Monday, January 28, 2013

That which is not about bread

gutenberg les mis front piece

The first time I was introduced to Les Misérables was when I was 10 years old. I was in New York City with my family and we were having lunch with my great aunt. After lunch we were going to see a Broadway performance. I was really excited as at that age I was obsessed with musicals and acting, and every Spring and Fall I was in some production or another. When I asked what the play was about my great aunt said, “A man who steals a loaf of bread.” Being a 10 year old, I pictured a man dressed in a black-and-white-striped uniform and hat singing in a happy garden about the loaf of bread he had stolen from a windowsill where it had been left to cool by a woman dressed like a 50’s housewife. I was extremely skeptical. When the curtain rose at that matinee show, however, my skepticism melted away and turned into something else: obsession. I had my parents buy the album, I memorized every song, I even sung “I Dreamed a Dream” when auditioning for a part in The Sound of Music.

On a rainy Wednesday last week, tucked away in a warm theater in a small town two hours north of San Francisco I watched the cinematic version of Les Misérables for the second time. M. sat beside me, and while we had chatted through some of the previews once the movie began we were utterly silent. The first time I had seen the film was when I was home during the winter holidays. My family went to see it together on my brother and my last day. I remember enjoying the film (and crying the moment the movie started), but for some reason this second experience was much more powerful. After the film ended I couldn’t get it out of my head; songs kept playing over and over, emotions kept surging through my veins. I just wanted so badly to be in Les Misérables, which, honestly, is pretty ridiculous. Les Misérables translates to “the miserable ones,” and why on earth would I want to be a character in a story with that title? It didn’t take long for me to figure this out though: I wanted to be part of the passion. Every character in this story is intensely passionate and all of them are fighting for something whether it is a better life, freedom, or love. This kind of emotion and passion are currently missing from my life, but I so desperately crave it that my mind actually wants to propel me into a tragic story.

Wanting to soak up as much of the passion as I can I have decided to read the 1,200-page tome (or 1,400-page tome depending on the copy). The moment I got back into town after M. and my trip to Mendecino county I visited the nearest bookstore to procure a copy. I was surprised, however, to find only one volume sitting on the shelf. Shouldn’t there be a surplus of copies at the bookstore now that the movie has come out? Shouldn’t their be a new edition with a glossy cover displaying Isabelle Allen’s ice blond hair blowing across her dirt smudged face? At this point I became a little frantic. Maybe all the other copies had already been bought up and this was the last one. Who knew when the bookstore would be able to restock their shelves? Any moment now someone might come by and steals this copy right from under my nose. I lunged at the H Fiction shelf, snatched the book, and clutching it closely to my chest hurried to the front of the store.

Once in line I clamed down. The only thing standing between me and reading my book was the two women in line before me. As the second woman went up to pay, however, the feeling of calm began to drain from my body. Les Misérables is French. The original book was written in French. That means this is a translation. That means there are multiple translations. And that means I might be holding the wrong translation in my hand. As the second woman left the counter I madly dashed back into the depths of the fiction section.

Again I found myself standing in front of the H Fiction shelf. To return the book to its place or not to return it? I stared at the book in my hands, at the grotesque drawing of children on the front. What if this is the right copy, but I don’t buy it and when I come back tomorrow to get it, it’s gone? I mean, I need to read it now, I thought to myself. But what if it is a terrible translation and my experience reading this book isn’t as good as someone else’s experience reading a beautiful translation?

Yes, these are the actual thoughts that pass through the head of a librarian’s daughter. So, I returned the book to the shelf and then rushed home to research the best translations. Wilbour is apparently too clunky. Rose’s translation is too modernized, referring to the Thénardier’s Inn as a greasy spoon (seriously, what?). Denny’s version is slightly abridged and doesn’t always offer an accurate translation, but he understands the soul and poetry of the story. The one translator who seemed to stand out as a favorite was Isabel Florence Hapgood who translated the book into English in1887. People seemed truly passionate about her translation, and luckily her translation can be found on Project Gutenberg. Delighted I began to read the html formatted Hapgood translation of Les Misérables.

But it felt wrong. Oh so wrong. Not the translation, but the format. I can’t read this historically rich and deeply emotional piece of classic literature on a 13.6" x 7.6" computer screen. Reading it in this way just made me feel detached. I love the tangibility of books too much. The smell of them, the feel of their pages, the sound they make when a page is turned. I like to write comments in the margins and underline perfectly crafted sentences so that I can read them again and again until they have carved a permanent place in which to sit within my bones. So I stopped reading the online version and eventually returned to the bookstore.

In the bookstore I began to read the volume with the grotesque children on it. In one hand I held this copy and in the other I held my phone displaying the Hapgood translation (thanks, smart phones!). I began to compare the texts. I compared line after line and paragraph after paragraph. Each time the Hapgood version won out, and so I knew it was that version I had to read. And so, thanks to the magic that is online shopping, I found a version of the Hapgood translation for $26.95 on Amazon and purchased the great big beautiful tome immediately. It should arrive on Wednesday. I cannot wait!

And, really, who describes Les Misérables as a story about a man who steals a loaf of bread?


  1. I have never read Les Mis, but I am a stickler for the printed word. I love books. The feel, the smell, the sound of the spine cracking, returning to find words or sentences I underlined and circled. It's like coming back to an old friend.

    1. Yes, I totally agree! You describe my feelings perfectly when you say books are like old friends.

  2. Les Mis is my favorite book! I definitely recommend the Signet Classic edition - this is the best translation, in my opinion.

    I thought the movie was ok, but definitely lacking compared to the stage musical. I would rather have had the real singing, as opposed to speak/whisper singing that the movie seemed to favor. I have seen the stage version three times and have been utterly moved every time, and while I was still affected by the movie, it was nothing compared to the stage.

    Happy reading!

    1. Thanks for the translation recommendation! I compared the Hapgood translation I already ordered with the Signet Classic translation and they are actually not too different. The Hapgood translation is just a bit choppier and perhaps a bit more antiquated in some places. The book itself, however, is absolutely gorgeous. I plan on posting a picture of it soon.

      Generally, I have found that people who are really attached to the stage version of Les Mis still prefer it over the movie, but, I actually really loved the movie. Perhaps part of it is that the last time I saw Les Mis on stage was ages ago, and while I definitely adored it and was swept up in the enchantment of it all (like Javert's last scene? Breathtaking!) the performance is not fresh enough in my mind to fairly compare it to the movie. Guess I need to see the stage version again :)

      One reason I liked the movie though was because a cinematic version really allowed details to come through. I appreciated that Hooper brought up some things initially left out in the musical, but that were present in the book. I feel like Hooper really felt a connection to the text and that showed in the film. I also actually kind of liked the speak/whisper singing. While perhaps breaking the musical mold a bit, I think it helped the actors to genuinely portray the emotions of their characters.

      The one thing I didn't really like was the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert.

      Anyway, enough of me rambling on. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I just love the passion that you have for Les Misérables! In all honesty, I am actually kind of jealous that Les Misérables has such a spot in your heart and childhood. I went to see the movie on opening night, knowing nothing about the storyline, and I adored it. Sobbed right through the movie and started learning the songs straight afterwards. Just.. incredibly powerful. I saw it again two nights ago, too! Anyway, that's a long way of saying that the movie made me want to have such an attachment to Les Misérables, like you do, and I think you should be so proud to have that book to hand down one day. I hope to read it too, and my French is much too rusty to read the original version! Hapgood version it will be.

    I think it's great to tell someone that the movie is about a man who steals a loaf of bread - everything flows from that, right? I went in all unknowledgeable and I kind of liked it that way. Fantine's death was made that much more devastating!

    1. It's true that Jean Val Jean stealing a loaf of bread is at the epicenter of the story, and so, you're right, it does make sense to tell someone that is what the story is about. I guess after being consumed by this incredibly moving and emotional piece of theater, however, I found my great aunt's description so absurd. I think I wished she had put it into context (i.e. 1800's, right after the French Revolution). But maybe, really, she did me a favor by being so vague. Like you, I too went in mostly knowing nothing and in this way the magic of the performance and story were not spoiled for me. Hmmm... New ways of thinking about old memories!