Les Miserables (Audio) - Victor Hugo Inexplicably, I've been on a "Les Miz" "kick" for the last few weeks. It began at the library - I was looking for a movie to watch for the weekend and decided to see the Fredric March (1935) and Michael Rennie (early '50s) versions. I had never read the book and only knew that it involved the obsessive pursuit of poor Jean Valjean by Inspector Javert for stealing a loaf of bread. A pursuit that culminates in a nightmarish chase through the fetid sewers of Paris.

Even in the seriously truncated versions presented in the above films, it soon became obvious that the book was about much more than just the horror of justice untempered by mercy; it dealt with the nature of Man, the truly just society, politics, pretty much the entire human condition (which helps explain the book's length). I certainly knew nothing of the Bishop of Digne, M. de Madeleine, Fantine, Cosette, Fauchelevent, Marius or the Thenardiers - in other words the rest of the characters who occupy equal, if not more central, roles than Javert. From the admittedly abridged version I listened to here (still clocking in at 12.5 hours - whew), I never got the sense that Javert was particularly obsessed with Valjean qua Valjean. Their encounters over the years were contrived - Javert's posting to Montreuil-sur-Mer after Valjean had established himself as mayor and good citizen or their encounter at Thenardier's flat in Paris or the penultimate encounter at the barricades of the insurrection. Javert's obsession was with the LAW and one's immutable submission to it. Which goes far toward explaining his suicide after letting Valjean go. A scene which never quite convinced me in any of the filmed versions.

Going back briefly to the filmed versions: After March and Rennie (I preferred the March version), I then checked out Raymond Bernard's 5+ hour, French version, which is by far the best adaptation I've seen. I've now seen the Richard Jordan/Anthony Perkins' version (thumbs down, I fear) and will be watching Liam Neeson's version this weekend. With that, my Les Miz fever will have run its course.

Allow another digression here to praise the "playaway" format over the audio CD. These self-contained little systems are like iPods. You can pause or stop where you like and the computer remembers where you are. Even when the first battery ran down, it remembered approximately where I had been forced to stop and I only had to skip ahead a few chapters to find my place.

But back to the book: Why just the 2 stars (i.e., it's OK)?

Well, I liked the basic plot - a man unfairly and brutally treated manages to rise above his anger and fear to remake himself and sets about helping others - and I accepted Valjean's transformation. Hugo can also write. There are scenes that can evoke astonishingly deep emotion. But all too often he strays into the overly melodramatic and sentimental. Too often for my taste. I also had a difficult time accepting the string of coincidences that kept tangling the characters' lives together. I've already mentioned Javert's continuing encounters with Valjean but there's also the connections between Marius Pontmercy and the Thenardiers that just put too much strain on my sense of reality, among others. The final nail that made this book a less enjoyable experience than I had hoped was its sheer length - even Bernard's version sensibly ended with Valjean dying soon after the events at the barricade and the sewer chase. Yet the book dragged on after that for nearly another hour's worth of recitation.

And one more minor quibble - I really didn't like Cosette much. She's one of those Madonna figures (the mother of God, not the singer) who's simply too pure and good to be true. I was far more enchanted by the far more human figure of Eponine, the Thenardiers' eldest daughter. If Marius were really as smart as he was supposed to be, he would have courted her :-(

Overall, despite the 2-star rating, I can and do recommend this book to the interested.