Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo: A New Translation by Christine Donougher

Christine Donougher’s new translation is brilliant. That the novel is a classic, we knew. What Donougher does is make it fluent to our ears and eyes and as thrilling to us now as it must have been in 1862 when it was published for the first time. The relevance of this story to our world cries out to us, and the simplicity of the language makes it accessible even to a schoolchild. The time it must have taken both the translator and the publisher (Penguin Classics) to complete this gorgeously-produced novel is staggering to contemplate but they have allowed us to marvel at Hugo’s work once again.

What astonishes me is that by the time Hugo wrote Les Misérables, he was already a widely respected poet and author in France. Hugo began as a poet and was in his late thirties when he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Twenty years later, Les Misérables was published. Part I was published first, and sold so well that subscribers lined up for the rest of the work. How could Hugo create characters as heartbreakingly complete as the young Gavroche, as recognizable as the teen-aged Cosette, or as good as the Bishop of Digne? Hugo created an entire world with this huge novel, and we believe him about the bleak penury and poverty. But how did he know it?

Hugo is so supremely sure of his audience that two hundred and fifty pages into the novel he takes fifty pages to lead us on a tour of the old battlefield of Waterloo, recounting for us every strategy of the generals and how their plans went awry. “Let us go back now--it is one of the narrator’s privileges,” he says, knowing we would follow him wherever by this time, we are so anxious to hear about the child Cosette who was left with exploitative foster parents Thénardier and is now being sought by the again-fugitive Valjean. It turns out that the Battle of Waterloo is not just discursive after all, but tells us of the first meeting of Pontmercy and Thénardier.

Valjean is recaptured and sentenced to a chain-gang. The ingenious method of his escape this time is both breathtaking and heart-warming--he saves a working sailor from the deep--and we find ourselves mad for love of him. As we progress further in this magnificent novel, we begin to mull over why it is so remarkable: what qualities make it a classic? The scope and relevance of the work we find immediate even today (“the poor will ever be with us”) and…Hugo plays us. By his characterizations he captures something in us which wants to believe in goodness, in heroism, in fairness and the right for something better. He involves our every sense, our every emotion. Even the wicked are making sense of their cruel world and therefore can be seen as humorous, or forgivable. We are on the barricades, waving the red flag and singing. What a brave book.

In the Production Notes of the latest Oscar-nominated version of the film starring Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, Redmayne, Carter, and Cohen, all the actors praise the set for making them feel like they were in 19th Century Paris. When the Set Designers were asked where they got their inspiration, they said they had done a little bit of research, but most of what they constructed gave from the descriptions in the novel itself. The book is a self-contained world. We have everything we need to draw each character and know them intimately. Every bow is tied, every thread followed.

I have seen at least three different film versions of Les Miserables and I have to say that Tom Hooper’s version stays with me the longest and best, while at the same time recognizing that I will always think of Gerard Depardieux as Jean Valjean. Tom Hooper’s ability to make song the natural mode of communication was unlike anything I’d seen before. That skill, along with the actors’ skills, paired with the Claude-Michel Schönberg score and the Herbert Kretzmer lyrics, together make such a brilliant work that one really is cheated unless one hears the score sung. Hugo would be proud.

The book is such a huge work that directors must choose what they will show, and Hooper changed his scenes from the stage presentations because he had more latitude. I so appreciate that he showed Éponine taking a bullet for Marius just as it is in the text. The story itself is an unwieldy thing and moving from the story of Jean Valjean to that portion that incorporates Marius is a big obstacle for directors and readers. Hooper manages it adroitly by choosing the telegenic and enormously compelling Eddie Redmayne to play Marius and Hugo manages it by making his work more interesting than anything else we could be reading. I can hardly imagine someone reading or listening to this story in the nineteenth century and what a miracle it would have seemed, with so many moments of riveting tension, chatty background, and characters real enough to paint.

Hooper, the director of the most recent film version, abridged the work so well and while I questioned the appearance of Marius’ uncle hovering in some scenes, I can see why Hooper wanted to include him. In the book the uncle is a creature of huge emotional regrets and it must have seemed impossible to leave him out entirely, though I don’t think it played well in the film.

By the same token, Hooper and Crowe made the death of Javert a much more emotional moment for us than it was for me when I read it. Crowe so inhabited the character of Javert we found ourselves actually caring for him at the same time we feared him. That is a complicated response. But I liked the way Hugo managed Javert's slipping away from the front door of Valjean's house with no words or sense of moment. That was Javert's moment of greatness, and it was so quiet and small, almost nonexistent. What a thing to write!

This translation by Christine Donougher is magnificent. She makes Hugo once again seem completely relevant and current through her use of language, accentuating Hugo’s great gifts. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to see the differences between the work itself and any attempts at stage play. Hugo was a great storyteller and while I wish I could have heard the clamor when the work was published that first time in 1862, I feel lucky to have experienced it in 2015.

Here is a wonderful review and discussion of Victor Hugo's life and writing that goes some distance to answering the questions that the novel raises.


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