Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Les Miserables - A Detail and A Resolve

We still haven't made it to the movies to see Les Miserables. Freezing winter weather and minor aches and pains, on the far edge of something flu-like dampened our enthusiasm for the 32 mile journey to the nearest cinema showing the film. We do intend making a try for an afternoon show this week though.

It's interesting, but unsurprising, to see how conflicting some reviews of the movie have been. Beloved 1,400-page novel condensed over the years, in several versions, to the movie screen; then adapted as a stage musical; then further modified as a movie musical.....Somebody, somewhere, isn't going to like what they've done to it, at any of the stages of the story's (d)evolution, but some will enthuse wildly. Each genre has a different perspective to offer, a different way of portraying the story's essence. A lot depends on how well the source material is known and understood by both those adapting it and those watching the adaptations.

To Scratch an itch at the weekend I fished out an old VHS tape of the 10 year anniversary concert version of Les Miz to watch and refresh my memory. A question kept presenting itself to my annoyingly logical mind, it was one I'd wondered about in the past when watching any of the the various non-musical film versions of Victor Hugo's famous novel. Jean Valjean (seen in the book illustration above) progresses from being a convict on parole, then stealing silver candlesticks, forgiven by their owner and being allowed to keep them; then, as if by magic - and with scant explanation other than the passing of time - he has become the owner of a factory employing many workers. In the past I've rationalised that he must have sold the silver candlesticks, invested the money somehow to increase its value, then had the good chance to come across a run-down business he could afford to buy and improve.

Should've read the book, you see! I will do so, soon as possible. In the meantime, a scoot around the net led me to the real answer which does appear in the novel, no doubt in great detail, in classic Hugo style. The answer? It was a matter of "black beads". Beads and bracelets made from, or imitating jet, the black mineral. I know a little about jet, a north of England coastal town I used to know well, Whitby, is famous for its jet and carved jet jewellery; my mother had a jet bracelet and a couple of carved pins, I recall.

Clip from Les Miserables, Book Fifth – The Descent, found HERE (I suspect it comes from one of the older translations of the novel because of the habit of using initials rather than full names. (M sur M = Montreuil-sur-Mer)
From time immemorial, M. sur M. had had for its special industry the imitation of English jet and the black glass trinkets of Germany. This industry had always vegetated, on account of the high price of the raw material, which reacted on the manufacture. At the moment when Fantine returned to M. sur M., an unheard-of transformation had taken place in the production of “black goods.” Towards the close of 1815 a man, a stranger, had established himself in the town, and had been inspired with the idea of substituting, in this manufacture, gum-lac for resin, and, for bracelets in particular, slides of sheet-iron simply laid together, for slides of soldered sheet-iron.This very small change had effected a revolution.This very small change had, in fact, prodigiously reduced the cost of the raw material, which had rendered it possible in the first place, to raise the price of manufacture, a benefit to the country; in the second place, to improve the workmanship, an advantage to the consumer; in the third place, to sell at a lower price, while trebling the profit, which was a benefit to the manufacturer.Thus three results ensued from one idea.
In less than three years the inventor of this process had become rich, which is good, and had made every one about him rich, which is better. He was a stranger in the Department. Of his origin, nothing was known; of the beginning of his career, very little. It was rumored that he had come to town with very little money, a few hundred francs at the most.

It was from this slender capital, enlisted in the service of an ingenious idea, developed by method and thought, that he had drawn his own fortune, and the fortune of the whole countryside.
Reading the book is an essential now! There must be many other tidbits of detail I've missed completely from non-musical movie versions. Finding the best version of the book, for me, will be quite a trick. Unabridged it has around 1,400 pages, depending on edition, and I balk at a 500-page novel! (Book illustration, left, by Lynd Ward).

The net to the rescue again. Reviewers and commenters mostly advise reading the unabridged version, or at least giving it a try initially; if really stumped by it there are abridged versions available too. Purists will insist on the unabridged edition, but there are considerations: the original was written for publication in episodes (as were most of Charles Dickens' novels) paid, I guess, by the length of each piece and number of episodes needed to conclude the tale. Hence it was in the author's best interest to wax into great detail about historical relevancies, and other matters which might assist the reader to fully appreciate the finer detail.
That was then though - before film, TV, internet and other modern distractions. In that long ago era reading a book, magazine or newspaper occupied a much bigger slice of the average person's day.

These days many of us are infected with internet-attention-disorder, expect easy-reading, quick hits. This post, for instance, is already longer than most blog readers would tolerate!

It'd do me no harm at all to re-educate myself in the gentle art of real reading.

In the case ofLes Miserables there's also the thorny issue of the most appropriate version of the novel's translation from French into English. Is it better to read one translated near Victor Hugo's own era, or a more modern translation? An older, literal translation, almost word for word French to English, doesn't sound like my cup of tea. There's a 1970s translation by Norman Denny (1901 - 1982) who was English, and whose work seems to be well thought of among commenters, that one sounds to be a likely bet. The most recent translator, an Australian: Julie Rose, could lean too far towards modern idiom to feel authentic .....anachronistic, I suppose is the term; though her version is likely to be an easier read, and well-received by the American market. She discusses her work in a piece here: What Julie Rose Adds to Victor Hugo.

From an interesting blog: The Art of Translation I found this comparison of the way three tranlators of a short piece of the novel approached it:

I'm in danger of becoming geeky here! Will go for Norman Denny's translation.

My New Year resolution for 2013: to read Les Miserables.

PS: An archived brief post about musical Les Miz with notes on composers' and Hugo's astrology is HERE: The Magic in Les Miz.

PPS: While watching the 10-year anniversary concert tape I noticed some lyrics which will appeal to the astrologically-inclined - verses of a song sung by Javert as he vows to track down Jean Valjean. I'm wondering how much of the song is poetic licence by the musical's composers, or whether this is a close adaptation/translation of Victor Hugo's own words? When I've kept my New Year's Resolution, then I'll know the answer!

In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!


mike said...

Go for it, Twilight! The three translations are insightful...I liked the older, Wilbour version. Interesting how the last words of the last sentence were interpreted and translated. I read "Atlas Shrugged" last year, so I understand your reluctance to read a tome, but I actually enjoyed it immensely and felt actualized for having finished...I had put it off for years, due to the size of the book. An abridged edition just wouldn't have been the same.

What next, Twilight? Tolstoy's "War and Peace"? Agatha Cristie's "The Complete Ms. Marple"?

Feel better...don't let cooties get you down.

Wisewebwoman said...

Well I am a veteran of the stage shows having gobbled it up three times so am looking forward to this film version (I've seen another).
Memory tells me I read the book it was part of a French lit course, I am astonished to think I did this, with my French so disordered these days. But yes, Victor Hugo was the fellah I studied.
Good luck with this, T. Ambitious, though I bet it will be enormously satisfying.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ Yikes, Mike! Atlas Shrugged? Really? We saw the movie (part one) on DVD. did a post about it in 2011


I'm not a fan of Ms Rand.

I shall not think beyond my resolution book - it'll take all the discipline I can muster to get through it I fear. A Norman Denny translation is speeding to me as I type, from Amazon's 'used' collection .

Thanks for the good wishes - the "one degree under" feeling persists - worse for Himself than for me. Probably it's our flu shots fighting the good fight against the lurgies and mainly winning, but not quite :-)

Twilight said...

Wisewebwoman ~~ Oh my - you read it in French! Zut alors!!

Best I can offer is Virgil's Aeneid in Latin. Although I enjoyed French lessons, I think being faced with a 1400 page book would have put me off it for life!

I think I shall like Victor Hugo's views on politics - that's what'll help keep me reading, I hope.

James Higham said...

I'd agree that if there is such disagreement, it would be advisable to read the book as well.

Thomas Gazis - Θωμάς Γαζής said...

The current "Le Miserables" fascination has a lot to do with the presence of Neptune in Pisces (as back in the late 1840's, 1850's and 1860's). Somehow, we will start living again the atmosphere of the Charles Dickens' and Victor Hugo's novels (many of which were written during the previous Neptune in Pisces period).

You may read a relative article of mine here:


Thomas Gazis

Twilight said...

James Higham ~ Yes, it's the only way to get to the "bones" of the story, all that lies under the music, adventure and Hollywood's fingerprints. :-)

Twilight said...

Thomas Gazis ~~ Hi there! Thanks for stopping by.

That is an excellent piece of yours about Neptune in Pisces, sir! Thank you for drawing our attention to it. And it is very relevant to this current surge of interest in Victor Hugo's novel.

Hugo had 4 planets in Pisces, so around the mid 1800s when the book was written (first published 1862) he would have felt exactly "in his element", creatively.

I had the same feeling about the atmosphere of the mid 19th century coming back around - though with different "accessories" to go with it - technology, internet, etc (and climate change).

I'll add your blog to my list of links in the sidebar - thank you for introducing us to it.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ I responded to your further comment about Atlas Shrugged at the linked post. It went into the "awaiting moderation" box, as do all comments received for older posts, to stop the spammers from having an even bigger a field-day than they do already. :-)

mike (again) said...

Be careful about sobbing uncontrollably...worse than at a funeral...


Twilight said...

mike ~~ I shall be well-equipped with tissues and a Vick Sinex spray to unblock the nasal passages. ;-)
Les Miz weep-factor could never be worse for me than that of though.

Looks as though the cinema visit will have to be held over 'til next week now - provided the movie will still be showing then.

Twilight said...

Correction..... should read "than that of Bridges of Madison County though.