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into the parisian underworld


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Welcome to the Parisian Underworld, a place where people have gathered to discuss the great work of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (the unabridged version). There is no time limit to finish the book so feel free to read at your own pace and enjoy every page.

If you are interested in joining us as we tackle 1000+ pages of great literature please leave a comment with your email address and your blog address (if you have one). Or you can email me at randomfieldnotes[at]googlemail[dot]com to be added.

Once you've been added to the blog please introduce yourself, maybe tell us why you're reading Les Misérables or how far along you are if you've already started. Don't forget to label your posts with your name so that people can look up your reviews/progress. I also thought the best way to label reviews would be by the sections given in the book (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Saint-Denis and Jean Valjean) so if your review falls within one of those sections please label it accordingly. Also feel free to use character names (i.e. Javert) as labels. Make sure you capitalize all names so they're categorized properly.

I look forward to reading everyone's thoughts and progress!


posted by Ashleigh, 20:21 | link | 13 comments |

Guardian Essay on Les Miserables

Saturday, July 12, 2008

There's a most interesting essay by Adam Thirlwell on Les Miserables in today's Guardian. Click here to read it.
posted by Kate S., 11:02 | link | 0 comments |

Thoughts on Cosette

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hi guys! I finished the Cosette section awhile ago, but I haven't had internet access. So, here were my impressions of the section, but they're definitely not super-fresh. :)

First off, I'm not gonna lie, I skimmed the whole Book One Waterloo thing. I think this partly stems from the fact that I read War & Peace earlier this year, and I read all of Tolstoy's battle stuff faithfully (and I really enjoyed the war descriptions, not so much the big-picture philosopy of history lessons). So when I saw so many pages describing yet another Napoleon defeat, I just couldn't take it. Maybe next time I'm reading, I'll give it more attention; as it is, I skimmed through until the scene between the officer and Thenardier.

Book Two almost broke my heart; in fact, I cried a lot and wished horrible things at the Thenardiers. Hugo writes scenes with a perfect simplicity that makes what's going on even worse, like this passage early on:
At times, the cry of a very young child, somewhere around the house, was heard above the noice of the barroom. It was a little boy the woman had had some winters before. "I don't know why," she said; "it was the cold weather,"-and now a little more than three years old. The mother had nursed him, but did not love him. When the brat's insistent racket became too much to bear, "Your boy is squalling," Thenardier said. "Why don't you go and see what he wants?"
"Aah!" the mother answered. "I am sick of him." And the poor little fellow went on crying in the darkness.
Don't you just want to rush upstairs and grab the poor baby? I think it's interesting that Mme Thenardier loves her daughters and completely ignores her son; usually, when there's a gender preference by parents it goes the other way. I don't know what kind of reasons Hugo had, but I enjoyed the flipping of expectations (ok, maybe enjoyed is the wrong word...but you know what I mean)

In Fantine's section, I was struck by Hugo's vivid descriptions, his ability to bring a character to life in a paragraph. He continues that in Cosette's section:
Cosette was ugly. If happy, she might have been pretty. We have already sketched this pitiful little face. Cosette was thin and pale; she was about eight years old, but one would hardly have thought her six. Her large eyes, sunk in a sort of shadow, were dimmed by continual weeping. The corners of her mouth had that curve of habitual anguish seen in the condemned and the terminally ill. Her hands were, as her mother had guessed, covered with chilblains. The light of the fire shining on her made her bones stand out and her emaciation hideously visible. Because she was always shivering, she had acquired the habit of drawing her knees together. Her clothing was only rags that would have provoked pity in the summer and that elicited horror in the winter. She had on nothing but cotton, and that full of holes, not a speck of wool. Her skin showed through here and there, and on it, bruises, where the Thenardiess had grabbed her. Her naked legs were red and rough. The hollows below her colloarbones were enough to make you weep. Everything about this child, her walk, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the pauses between one word and another, her look, her silences, her slightest gesture, expressed and portrayed a single idea: fear.
Fear was spread all over her; she, so to speak, covered with it; fear squeezed her elbows against her sides, drew her heels up under her skirt, made her shrink into the least possible space, prevented her from breathing more than absolutely necessary, and had become what might be called her bodily habit, without possible variation, except to increase. In the depths of her eyes, there was an expression of astonishment mingled with terror.
I know that that was a really long passage, but I think it shows how Hugo drives points home. The combination of physical and emotional description is very powerful...I think if the generalised description of fear had come first, it wouldn't have worked nearly as well. But by painting that very specific image and then adding the layers of emotion, I was left with a definite little girl in my mind. So sad.

When Valjean bought Cosette the little doll, I almost started crying. But this is the pasage that completely did me in.
He was about to leave [the childrens' room] when his eye fell on the fireplace, one of those huge tavern hearths where there is always such a small fire, when there is a fire at all, and which are so cold to the eye. In this one there was no fire, there were not even any ashes. What there was, however, attracted the traveler's attention. It was two little children's shoes, dainty in shape and of different sizes. The traveler remembered the graceful and immemorial custom of children putting their shoes on the hearth on Christmas Eve, to wait there in the darkness in expectation of some shining gift from the good fairy. Eponine and Azelma had not forgotten this, and each had put one of her shoes on the hearth....The man straightened up and was on the point of going away when he perceived farther along, by itself, in the darkest corner of the fireplace, another object. He looked and recognized a shoe, an ugly wooden clog of the clumsiest kind, half broken and covered with ashes and dried mud. It was Cosette's. Cosette, with that touching confidence of childhood, which can always be betrayed without ever being discouraged, had also put her shoe upon the hearth.
Oh! As soon as I read that, I pictured her year after year, wondering why even the good fairy didn't love her. Ok, I'm tearing up again, so we're going to move on.

Oddly enough, while I avoided Hugo's treatise on Waterloo, I loved his whole meditation on monastic life and organised religion! Perhaps cause religion, and the philosophy and history of it, interests me while military history doesn't it? Either way, I'm curious if other people enjoyed this one too-I found Hugo's analysis very thoughtful, especially when he focuses more on spirituality than organised religion. I loved his definition of prayer:
To place, by process of thought, the infinite below in contact with the infinite above is called 'prayer.'
In fact, I like the whole two paragraphs preceding that about those two infinities, but I've already quoted so many long passages, I'm refraining. :)

The whole scene when Jean Valjean and Cosette enter the convent, and the gardener has to nail Valjean in a coffin and try not to have him actually buried is hilarious! It was sweet of Hugo to give me a comic interlude, and it turns out he does it really well. :) From when the gardener begins talking to the grave digger to when Valjean finally gets out of the coffin might be my favourite scene of the book so far!!

Another example of Hugo's humour, which is shorter and thus more quotable:
The strongest recommendation for Cosette's admission had been the prioress's remark, "She will be homely." Having uttered this prediciton, the prioress immediately took Cosette into her friendship and gave her a place in the school building as a charity pupil.
That and the next paragraph (Hugo explaining why nuns prefer unattractive girls) made me laugh a bit.

That was my last marked passage from the Cosette section, so I'll end this with a great aphorism (Hugo's good at those, isn't he?):
Children have their morning song, like birds.

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posted by Eva, 04:34 | link | 0 comments |


Thursday, April 24, 2008

How's everyone doing? It's been quiet around here lately just wanted to make sure everyone's alive and well! :)

I've been a bit of a slacker... I'm on page 1169, the beginning of the Jean Valjean section and I haven't posted any reviews! Oh dear! So much for being on top of it. Guess I'll just have to do one big one when I'm finished, but I'll still break it down and review by sections.

Hope everyone's hanging in there! Don't forget this isn't a race and I hope everyone's enjoying the process! Please check in and let us know whereabouts you're at (some of us are nosy!).


posted by Ashleigh, 09:49 | link | 6 comments |

Deborah's Intro

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hello Everyone. I'm excited to read along with you all, even though I've got some serious catching up to do! I have read Les Miserables before. In fact, I've read it once a decade since I was 12, which means this will be my 5th time...ouch! I wonder how many pages that totals... It's obviously very dear to me and I never feel like it's too familiar or that I can possibly know it well enough. And as one of you said in a post on your site, Les Mis has relevance in our own somewhat troubled times. But I've felt that to be true every time I've read it, no matter what was going on in the world in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or 90s. I guess that's why classics are described as timeless. I am very much looking forward to reading this beloved book with so many careful and exuberant readers. I'm pretty sure life doesn't get much better than that.

I wonder if any of you have seen the 1978 film version with Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean and Anthony Perkins as Javert. I think it's available on DVD. Definitely worth a viewing!

By the way, I see that we get a "blog not found" message when my name is clicked on the roster. I think this is because when I first signed up I didn't have a blogger account and it wouldn't let me sign in with Wordpress. I've fixed that by rigging up a little Blogger blog with a quick link to my real blog, Exuberant Reader. Hopefully Ashleigh can fix this and you'll all be able to find me soon.

And now to finishing up a few loose ends so I can throw myself into this marvelous reading experience!

Best regards,


posted by Exuberant Lady, 02:01 | link | 3 comments |

ashleigh's email

Friday, April 4, 2008

Sorry folks I've edited the email address in the welcome post it should actually be randomfieldnotes[at]googlemail[dot]com - I forgot the 'mail' bit. I don't use this email unless it's blog business and I never seem to have blog business! Ha! :)


posted by Ashleigh, 16:36 | link | 0 comments |

Will this do for a badge?


posted by Kate S., 04:40 | link | 2 comments |

Les Misérables: Take Three

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Three times I have resolved to read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.

The first was when I visited Hugo's tomb in Paris at the age of seventeen. It seemed a properly writerly thing to do to visit his tomb, but I did recognize that it would have been a more meaningful pilgrimage if I had actually read the man's work.

The second was a few years later when I stumbled upon a black and white film adaptation on late night television that thoroughly piqued my interest in the character of Jean Valjean. (I think it was this version, but I'd have to watch it again to be sure.)

The third was earlier this year when Danielle proposed reading it en masse.

Alas I did not follow through on occasions one or two. I don't think I even got as as far as checking a copy of the book out of the library. But I feel sure that the third time will be the charm with me and Les Misérables, particularly now that Danielle's suggestion has crystalized into this group read. I'm confident that the enthusiasm the rest of you have for the enterprise will buoy me up if my own flags!

I concede that I haven't found the early passages about the bishop gripping. (Is it sacrilege to say that I understand why the movie didn't begin with him?) But the odd line has made me laugh out loud and I'm sure things will liven up when Jean Valjean enters the narrative. I'm very much looking forward to continuing through the book and to discussing it with all of you along the way. Thanks Ashleigh, for setting up this fabulous forum for our discussion!


posted by Kate S., 21:11 | link | 3 comments |

Thoughts on Fantine

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I'm catching up! :) I just finished book three of Cosette's section, when Jean Valjean rescues her. Thank God-Hugo really knows how to wring your heart, doesn't he? But first I wanted to share my thoughts on the Fantine section. It's going to be long, but I've divided it by character. I hope everyone else shares their impressions as well!

First off, the bishop is just so adorable (although I don't like the way he makes his sister and her companion live as difficult a life as he does-it doesn't strike me as very charitable). I really liked this passage about him:
What more was needed by this old man, who divided the leisure hours of his life, where he had so little leisure, between gardening in the day time and contemplation at night? Was this narrow enclosure with the sky for a background not space enough for him to adore God in his most beautiful, most sublime works? Indeed, is that not everything? What more do you need? A little garden to walk in, and immensity to reflect on. At his feet something to study and meditate on; a few flowers on earth and all the stars in the heaven.
Obviously, materialism was just as present in France in the early 1800s as it is in America today, but I feel that this kind of passage, indeed most of the bishop's description, could serve as a kind of mediation for people who have lost sight of what's important. It's not so much that we should all do what the bishop does; more that we should try to figure out what feeds our souls, and then put it before everything else. So it might be family, or doing good in this world, or going on long walks. But we all need things like that! Also, the bishop's amazing compassion of virtual strangers (I've already said what I think about his behavior towards his sister) helps remind us that we can all do things like that, if on a lesser scale. I loved this quote, from the bishop but a suitable aphorism, I think, for people who prefer to solve things without violence:
"There is a bravery for the priest as well as for the colonel of dragoons. ...Only, ours should be peaceable.
I want to be a diplomat, and I think if you changed 'priest' to 'diplomat,' that'd be a sentence to live by. I loved the bishop's sense of humour, like when he rides into town on a donkey and the mayor is aghast, so the bishop replies:
"...you think it shows pride for a poor priest to use the same conveyance used by Jesus Christ. I have done it from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity.
I think Hugo meant to be inspiring with the bishop, and for me at least he definitely succeeded!

Pretty soon, Jean Valjean enters the scene. If the bishop is Hugo's way of beginning to castigate society's well-off, Valjean is like a cudgel. Hugo, as the narrator, keeps intruding to make almost a 'scientific' (well, social science anyway) case in the middle of the narrative. Like when he finishes telling of Valjean's prison experience and adds
This is the second time, in his studies on the penal question and regal sentences, that the author of this book has met with the theft of a loaf of bread as the starting point for a ruined life. Claude Gueux stole a loaf of bread; Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread; English statistics show that in London starvation is the immediate cause of four out of five thefts.
This doesn't bother me, though, because I think it's a message that's just as important for today's world. From WWII to Reagan's presidency, the gap between rich and poor in America steadily shrunk, but since Reagan (he instituted a whole bunch of economic changes), it's been getting ever wider. And, of course, on a global scale there are still many, many people who Hugo would recognise as les miserables. What kind of obligation do I, as a middle-class American, have towards the world's poor? I'm not sure, although I've read various books on it, but I have a feeling that Les Mis is going to help me figure it out more than the best written book in international economics. I thought the short chapter comparing 'criminals' like Jean Valjean to men thrown overboard was quite interesting. Sometimes, the imagery got a little over the top ("O implacable march of human society! Destroying men and souls in its way! Ocean, repository of all that the law lets fall! Ominous disappearance of help! O moral death!"), but aside from that I quite liked the metaphor. Once again, I think it'd be a powerful critique of certain proponents of globalization, who believe that somehow the world's poorest people are going to be magically helped if a big corporation decides to build a plant in their country. Especially since a classic metaphor with them is "A rising tide raises all ships." Definite potential here!

Now we're on to Fantine and her friends. I love it when Hugo slips in little aphorisms, and this one really struck me:
...but they were students, and to say student is to say Parisian; to study in Paris is to be born in Paris.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to study in France while I was in college (I did get to go to Russia!), but I have a feeling anyone who did will love that quote. :) Have I mentioned yet how awesome Hugo is at describing his characters? He brings them to such life, that they immediately form in my mind, and I remember even the minor ones. Here's his description of Fantine, which I especially loved:
A brilliant face, delicate profile, eyes of a deep blue, heavy eyelashes, small, arching feet, wrists and ankles neatly turned, the white skin here and there showing the azure aborescence of veins; a cheek small and fresh, a neck robust as that of Aegean Juno; the nape firm and supple, shoulders modeled as if by Coustou, with a voluptuous dimple in the center, just visible through the muslin; a gaeity tempered with dreaminess; sculptured and exquisite-this was Fantine, and you could imagine underneat this dress and these ribbons a statue, and inside this statue a soul. Fantine was beautiful, without really being conscious of it. Those rare dreamers, the mysterious priests of the beatuiful, who silently compare all things with perfection, would have dimly perceived this working girl, through the transparency os Parisian grace, an ancient sacred euphony. This daughter of obscurity had breeding. She possessed both types of beauty-style and rhythm.
Can't you just see her? Of course, since he's Hugo, he's made her this beautiful to make her descent later on all the worse. But I'm not going to dwell on that, because it's just too sad for words. I'll just say that Hugo really shows what the worst parts of human nature (jealousy, judgementalness, vindictiveness) can do.

Speaking of great descriptions, here's a shorter one that perfectly captures Javert:
The peasants of the Asturias believe that in every litter of wolves there is one pup that is killed by the mother for fear that on growin gup it would devour the other little ones.
Give a human face to this wolf's son and you will have Javert.
Wow-Hugo knew how to write, didn't he? As Hugo described Javert's personality, I was struck by how similar some things were to the bishop. They both carry their respective ideologies to the extreme: the bishop denies himself and his household even big fires that would keep them warm, he's so concerned about the poor, while Javert is so obsessed with the rule of law, he'll do anything to enforce it. So what makes them different? Obviously, one believes in mercy, the other justice. But I think there's a more important difference: the bishop is guided by his personal beliefs, while Javert accepts unquestioningly the beliefs of society. There's a great passage later on about Javert:
At that moment Javert was in heaven. Without a clear notion of his own feelings, yet with a confused intuition of his need and his success, he, Javert, personified justice, light, and truth, in their celestial function as destroyers of evil. He was surrounded and supported by infinite depths of authority, reason, precedent, legal conscience, the vengeance of the law, all the stars in the firmament; he protected order, he hurled forth the thunder of the law, he avenged society, he lent aid to the absolute; he stood erect in a halo of glory; there was in his victory a trace of defiance and combat; standing haughty and respeldent, he displayed in full glory the superhuman beastiality of a ferocious archangel; the fearful shadow of the deed he was accomplishing, making visible in his clenched fist the uncertain flashes of the social sword; happy and indignant, he gnashed his heel on crime, vice, rebellion, perdition, and hell, he was radiant, exterminating, smiling; there was an incontestable grandeur in this monstrous St. Michael.
Aside from once again marveling at Hugo's skill, this really reminded me of the Soviet Union, especially in the early years. I think Javert would have loved it there: the deification of society above any individual, the unlimited power of the government, the gulags. He would have lapped it up.

I'm almost done, I promise. There are just a couple more things that I thought would make interesting discussions. Like when Valjean says that, "There are no bad herbs, and no bad men; there are only bad cultivators." This pretty much sums up one side of the debate going on in the US about our current penal system. Especially in the case of juvenile offenders. I don't know enough to know if I completely agree with Valjean (universal statements like that always make me raise an eyebrow), but I think it's pretty obvious that the place of your birth, at least in the US, is connected with likelihood of you going to jail. Not that all people born in slums become criminals, and certainly there are many white collar crimes committed every day, but in terms of actual sentences served, there's a definite correlation. And, of course, correlation is not the same as cause. It's food for thought, though. Throughout my reading so far, I've been consistently amazed at how all the social issues Hugo talks about are so relevent to the twenty-first century. Perhaps all of our politicians and public figures should have to read Les Mis!

Briefly, I also thought this was an interesting description of travel:
What was he doing during the trip? What was he thinking about? As he had during the morning, he watched the trees go by, the thatched roofs, the cultivated fields, and the dissolving views of the countryside that change at every turn of the road. Scenes like that are sometimes enough for the soul, and almost eliminate the need for thought. To see a thousand objects for the first and last time, what could be more profoundly melancholy? Traveling is a constant birth and death.

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posted by Eva, 21:29 | link | 4 comments |

Eva's Introduction

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Bonjour mes amis! Sorry-I just couldn't resist. :) I'm very excited about this reading group, because Les Mis is one of the few books that really scares me. That's because I tried reading it in high school, since I loved the musical (I saw it in London, and after that I listened to the soundtrack so much that to do this day I know all the words to all the songs) and gave up about three hundred pages in. So I was happy to have some support!

I'm pleased to say I've finally opened the book, and I'm really liking it so far. I think before I must've been reading a different translation that wasn't as good, since I remember the language as very stilted. This time I researched and found that the Signet edition was the most recommended, and so far the language is straightforward and quite quick!

I'm sure I'm behind most of you, since I just finished the first book (page 59 in the Signet), but I plan to catch up soon now that it's not intimidating me. :)


posted by Eva, 05:41 | link | 3 comments |