Book Notes – Les Misérables

I’m so behind with writing about the books I’ve read. I now have eight to do – five from the end of last year and three that I’ve read this month.

I’ve already written snippets about Les Misérables, so I’ll begin with this book. My first encounter with the story was many years ago watching a serialisation on TV and what stood out in my mind from that was the horror of Fantine, desperate for money selling her two front teeth and then towards the end of the book seeing Valjean trudging through the French sewers surrounded by excrement and rats. Reading it last year I realised there is so much more, with a huge cast of characters and covering a sweep of French history in the early 19th century; there’s the Battle of Waterloo and the July Revolution of 1830 which Hugo describes in great detail; there are many digressions and meditations, but basically it’s the story of Jean Valjean the ex-prisoner who is transformed by the actions of Monseigneur Bienvenue, the Bishop of Digne and is pursued by the indefatigable Inspector Javert.

Parts of the book are quite easy reading and I read them quickly. These were parts about the main characters, Valjean, Fantine, her daughter Cosette who Valjean is dedicated to protect, Marius who falls in love with Cosette, the evil Thénardiers and Éponine and Gavroche, their daughter and son. But other parts had me yawning and dragged, when there was too much detail about battles and sieges. Les Misérables cannot compete with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which I think is just so beautifully descriptive that I forget that I don’t like reading about battles and war. Having said that, it is a remarkable book about the forces of good and evil and I enjoyed reading it.

Teaser Tuesday

MizB at Should be Reading hosts this weekly teaser. The idea is to pick two sentences from any page in the book you’re currently reading without giving away “spoilers”.

I’m still reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo so here from today’s reading are three sentences from page 764. This is from one of Hugo’s meditations or digressions that he intersperses in the story just when you want to know what happens next. This meditation appealed to me when I read it today. He has been describing the wild garden of the house where Valjean and Cosette are currently living and he is contemplating Nature and Life:

Nothing is truly small, as anyone knows who has peered into the secrets of Nature. Though philosophy may reach no final conclusion as to original cause or ultimate extent, the contemplative mind is moved to ecstasy by this merging of forces into unity. Everything works upon everything else.

The Sunday Salon

Sunday SalonWhat a gloomy day outside. I knew it was wet when my cat rubbed round my legs first thing this morning. Looking out of the window I could seen a fine sprinkling of snow. That’s all gone now and the rain has set in. What better thing to do than read Les Misérables for a while and then tackle the problem of where to store more books than will fit onto our bookshelves.

Les Misérables

I’ve made good progress this week with reading Hugo’s masterpiece. I’d put it on one side just after meeting Marius, the young aristocrat estranged from his grandfather. This week matters have progressed quite rapidly. Marius walking in the Luxembourg garden sees an elderly gentleman and a beautiful young girl. He falls in love with the girl (who is of course, Cosette). The following pages bring the sordid and wretched conditions of the poor so vividly to life as I read about the true “misérables” of this novel:

Certainly they appeared utterly depraved, corrupt, vile and odious; but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fearful word. They are les misêrables – the outcasts, the underdogs.

I read with bated breath the account of Marius watching through a peephole the terrible happenings in the room next to his as ‘Monsieur Leblanc’ (Valjean) is ambushed, and I wondered how he was going to escape  from both the gangsters and Inspector Javert. I have now finished Part Three, which ends with the introduction of a street urchin, another significant character I assume.

So for the rest of the day it’s more sorting and tidying. D has found a space for another bookcase and in his wonderfully resourceful way remembered he had the parts to make one. He has put them together and now it just needs fixing to the wall and then I can fill it up.

The Sunday Salon

This week I’ve been travelling in time and place in my reading.

I’ve been in Pennsylvania and Connecticut with Gladys Taber and Barbara Webster reading their letters to each other from Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge over one year in the 1950s (the book was published in 1953; there’s been no mention of the Second World War so I’m guessing the letters were written in the late 1940s or early 1950s). Stillmead and Sugarbridge is a book to savour and read slowly. I’m limiting my reading to a few letters each time I pick up the book. Stillmeadow is the house in Southbury, Connecticut where Gladys Taber lived and Sugarbridge is the house where Barbara and her husband Edward Shenton lived in Pennsylvania. Edward’s drawings illustrate the letters. Between the letters and the illustrations I’m getting a good picture of their lives. Their letters are full of the love of the countryside and their families. When I’ve finished it I’ll write more fully about it. For now here is a quote from Barbara’s first letter in the book, writing in January about what she likes about living at Sugarbridge:

A broken-up day is to me a lost day, and social and business dates, no matter how delightful or important, hang over me with a sense of doom. So I am particularly grateful for those long intervals of country peace when we see no one, nor stir from our studio except for an afternoon ramble over the hills. We no longer live by the clock, slaves to time; we make our own.

She thought that this would not be everyone’s ideal. It sounds good to me.

I first read about Gladys Taber on Nan’s blog and was really pleased when she sent me this book. I would like to know more about Gladys and Barbara and so far I’ve found these websites –  Stillmeadow Friends and also Stillmeadow, where I read that the farm was in danger from development. This was in 2002 and I can’t find out what happened – does anyone know? There is also a website for Edward Shenton, but I can’t find out how Gladys and Barbara met.

Then I’ve jumped back in time to France in the 1820s with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I am only too glad that I don’t live in post revolutionary France. The Battle of Waterloo is now over and Jean Valjean has at last escaped from prison and rescued Cosette from her pitiful life with the cruel Thenardiers. Poor Cosette:

Fear emanated from her so that she might be said to be enveloped in it. Fear caused her to draw her elbows in at her sides and her feet underneath her skirt, to take up as little room as possible and to draw no unnecessary breath; it had become so to speak, the habit of her body, impossible of alteration except that it must grow worse, In the depths of her eyes there was the haggard gleam of terror.

Jean and Cosette are currently on their way to Paris and a better life I hope, but I don’t expect it will be as I still have about 800 pages left to read.

Over next to Regency England in the early19th century with Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child. Dialogue makes up a large part of the book, full of 19th century slang. I mentioned this in my last post and in the comments Geranium Cat explained what a “Tiger” is and pointed me to this site – http://www.heyerlist.org/slang.html for more explanations. This book is a mixture of romance, a whirl of social events – balls, masquerades, theatre-going, duels and farce. I’m about halfway in the book and this morning read about the duel between George, Lord Wrotham and Sherry, Anthony Verelst, Viscount Sheringham after Sherry saw George kissing his wife, Hero.

Last and my no means least I’ve popped over to America again. This time to New York with Dodie Smith in 1939 just before the start of World War Two as described in Dear Dodie by Valerie Grove. Dodie and Alec (who she marries) arrive with Pongo, the dalmatian who inspired her to write 101 Dalmatians after leaving England because Alec was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. Dodie was soon cast into gloom, unable to like America and forecasting

years of exile, a world war in progress, losing her audience-sense by being away from England, and possibly also losing all her capital. On three out of four counts her forecast was absolutely correct.

I knew very little about Dodie before and am learning a lot about England at the beginning of the 20th century and theatrical history as well as about Dodie herself – an unsuccessful actress, then a shop assistant at Heals furniture store and then a playwright. It’s fascinating reading about her relationship with people such as Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Gladys Coper, Jack Hawkins and Jessica Tandy, to name but a few.

The Sunday Salon – Travels in the Scriptorium

It’s been a good reading week here. I started and finished Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. It was with some relief that I finally finished Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Three very different books and I’m going to write separate posts on each of them. I’m behind with writing about these books – I just can’t keep up with my own reading. After doing the Page 123 meme on Friday I decided that I would read Travels in the Scriptorium next and I stuck to that even though Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg arrived on Saturday morning.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here and I sat for a while in the garden reading Paul Auster’s Travels In the Scriptorium. It’s a very short novel (130 pages) and I read it in one sitting. I found it to be an odd little tale about Mr Blank, an old man who wakes to find that he is alone in a room. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is or why he is in the almost empty room. At first it seems as this is the story about old age and memory, but as I read on I realised it is more than this. It’s metafiction, with a story, or rather stories within the story, posing a puzzle. Mr Blank spends his day looking at photos on the desk, reading an unfinished manuscript, thinking about his past and talking to the various people who visit him as the day progresses.

Travels in the Scriptorium is a slender book, written in beautiful but simple prose. I wasn’t sure what to expect, after all a scriptorium is a writing room in a monastery but having read it I think the clue to its contents is in the title.

If you’ve never read any of Auster’s books I suppose you could still enjoy this book, but you wouldn’t realise what it was all about and I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this book. If you like a novel to have everything explained and a complete ending with all the strands of the story neatly tied up then don’t read it either. I’ve only read two of Auster’s books – Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions and when I read that Anna, one of the characters in Travels had been married to David Zimmer light began to dawn – Zimmer is the main character in The Book of Illusions, but he wasn’t married to Anna. The title Travels in the Scriptorium is also the title of a film in The Book of Illusions, so obviously, I thought, these are not accidents  – Auster is doing this on purpose. It turns out that all the characters in Travels are characters from his other books.

The manuscript story is unfinished and Mr Blank is disgusted. He is told that a man named Trause is the author. Here is a hint I thought to the puzzle, as Trause is an anagram of Auster as well as being a character in Oracle Night, a character who is also an author. So, this book is about writing, about words and characters and the nature of authorship. As the narrator says of the characters

‘the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist for ever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.’

I think that it is not just the characters that continue to exist but also the authors – we can still read their words and explore what was in their minds through their books. Our interpretation may not be what the author intended (I read somewhere that the reader writes the text), but still I am fascinated by reading what (for example) Jane Austen wrote two centuries ago and what Paul Auster wrote two years ago.

I’m still thinking about Travels. If you’re a fan of Auster then you’ll read it. But is it a great book, a good book or just a book? Just for the fact that it entertained me and made me think I’m going to say it is a good book – but not a great book. I may re-read it sometime when I’ve read a few more of his novels.

This morning I’ve read some more of Les Miserables and have now finished Part One. It’s difficult to know what to write about this novel – it’s long, (nearly ten time longer than Travels), long-winded but compelling me to read on. I remember seeing a TV version some years ago and vaguely know the story. I remember in particular watching with horror after Fantine, desperate for money had sold her two front teeth. My reaction was just the same on reading about it.There’s a whole host of characters and the novel covers a broad sweep of French history in the 19th century. It’s the story of Jean Valjean the ex-prisoner who transformed himself into the respected Mayor Monsieur Madeleine and then is revealed as Valjean by the end of Part One. Part Two opens at Waterloo. I’m tempted to see the musical at the Queen’s Theatre this summer if I can get tickets.

That’s all for now as later we’re meeting some of the family and going on a bluebell walk. Heavy rain is forecast for today but so far there’s no sign of it – I hope it keeps fine for this afternoon.