Summer Reading – Les Misérables and War and Peace

This summer I set myself a little reading challenge: to read Les Misérables and War and Peace over the course of the holidays. Not quite your standard summer beach fare, more Gail vs almost 3000 pages of tightly woven text. I was determined to give both books a try after being mesmerised by the BBC adaptions of both stories, which I’d been obsessing over for the last few months on catch up. (Sidenote: I’ve just watched War and Peace for the second time and have since found my life consumed with a desire to watch everything Paul Dano has ever done).

Reading these two books in one summer did require a little bit of discipline. At over 1400 pages long, War and Peace is a veritable mammoth, and Les Misérables isn’t actually very far behind. Thankfully, I’m in the habit of reading average-sized books at a rate of about one a week, so it was really just a case of extrapolation. I gave myself a target of reading 50 pages daily during the summer, which roughly translates to the tune of one massive-sized doorstop book a month.

Les Misérables

I started the summer by reading Les Mis (because you can go around calling it that once you’ve read the book or watched the musical apparently) and spent most of July entrenched in life with Jean Valjean, and wrapped up in the antics of revolutionary France. The book tells the story of Valjean and his constant struggle to escape his past as a prisoner, his love for daughter-of-sorts Cosette, and the romantic love that blooms between Cosette and student Marius later in the book. In the backdrop to all of this is Javert, a police inspector and ex-prison guard hell-bent on Jean Valjean’s destruction. And then there is Fantine – possibly the character I’ve pitied more than any character I’ve ever come across in literature before. Aside from all this, the story hosts an array of other characters, rebellions, and a distressing amount of poverty. The book has a strong moral and social compass, and more than that, it gives the impression of a love letter from Victor Hugo to his native France.

Les Miserables Book on table

Hugo takes an active role in the story as narrator, and the only parts of the book I didn’t love were the bits where he holds forth on matters such as the state of Parisian sewers, religious orders and a deconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo in lengthy essays. These sections didn’t, for me, add anything to the story, and if I was reading the book again, I’d honestly be inclined to miss them out. But for the remaining 1000 pages or so, I was entranced, by Valjean, by Hugo’s insights on humanity – and by his mesmerising use of language. Quite honestly, this has to be one of the most quotable books ever.

“If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress, and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow.”

Victor Hugo

It’s funny, isn’t it, how centuries pass but some things never change?

War and Peace

There’s that familiar sense of humanity’s sameness in Leo Tolstoy’s epic (otherwise known as: August). The story focuses on the lives and loves of several Russian families in the turbulent era of the Napoleonic wars. In it, we follow Pierre, Prince Andrei, Natasha and various others through war, peace and ultimate transformation. For me, this sense of each character’s evolution was the most powerful and captivating element of the book. Whether it was Pierre’s quest for meaning in life, Prince Andrei’s spiritual revelation or Natasha’s departure from flighty girlhood I felt as if I went through the wringer with them and emerged someone completely different. When one of them was in love, I felt like I was in love, and when one of them died, I felt as if I had briefly looked under the veil of death. Again, I found some of the heavily narrated elements of the book made for tricky reading, and struggled with Tolstoy’s philosophical musings on the nature of power and the question of free will in the lengthy epilogue. But for the story alone, this has to rank as one of my favourite books ever.

War and Peace Book

And with it Pierre Bezukhov, emerging as possibly my all-time bookish hero (which also owes a lot to the BBC, and Paul Dano).

Where there is life, there is happiness. There is a huge amount yet to come.

Pierre, War and Peace