Stately, plump Ulysses is, in the larger scheme of longer books, a total lightweight. The Gabler edition of Joyce’s masterpiece clocks in at a mere 680 pages, only a few of them fatally shaded by an impenetrable canopy of recondite paronomasia. The prose weather in this Dublin is primarily bright and clear. In terms of epic novels, Ulysses isn’t a marathon, just a 10K fun run. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, though only about 15 percent longer, requires substantially more stamina; each of its 773 pages demands real concentration and supplies bountiful rewards for it, and on some levels the novel is grander than the 862-page Anna Karenina. The Tolstoy book is mostly radiant with a 10 percent chance of monotony in the form of blatantly skimmable passages about agricultural labor and social reform—passages that could only compel the full attention of a true peasant. And Infinite Jest? I told David Foster Wallace to his face I’d felt ripped off: That book is totally finite. The tennis-academy saga runs 1079 pages, but somehow it feels as if it’s only 950, partly because of the endnotes, partly because of incandescent English on the author’s serve.
I am carrying on at length like this by way of approaching Les Misérables, the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. The copy I have in hand (where it is already doing wonders for my biceps) is a Modern Library hardcover—1194 pages of French Romanticism in an edition translated by Julie Rose, introduced by Adam Gopnik, and clarified with plenteous endnotes. Four years ago, this Les Misérables arrived on my stoop unbidden, a routine publicity mailing. I shelved it for high visibility in my apartment because it represented a handsome edition of a classic. I shelved it as a low priority on my pleasure-reading list because there are other, sexier dead Frenchmen in the Panthéon—and because there are, very agreeably, smaller fish in the sea. Les Misérables is about half a million words long, which works out to two major Dostoeveskys or four Jane Austens or nine Graham Greenes or 24,000 readings of this Oscar Wilde line: “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
On the other hand… well, the other hand is about to be over a fist taking in money for Working Title Films. People are extraordinarily excited for the forthcoming screen adaptation of Les Misérables, director Tom Hooper’s all-star movie version of the blockbuster stage-musical version of a book that became an institution on its publication day. The excitement is infectious and viral, possibly even representing a brain pathogen: I got it into my head that now is the time to attempt reading this hulking book—and to write about the attempt as I go along.
How good is this great book, really? What are its up and downs? And, perhaps most important for prospective readers with more curiosity than free time: Which chapters is it permissible to breeze through? For instance, it is generally considered cool just to flip through the last 200 pages of War and Peace; you take a mulligan on the epilogue and move on. But it is far more scandalous to skip that novel’s Battle of Borodino, whatever its drudgeries, it being essential to the whole war thing that Tolstoy is trying to talk about. A quick look-around indicates that Les Misérables’ Battle of Waterloo section, which leads off the second of the book’s five parts, might provoke similar controversies.
Let’s please talk all of this over. I’ll be looking to the comments sections of my posts for pro tips, helpful hints, stern admonitions, moral support, and inspiration for further ideas about larger issues in longer literature. If time permits, we might even discuss Hitchens’ admiration for Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost (1191 pages), or imagine a Nickelodeon-sponsored Melissa Joan Hart TED talk called Clarissa Explains It All, Including Richardson’s Clarissa (1534 pages), and even shrug at Atlas (1088 pages). Who is John Galt? He is a man who, being a character in an Ayn Rand novel, will never know the torture of being trapped next to an Objectivist loudmouth at a dinner table.
However, I reserve the right to hit the eject button if things are not working out well between Jean Valjean and me. All aspiring Hugoites should follow the commonsensical advice of a Wikihow page titled “How to Read Les Misérables.” Step 1? “Make sure you want to read this book. It is no use going on if you really don’t want to read it.” Damn straight. If this book is not delivering pleasure, by, let’s say, the Battle of Waterloo, then I will quit reading posthaste and mount an impassioned defense of the practice of abandoning books.
But so far, so good! I have given the book a thorough frisking, peeking at the final paragraphs and rooting around in the middle as guided by Gopnik’s introduction, with its appreciative notes on Hugo’s many, many, many philosophical digressions—the “gassy bits” that “give the good bits the gas that gets them aloft.” Then I began at the beginning. The first two sentences of Les Misérables introduce biographical information about a minor character directly and succinctly. The third goes like this: “There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell—not even on the background.” Bold move! That is not the kind of narrative technique you pick up studying fiction in Iowa or film at U.S.C.
Long story short, here’s a first impression: In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo uses a melodrama about a virtuous convict and a beautiful orphan as a framework for a brilliant essay about the class struggles of the 1830s and everything else under the sun. If I decide that I want to finish the book before I see the movie and that I need to race to do so, I am inclined to reverse the usual technique of hustling through a long novel: You might get the most out of Les Misérables by skipping to the non-action.