01 January 2013

Moving On...: Reflections on a Year Spent Hurdling Hugo

"Il dort. Quoique le sort fût pour lui bien étrange,/Il vivait. Il mourut quand il n'eut plus son ange./La chose simplement d'elle-même arriva,/Comme la nuit se fait lorsque le jour s'en va.

[He is asleep. Though his mettle was sorely tried,/He lived, and when he lost his angel, died./It happened calmly, on its own,/The way night comes when day is done.]"
- Victor Hugo (Les Misérables, V.9.vi [last lines])
Hugo Final Day Count: 366
Hugo Final Page Count: 2158

At the beginning of this year, I started a journey through the works of Victor Hugo. While my eyes were bigger then than my attention span is now, it has certainly been a fun ride, encompassing the scope of human emotions from unspeakable joy to inconsolable sadness and everything in-between.

The year started with the goal to read the largest novel I'd ever attempted - Victor Hugo's Les Misérables - and, in that respect, I was successful. And, while my accountability on the blog was certainly lacking in the last twelve months, my contact with my Twitter followers was at an all-time high and, I am quite certain, through my tireless efforts to tweet quotes and passages from the classic books I read, managed to convince a few of my friends and followers to take up this magnificent tome for themselves.

Les Misérables was, to be sure, one of the great literary experiences of my life. While I did not feel quite as enriched while reading it as I did upon completing War & Peace in 2011, upon further reflection, I find that it was a book that I will certainly carry with me as a favorite for the rest of my days.

I was discussing with a friend (a doctoral student in the theatre department at Tufts University) just yesterday the necessary changes in Aristotle's "elements of a well-made play" (or 'story'). He suggested that it is specious to apply what amounts to ancient and philosophical thoughts to modern story and playwriting techniques. When I prompted him as to what changes he would make to Aristotle's structure, he responded that, more than 'plot' (which Aristotle ranks highest of all other elements - which also include theme, character, music, and spectacle, among others), character is what drives most modern audiences in their pursuit of film, literature, and theatre. I had to admit, he had a point.

How often do truly compelling characters stick with us as an audience, as readers, as those ardent masses who desire to experience art for what it is? There is something about them that draws us in. More than the most fascinating plot or story, it is the characters that draw us in and help us to identify our place within the human puzzle. Given my experiences over the last two years, I would have to agree that the Romantic writers had a great handle on this idea.

One of the great things about the Romantics - particularly the Europeans - was their aptitude for taking a story that was, for all intents and purposes, epic and focusing, in the midst of this epic sprawl, on characters, on the people who drive the story forward. Of those great, grand stories, few balance the grandeur of subject with intimacy of character like Victor Hugo.

In the two novels of his that I read this year - Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris - Hugo demonstrates a grasp of character that is unparalleled by many an author, a feat that may even eclipse that of Tolstoy, who's writing so influenced and enlightened me last year.

In Les Misérables, Hugo introduces us to two characters who are fundamental opposites (and yet, paradoxically, based on the same man) - Jean Valjean, the criminal who is shown mercy when he most needs it and, as a result, shows it to everyone he comes across; and Javert, the wolfish police inspector hell-bent by his fanatical devotion to the law of the land to see that Valjean answers for his various crimes. Their dichotomy has fueled innumerable conversations about the nature of justice and mercy - which certainly had to be Hugo's intent. Himself an activist and advocate for the poorest of people, Hugo clearly favors Valjean's ascent of grace to Javert's dive of justice - while both men ultimately die, it is Javert who kills himself due to his inability to justify the act of mercy shown him by Valjean, the man who he had sworn to bring to justice. Valjean, on the other hand, dies surrounded by his beloved adopted daughter and her husband, loved and beloved. As he tells his daughter with his final breaths: "Love each other dearly. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another" (V.9.v). Or, to put it like it was said in the musical: "And remember the truth that once was spoken,/To love another person is to see the face of God."

Peppered among these captivating players are secondary characters who do not fail to ignite inspirational fires of their own: Marius, the schoolboy who scorns his beloved grandfather in order to pursue his love and his ideals; the Bishop of Digne, whose simple act of mercy acts as the catalyst for Valjean's complete turnaround; the tragic Fantine, whose story is perhaps one of the saddest I've ever encountered; the noble Enjolras and the nihilistic Grantaire, two polar opposites whose death is one of the most noble and heartbreaking in all of literature; the mischievous Little Gavroche, who refuses to take guff from any man, especially those bigger than him. All of these - and so many others - enliven this epic tale. Hugo's attention to forming them into fully-fledged people enhances a good story, transforming into a timeless classic.

Meanwhile, Hugo's first novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, also delivers on compelling characterizations, though of a completely different kind altogether. While these is something inherently emulatable in his Les Misérables creations (with the exclusion of the Thenardiers, of course), the characters in Notre-Dame de Paris (more commonly, and erroneously, referred to as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) bears characters that would appear to be more at home in a morality play than in a Romantic novel. Even more incredible is the idea that Hugo's main character is the titular Cathedral de Notre-Dame itself rather than any of the numerous characters that occupy the structure throughout the course of the novel.

Firstly, we are introduced to Claude Frollo, the archbishop of Notre-Dame driven mad by his lustful desires for the young la Esmeralda who herself becomes the object of desire of every principal male figure of the book. While nowhere near as cruel as most film adaptations of him, Frollo is nonetheless compelling - a man devoted to his studies and to his vows, until the sight of a beautiful young girl drives him to a most fatal obsession. In Frollo's care is the gentle Quasimodo, who stands out as the most compelling of all the characters of this novel, if for no other reason than the juxtaposition of his hideous outer appearance (see the following excerpt) with his inner gentle nature.
"We shall not attempt to give the reader an idea of that tetrahedral nose, that horseshoe mouth, that tiny left eye obscured by a shaggy red eyebrow, while the right eye lay completely hidden beneath an enormous wart. Those irregular teeth, with gaps here and there like the battlements of a fortress, that calloused lip, over which one of those teeth protruded like an elephant's tusk, that cleft chin, and above all the facial expression extending over the whole, a mixture of malice, amazement, and sadness. Conjure up, if you can, this overall effect." (I.v)
It is perhaps Quasimodo, of all the characters in the novel, who loves the most honestly and the most deeply. While his demeanor around so many others is anger, hatred, or brutality, it is la Esmeralda - the only soul who treats him as though he were human - whom he holds with the utmost affection, even at the expense of his relationship with his master, Frollo.

In addition to these, we are given snapshots of Captain Phoebus, whose heroics make him the apple of la Esmeralda's young eye, despite his engagement and constant womanizing; of Jehann Frollo, the younger brother of the archbishop, the mooching, drunken student whose loud and obnoxious behavior lead him to be among the first killed in the siege of the great Cathedral; of Pierre Gringoire, a real-life playwright, here given literary function as the man whom la Esmeralda marries in order to save him from death at the hands of the gypsies; of Gudule, the frightful sachette who has spent her life mourning the loss of her daughter and hating the gypsies who had stolen her. Throughout the tale it is, again, these vibrant characters who drive the narrative, giving it substance and life and meaning and depth.

Hugo's sketching of these characters is what makes his novels so classic and so compelling. More than the stories, which are still excellent, it is the characters that propel them. Even Tolstoy, who last year became one of my favorite writers, did not have such an emotional grasp of character. In two novels, he created five characters that I became completely enamored with - Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, Anna Karenina, and Konstantin Levin. Hugo, on the other hand, has created three times as many, at least one of which - Jean Valjean - has been named among the most compelling characters in all of literature. While I can honestly say that Tolstoy composes the vast, sprawling narrative with more aplomb than Hugo, it is Hugo who creates the more relatable characters.

And perhaps it is that, above all, which I will take away from this year in my literary journey. 2012 is the year of the captivating character.

And, with that, ladies and gentlemen, that I bring this blog to a close. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am broadening my scope in the years to come on this project. It is my hope that you will continue to follow along with my literary journey both at my new blog or my new Twitter feed (@ClassicLitTweet) and provide any feedback you so desire. My intent is to leave this site up and running (though largely untended) until such a time as I am able to get the contents copied to another site. In the meantime, remember: there is never a substitute for great literature!

19 October 2012

Starting Anew (featuring 2013's Author-of-the-Year Announcement!)

"... I  am your beggar. I was the mendicant at the foot of the road from your castle. You have given me alms. But he who gives does not notice; he who receives examines and observes. When you say mendicant, you say spy. But as for me, though I am often sad, I try not to be a malicious spy. I used to hold out my hand; you only saw the hand, and you threw into it the charity I needed in the morning in order that I might not die in the evening. I have often been twenty-four hours without eating. Sometimes a penny is life. I owe you my life; I pay the debt."
- Tellmarch the Caimand (I.4.iv)

Ninety-Three Day Count: 50
Ninety-Three Page Count: 93
Hurdling Hugo Day Count: 293
Hurdling Hugo Page Count: 2296

 You may have noticed that my posting on this site has become sporadic at best. Life has a funny way of taking up a lot of your time like that. Since my last post, I have finished Notre-Dame de Paris, begun Ninety-Three (regarded by many as Hugo’s best work), started the school year, and been cast in and performed in a community theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve been busy.
But still… even when I do have time to post here, it often seems the last thing I want to do. Blogging seems a chore and I don’t want it to be that. I enjoy literature and discussing it with my friends and, honestly, that’s what I would like for this to be. I need to become excited again… which has told me I need to get a fresh start.

I want this not only to accurately reflect my literary journey (which I’m quickly beginning to realize will most likely take the rest of my life), but also to act as a way for others to begin their literary journeys. I have received word from several friends since I started this journey that they have become inspired by my tweeting or my blogging to begin literary journeys of their own. My grandmother has borrowed both War & Peace and Anna Karenina to read for her own enjoyment. My friend Sherri decided to devote a year to reading the works of William Shakespeare. Numerous friends have begun reading Les Miserables as a result of my commentary on it.

This has opened my eyes to the realization that people want to read good books. They want to experience these great stories in their original medium. In a world that is continually being overwrought with more and more visual media, there is something altogether timeless and enduring about the written word. Perhaps that is its power.

My desire, then, has become to broaden the scope of this blog, not simply to include my own thoughts, but those of other literary-minded people whose opinions on art and literature I greatly respect. The goal is almost to make this into a community of like-minded people with the desire to become more well-read, which, ultimately, is the goal I set out to achieve at the outset of this whole endeavor. Maybe it’s a pipe dream or a fool’s errand… I don’t know. Either way, that’s what I’m looking forward to most about this new direction – spurring others on toward literary independence and discovery.

With this change will come another new way of doing things. Gone will be the creative alliterations on the names of the authors I’m reading – Tackling Tolstoy, Hurdling Hugo, etc. – and they will be replaced by one ubiquitous title – The Classic Lit Blog. This will be the signature title of this blog as it will be associated with what I am calling The Classic Lit Project – a gradual attempt to become well-read by reading classic authors one year at a time. The mission statement, put as simply as I know how, is One Author, One Year. That’ll likely change over time, but for now, it seems a good starting point for me as I continue to figure out this new direction.

Over the past two years, October has been my ‘announcement month’ – the month in which I put forward the author who will be the subject of the next year of reading. After much thought and deliberation, I’ve decided that I want to tackle what is largely considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century – Ulysses. As such, 2013 is set to become the year of James Joyce.

This will require changing a few things from the way I’ve approached literature previously. After conversations with an English teacher friend (whose comments on Joyce definitely helped to cement this decision for me), I feel like the best approach to Joyce would be to read his major works – Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses – in the order they were published. This, according to him, will accomplish two goals: (1.) It will allow me to witness firsthand the evolution of Joyce’s signature style over the course of his literary career, and (2.) it will help me to familiarize myself with characters that recur in Joyce's works in the order he established them.
My normal modus operandi, however, has typically been to start with the largest of an author’s work first and then work my way down. I did this with Tolstoy to some degree and with Hugo as well. With Joyce, however, I would be working my way up – from the smallest of his works, Dubliners, to the largest, Ulysses. My hope is that this will solve what I have come to call the “third book problem,” in which I become burned out and disinterested by the third novel. (I didn’t end up finishing the collection of short stories I’d chosen for Tolstoy last year and am currently struggling to become motivated to continue Ninety-Three.) By saving the novel I most want to read for last, my hope is that the momentum and desire to get there will carry me through to the finish.

As to Joyce’s most daunting work – Finnegan’s Wake – which is said to be the most challenging of anything he’s written… there is a part of me that does want to read it very much. A fine feather for my cap would be this seminal work of Joyce’s. However, a lot will depend on my feelings upon the completion of Ulysses, whether I feel I’m up for such a monumental read. I have heard that there is a wonderful audio edition of the book available, so I may find myself going that route (another first for me, as I typically don’t use audio books).

So, as you can see, there are some big changes coming to this concept in the next few months. For those of you still invested in Hugo, don’t bail quite yet. I’m not completely done here. There are still insights to be shared and comments to be made, so hold on. In the meantime, though, be excited about where this is all heading. I am.