hugo’s excesses, but I’m beginning to wonder if he didn’t go far enough.

It’s just. I’m used to middle grade and YA novels, which incorporate backstory, setting, psychological-mental-spiritual growth (or deterioration), human relationships, and the things that make up stories… without going on for FOUR PAGES detailing the exact inner processes experienced by their protagonists during an event whose description requires less than one page.

So either I’m spoiled by modern standards and children’s literature…

Or Victor Hugo really could have used an editor.

Also, the man has no subtlety. None whatsoever. Every detail (excepting the ENTIRE CHAPTER devoted to the social-cultural-historical trivia of 1817) is included to hammer home what Hugo wants the reader to believe about the characters. Which, okay. Is what all writers do.

But you have to draw the line somewhere, don’t you? I mean, he’s just so blatant.

On the plus side, the novel is marvelously entertaining.

I mean, setting aside the horrible sexism in:

  1. casting Fantine as the blonde and blue-eyed, I kid you not innocent and beautiful victim (because the other mistresses would have deserved to get pregnant, right? because we can only care for women if they are beautiful and “pure”; plain, ugly, and sexually experienced women don’t deserve compassion, right?)
  2. every. word. that. leaves. Tholomyes’s. mouth.

it’s pretty good.

More than pretty good, really: Tholomyes is so over-the-top awful I almost forgot what suffering he causes. Need proof? He compares puns to bird poop.


No, I’m serious.

Puns are the droppings of the spirit in its flight. They may fall anywhere, and the spirit, having voided itself of a flippancy, rises into the blue. A white splash on a rock does not prevent the eagle from soaring. (p. 135)

So what he does is this: he kills the swinging party mood with a bad pun, then calls puns bird droppings, then lauds himself as a noble eagle who has just shat on his companions. Yeah. You go, brah.

And then he monologues for SIX PAGES, during which his every word reveals how incredibly misogynist, narcissistic, shallow, and pretentious he is. I squirmed, reading. Honestly. It was uncomfortable having to read that. I may have skimmed. 

To be fair to Tholomyes, Hugo pulls the same nasty little trick he uses with Fantine again: physical description (more exactly, beauty or its absence) reveals the soul. You’d think he’d read fairy tales uncritically, or something. Tholomyes is 30, i.e. old for a student (especially in contrast to Fantine! who is somewhere between 17 and 22, and almost certainly less than 20), and balding, with bad teeth and really no attractive physical features or redeeming qualities whatsoever.

VIctor Hugo is definitely a problematic fav, even if he’s not my problematic fav.

Still, despite the excessive descriptions (did I mention the excessive descriptions? they are excessively excessive), the droppings encountered (Tholo-whatshisface and his three friends), and the whole beauty thing…

I don’t know. It’s an oddly engaging story. Mostly because I know what’s coming and IT IS BAD, so anything that delays IT for a little longer (or, say, a thousand pages) is comparatively tolerable. It’s an odd book, but very entertaining. Mostly because of the notes I scribble on scrap paper, yelling at the characters or their longwinded author, who most absolutely needed a ruthless-penned editor.

But I’ll confess: I started reading Book 4, chapter 1, saw the words “a couple called Thénardier”, and promptly shut the book. OH NO THE THÉNARDIERS. Send help, stat.

Soooooooo, anyone have tips on how to survive this most loathsome pair?

Also: anyone interested in starting a fanfic project with me? I’m thinking along the lines of excising the over-description with the goal of making a readable YA novel using (exclusively? mostly?) the original text. Or, y’know, just rewriting the whole thing as a modern book, with annotations in the margins on everything we disagree with in the original.