Les Mis Readalong: Waterloo, trivia, and books banned by the Catholic church

It’s been another month of “slow reading” Victor Hugo’s classic tome, Les Misérables, and I’m happy to report that Volume 1 is toast!

On the other hand, about half of the past month has been devoted to the Battle of Waterloo – an event that supposedly has a huge impact on the book’s later chapters, but right now seems like quite a confusing change of venue and eras.

Truthfully, I am made of questions concerning this shift. Why are we studying this ancient battlefield? Why is Hugo so obsessed with Napoleon’s defeat? What is the meaning of it all?  Why should I care about all of these generals and captains and commanders and blow-by-blow descriptions of how it all went down? Can’t we just skip to whatever the point is, and get back to Cosette – who’s just lost her mother (still unbeknownst to her) – and Jean Valjean, who’s being pursued by Javert?!

Brief excerpts

I thought I would hate all of these seemingly random chapters about Waterloo a lot more than I actually did, so that’s a plus. Some of the descriptions are quite poetic (one of the chapters is entitled “The Fog of War,” so now I know where all these historians have been borrowing the phrase), and since I know absolutely nothing about this particular historical moment, it’s all new information to me.

Here are some of the phrases I jotted down in my notebook:

“Tyranny follows the tyrant. It is grievous for a man to leave behind him a shadow in his own shape.” (V2, B1, C4)

“To depict a battle we need a painter with chaos in his brush.” (V2, B1, C5)

“A creature of light and dark, Napoleon believed himself to be protected in good and tolerated in evil.” (V2, B1, C8)

“Napoleon had been impeached in Heaven and his fall decreed; he was troublesome to God.” (V2, B1, C9)

“It was no longer a conflict of men but of shadows, furies, spirits exalted in a tempest of high courage amid the flashing of swords.” (V2, B1, C10)

“Napoleon’s tragic miscalculation is known to everyone: he looked for Grouchy but it was Blücher who came – death instead of life.” (V2, B1, C11)

“Waterloo was the hinge of the 19th century. A great man had to disappear in order that a great century might be born.” (V2, B1, C13)

“At nightfall, in a field near Genappe, two officers, Bernard and Bertrand, came up with a haggard-eyed man who, having been borne thus far by the tide of defeat, had dismounted and, holding his horse by the bridle, was walking back alone in the direction of Waterloo. It was Napoleon, still trying to go forward, the giant somnambulist of a shattered dream.” (V2, B1, C13)

We still have until the end of March before the full book devoted to Waterloo is finished, so hopefully the connection to Hugo’s previously established characters and their story arcs will eventually be revealed!

Color commentary

I have left off reading Bellos this month, so far, as I wanted to get through all the chapters before reading his commentary, but I will be sure to dive right into that once Waterloo is finally over on March 30th.

Useless trivia

According to an article at Useless Daily, “More than a quarter of the novel – by one count 955 of 2,783 pages – is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo’s encyclopedic knowledge, but do not advance the plot, nor even a subplot.” So I’m NOT crazy for thinking that Hugo is a novelist that goes off on lots of tangents! I distinctly remember these diversions derailing my reading, back in high school, as I had no idea what he was up to or rambling on about in these sections.

Another interesting factoid: apparently the Catholic church banned this book! There’s a list of authors who have been banned by the church on Wikipedia, and apparently Les Misérables was on the list until 1959, which places him in the company of such dangerous authors as Copernicus, Dante, Johannes Kepler, the Marquis de Sade and Madame de Staël, all of whom had books banned and whose bans were later reversed.

Join us!

If you’re not reading along with the group yet, you can still jump in! We’re just starting Volume 2 (Cosette), and as of today the group should be finishing up Book 1, Chapter 15. Join us with your comments on Twitter using the hashtag #LesMisReadalong, and enjoy the novel of the century one chapter at a time.