Sunday, March 28, 2010

Silver Lining

Tonight I started writing a whole lot of stuff about my former church and then I paused. When I came back to finish, my pen had stopped working. I've been writing with a fountain pen in a Moleskine notebook, a new setup for me; it's been working out well. But I'm superstitious. Now I've got the pen working again I'm inclined to swerve away from explaining why I left that church; except to say, which was going to be my point anyhow, that the rector there who wants to be a bishop someday is no Monsiegneur Myriel. And that this fact struck me forcibly when I first began reading Les Misérables at work.

The novel opens with a description of this bishop's life, character, habits, all exemplary; his humility, his cheerful self-denial, his profound generosity, are illustrated through incidents drawn from his ministry (and based, apparently, on fact) in the Diocese of D. When Jean Valjean arrives, and steals away, and gets dragged back, it reads like the same sort of incident in Monsiegneur Myriel's exemplary life--at first. For then comes the conversion: literally, an inversion, like an hourglass being turned--at which Jean Valjean's becomes the central and exemplary life. Technically, it's very brilliant, this book! On the road he robs Little Gervais and then awakens: a new Jean Valjean. Then he's gone; here is Fantine, Felix, the two quartets, the country, the surprise: Fantine abandoned. Then Fantine leaving Paris with Cosette, leaving Cosette with the terrible Thenardiers at Montfermeil. Time has passed; she comes to M sur M where she finds work in the factory founded several years earlier by the man, now mayor, called Monsieur Madeleine. He is a mystery, his origins unknown; a good, rich, honest, influential man, he is a paradox.

At this point, Victor Hugo pauses. He returns to find a broken pen. He thinks, maybe it would be the better course to lighten up and think about the franchise. In this first volume, naturally, Monsieur Madeleine will meet Fantine and fall in love with her. They will have a love scene in an orchard all aglow with her blonde beauty. Later, sheltering together from a rainstorm, she will confess her out-of-wedlock child and he his past as Jean Valjean, a prisoner on the galleys. Forgiven and forgiving, they will marry, move to Paris with Cosette, and take a box at the Paris Opéra. In subsequent adventures they'll visit London, New York, Lima, Sydney, Bombay, St Petersburg: Around the world with Les Misérables, solving murder mysteries at every stop along with way. Tomboyish Cosette provokes perpetual romantic complications and the infant Valjeans, all five or six of them, tumbling amid luggage, perpetual gaiety. Of course, the epilogue of every volume reunites the happy family with the Bishop and his sister in their garden, still shaded by the wall Jean Valjean scaled that night he robbed them; a Renior father/son scene in the sun-dappled garden, where the Bishop tells the moral of the story and Fantine, surrounded by her children, laughs.

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