Thursday, May 30, 2013

Les Misérables, Unabridged.

I read this book for a few reasons. I like reading classics. Unlike many people, I enjoyed the latest movie version of the musical (I even defended its "villian"). I had this recent epiphany: approximately, Les Mis is to American liberalism what Atlas Shrugged is to American conservatism. And finally, the most compelling one: of the handful of women I most respect in the world, a majority of them love the story.

I like to read things that my friends love. I don't always have a great expectation of loving the thing myself; I mainly like seeing what sets them afire. In retrospect reading the unabridged version likely misses the mark on that front. Along the way I haven't encountered anyone clarifying that what they loved was this long form of the story and even beyond that what most people seem to love is the musical and not the actual novel, not even the abridged version. Much of what I thought while reading the book has a great deal to do with its relationship to the musical.

I've seen the musical, as an actual musical, only once a long time ago. My knowledge of the musical is really a knowledge of the recent movie. I'm not sure how close the movie sticks to the lines of the musical. I assume it was fairly close because most of the complaints about the movie revolved around the singing and not about wandering too far from the plot as laid out by the musical.

Walking away from the movie my biggest complaint was that the suicide of Javert made no sense. Robyn insisted it made perfect sense, that he had all his ideals fall down around him and thus felt a wasted life. I could see this happening to a person, but it didn't make sense to me because the truth that he discovered was that rigidness to rules was flawed and that true goodness came through redemption and forgiveness. So either he learned that lessen or he didn't. If he didn't, then his former life still could hold meaning. If he did learn it, then he should have been able to apply it to even himself. The suicide seemed unnecessary for a man who learned what he had just learned, even though it came along with a significant loss of prior beliefs. The book has the advantage of entering into Javert's mind but beyond that it includes a scene that's missing from the musical that I think is crucial to understanding Javert's final act. After Jean Valjean set's Javert free they encounter each other again, but this time Jean Valjean is captured by Javert and Javert eventually set's Jean Valjean free. Now Javert is not only struggling with which ideal is right, but recognizes a sort of failure in himself as defined by his older view of life. He has let a convict go. He has subverted the law. He has been weak. He has set his personal feelings above the good of the country. He no longer feels consistent. In a way the convict has turned him into a criminal as well. He still clings to this old way of thinking while having acted upon the new way that Jean Valjean has shown him. But he can't set everything back in order. He is, of course, also affected by the fact that he now sees that good can come from one who was once a convict (still is a convict in Javert's eyes). But I gather it is the lesser influence on his eventual decision to end his life. By stripping away the larger influence, by removing the scene where Javert releases Jean Valjean, the musical is murky and confusing where the novel is clear and easy to follow.

There were many more differences between the musical and the book. Forgetting for a moment the plethora of asides the novel takes, the individual characters aren't quite as angelic in the novel. Jean Valjean and Marius in particular are three-dimensional in the novel where in the musical they are, while quite admirable, unabashedly flat. We get to see Jean Valjean continue to struggle to make good choices even after his incident with the Bishop. It becomes a mental effort to stay on the right path; while in the musical you get the sense that a demon became a saint in an instance, the novel let's us see it's a difficult and deliberate process.

Even very late in the story, and Jean Valjean's life, he struggles with an unspoken animosity toward Marius as the latter encroaches on the happiness that Jean Valjean has created with Cosette. To guard and eventually save Marius is a decision he makes only after first trying to flee the country with Cosette so that the two lovers cleaving to one another might not in turn cleave Cosette from Jean Valjean. Even his saving of Marius seems to be done somewhat begrudgingly. And later, when Jean Valjean tells Marius of his life, Marius does not instantly accept him for who he is now. Instead he too acts begrudgingly. He consents to let Jean Valjean to visit with Cosette, but only in the evenings and slowly he makes the meetings more uncomfortable until it's clear that Jean should no longer return.

This conflict between the two makes the ending all the better. We get to see how Jean Valjean makes his biggest sacrifice. He tells Marius his life story so that he can be cast off. He sacrifices his own happiness so that Marius and Cosette never need be put at risk for harboring a convict, even if unknowingly. Much of his prior good deeds still produced some happiness in him, but this act was nothing but sadness and misery. It hurt so much that it sapped his soul and after months of loneliness (a longer time frame than the musical portrays) it saps away his life too.

Marius then stumbles upon the fact that Jean Valjean saved him from the battle and made his reunion with Cosette possible. It is at this point that Marius realizes how wrong he has acted because of lack of information. The impact of the final scene is greatly enhanced with the tension of these two characters as a backdrop. This is something the musical misses out on.

Another major difference: Eponine. In the novel she is the one that summons Marius to the barricade and as she lays dying in his arms she admits that she drew him there because she thought it would please her knowing that he would die there, that if she couldn't have him then no one could. The musical makes her much more agreeable, Marius's first guardian angel at the barricade who survives just long enough for his second (Jean Valjean) to arrive and pick up where she left off.
At this point I can't recall all the differences between the stories, but I recall noting quite frequently along the way that things were playing out differently in the novel.  One last thing I did want to note is that the Inn-Keeper and his wife are far more sinister in the novel. The movie made them into jesters where the novel had them more akin to assassins.

That all being said, I wish I hadn't read the unabridged version of the novel. I haven't read a lot of "epic" novels (Crime and Punishment might be the only one that nears the length of this one), but this story didn't feel epic to me. It didn't feel like it needed to be 1400 pages long. It didn't feel expansive. It felt like a story interrupted by very long and self aware tangents. The tangents felt like they were intended to serve the purpose of cliffhangers but unlike cliffhangers turning the page wouldn't lead you anywhere along the story. Many of the asides didn't add to the story proper and really just slowed the pacing of the book. In the end, when I would recognize and aside (they're very obvious) I would skip over them rather than spend the next ten or twenty or sometimes forty pages reading text that felt more appropriate for an encyclopedia than a novel. In comparison Crime and Punishment was long but it always felt on task, it was always moving the story forward. And though a story like Moby Dick isn't as long and has it's own little asides they always felt more integral to the story. I don't kow if this rightly explains the difference but I feel like where Les Mis's asides taught you history, Moby Dick's asides taught you about a mythology; somehow the latter seems more integral to a story than the former.

Beyond the asides there were some paragraphs that were an exercise in Hugo coming up with as many different ways to express a single idea as possible. I imagine they amused him greatly, but they were an impediment to my reading and enjoyment of the novel.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I've Learned From My Child

I've been wanting to write about this topic for a while but I keep putting it off because I predict it will be full of cliches, which sounds boring to me, and because I don't want to write something that implies I think you have to have a child to be a complete person. I reject the latter notion and hope it is not the impression that the reader walks away with. Life works in all sorts of different ways, and I mean only to talk about my life without judgement or assumed understanding of anyone elses life, regardless of any language used here that might lead someone to believe otherwise. I recognize the experiences I've gained with Berkeley come with a loss of other potential great and enlightening experiences. End preamble.

Going into parenting my eyes were wide open to the fact that I'd get to learn all sorts of things about sacrifice. I'd get to sacrifice free time, sleep, money, sleep, time with Robyn, sleep. And did I mention sleep? I've probably learned more about sacrifice than I expected but I haven't felt any great revelation there--the fact that I can survive on 7 hours of sleep instead of 9 isn't exactly groundbreaking--and discussing that particular topic without stepping on a multitude of cliches is probably near impossible so I won't linger any longer there.

The thing about life, at least my life, is that there is so much of it I don't remember. Without thinking really hard I couldn't tell you much about what happened yesterday. I could talk about some major milestones from last year, but ask me about a particular date from 2012 and I'd likely look at you stupidly. What was high school like? The question conjures emotions more than specific events. What was it like to be a preteen? It has something to do with riding BMX bikes and playing kickball. Before that? I don't know. I can see glue sliding down paper, maybe I was seven, maybe I was six, maybe I was five. Before that? Nothing.

Barring the invention of a time machine, watching Berkeley is likely the closest I'll ever get to re-experiencing faint memories and stages of life I have absolutely no memory of. Granted, it's impossible that our experience were the same, but I'm sure there is a reasonably sized overlap. There is something primal about watching your child stumble their way through new experiences and language that, I think, goes beyond the love of a parent for a child. It's a glimpse into your own life, it binds you not only to your child but back to yourself as well, and possibly, on really good days, it binds you to all of humankind. It's not just me I see there playing with stickers or having a one on one conversation with a stuffed animal, it's my wife, it's my brother, it's my father, it's my mother, it's my friends, it's the guy who bugs me on the bus, it's my bosses, and it's billions of people I've never met. We were all once there, so new and so fragile. But even on the average day it feels like staring into a mirror that reflects my past. So much of my own forgotten experiences are grounded there in reality before me, and so I learn who I am by watching who she is.

The second thing I've learned about, though I don't claim to fully understand it, is a new aspect to the relativity of time. This isn't about how the individual days can sometimes drag along while the years seem to fly by, which is also worth noting. But it's about how even though I have substantially fewer hours in the day to get stuff done, I've somehow managed to feel more productive since Berkeley was born. It feels like the same paradox that is taught at church about tithing; somehow, by giving money away, you end up with more of it. And somehow, giving more of my time results in having more of it. My explanation is that this experience is like a crucible. It burns away excess, what is most important comes into great focus when the number of hours you have to yourself, to do whatever you want, is reduced greatly. I've put aside many things and now focus on the stuff that really matters to me. She's forced me take that look and to make those choices. Sometimes it's a conscious decision but it works at a lower level too; things have been intentionally put aside while others have fallen to the wayside almost unknowingly and it's surprising how little I miss most of them.

When did she teach me all of this? I honestly don't know. But I'm grateful for the chance to learn and the opportunity to be her father. I hope there is much more of this sort of thing in store.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Road, Story Two

Here is the second story in my set of stories. Freshly finished.

Friends by Shawn Kessler