söndag 11 september 2011

Please Hugo, cut to the chase (one with Javert in it)

I realise that my blog entries about books have been thin on the ground lately. The reason is my current Ambitious Book Project, which leaves little room for other reading except for the odd crime novel or romance. I'm trudging through an unabridged English translation of Victor Hugo's "Les Misérables" of roughly 1200 pages, and it's taking some time.

I've already read an abridged Swedish translation of the novel and, being young and naïve and not realising the version I'd been reading was shortened, I happily recommended the novel to acquaintances. As it happens, there are no recent Swedish translations of the whole thing, but since I realised the novel's real size I've felt a bit bad about my (albeit unwitting) intellectual window-dressing. I bought a three-volume French paperback edition of the novel years ago, but let's face it: I was never, ever going to read a 1200-page novel in French. Finally, I decided to do the next best thing and read it in translation, even if the language it is translated into happens to be that of the duke of Wellington (who cuts absolutely no ice with Hugo).

In principle, I'm very much against shortening books. Even when an author seems to stray from the point a bit, there is often a reason for it, and you risk losing no end of nuances with a version that has been pared down to contain only what is necessary for the plot. As an example, I seem to remember an abridged Swedish translation of "David Copperfield" which did not contain, for instance, the sub-plot about Doctor Strong's marriage. This sub-plot is not essential to the main plots, and has accordingly been lifted out of each and every TV adaptation, but it is interesting in its own right and it reinforces the impression we have of some of the main characters. Oh, and did I mention it includes some lovely Uriah scenes? In short, in their zeal to find the essential core of a book, abridgers might really cheat you of something. Besides, you can't really brag about having read an abridged novel, can you?

In the case of "Les Misérables", though, I must say the Swedish abridger did a jolly good job. He or she kept all the juicy dramatic bits - such as the conflict between the harassed ex-con Jean Valjean and the policeman Javert who always ends up crossing his path - while radically shortening digressions. I've reached page 500 or thereabouts in the unabridged version now, and so far no hidden gems like "lost" Javert scenes have come to light. What was cut from the Swedish version was cut for a reason.

It is a pity that a great author like Hugo, who can write vivid dramatic scenes that glue you to the page, felt the need to intersperse them with lengthy digressions which really have no bearing on the story whatsoever. The novel starts, disastrously, with a fifty-page ode to the goodness of the bishop of Digne, the man who with his kindness saves Jean Valjean from a life of darkness and crime. All we need to know about the bishop is there in his humane treatment of Jean Valjean. We don't need to hear about his good works in detail, especially as his sacrifices don't always impress quite in the way Hugo doubtless intended. Not only the bishop but also his sister, who lives with him, are kept in poverty because he gives the lion share of his earnings to the poor. At one time, it is mentioned that the sister would dearly like to buy a lounge for her room, but is never able to save enough money for it. Apparently, it hasn't occurred to her brother to buy it for her and shorten his lavish alms to the poor just for once. We are also given to understand that the bishop, when he anonymously receives some church finery stolen from a Cathedral by a penitent thief, converts it into money for a hospital. But this was the Cathedral's property, surely, and not the bishop's to sell or donate.

Further down the line, there is an account (also about fifty pages) of the battle of Waterloo and of Hugo's thoughts on it. The only thing it explains plot-wise is why Marius Pontmercy's officer father is lying in a ditch, where he is later rescued by the crook Thénardier (who in effect only wanted to pick his pockets). We also get approximately forty-five pages on the rules and life in a convent where Jean Valjean seeks shelter, and on what Hugo thinks about convents generally. Please - enough already! Lately I've come through a description (only seventeen pages this time, though) of the phenomenon of the Paris gamin, with some additional commentary from Hugo about how Paris resembles ancient Rome. There is a gamin in "Les Misérables", the famous Gavroche (who I trust will not be such a trial as he is in the musical, though he does give Javert away on the barricade), but that does not mean we need a lengthy definition of the term.

Jean Valjean is an interesting portrait of a man who continously struggles to be good. Javert is a wonderful villain, rare because he doesn't see himself as a villain at all (I may blog more about him when I've finally finished the book). The Thénardiers - not the vulgar comic-relief characters of the musical at all but nasty and cunning pieces of work - also make for good drama. But for my own philistine part, I would not have minded if Hugo had gathered all his high-flown thoughts on life, battles, capitals and convents in some separate volume of essays and not burdened the great story that is "Les Misérables" with them.