Monday, March 21, 2011

Ode to Victor Hugo's 1862 novel

While the Dakota Indians fought the United States army and Minnesota settlers in 1862 over the right to live in their homeland, to feed their families and to worship the Creator, on the other side of the world author Victor Hugo finished penning Les Misérables (literally "The Miserable Ones"; French pronunciation: [le mizeʁabl(ə)]).  Happy 25th Anniversary to the Broadway musical!  Widely considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century, Les Mis follows the lives and interactions of several French characters over a seventeen-year period in the early nineteenth century, starting in 1815 and culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion.  
 One hundred and fifty years later in the summer of 1982, as a self-professed "junior high library addict," I read this historical fiction for the first time...which is what inspired me to take French in school... and to read Alexandre Dumas, (the Count of Monte Cristo is still on my favorite list)... Right on the shelf next to the "Three Musketeers" series were novels by Albert Camus, (a Nobel Laureate 1957 in literature), including "The Plague" which piqued my interest in medicine, epidemiology and disaster relief all those years ago.  My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds as I "hung out" with these literary giants. As a teen I loved being outside during the peak of the day and curling up at night with a new library novel while the warm Saint Louis summer breeze blew through my bedroom window.
My mind was opened to a whole new world my parents couldn't take me and to new ideas that never crossed my mind before.  Three Winter Olympic experiences later I find that my high school French probably gets used more than  anything else I formally learned at Ladue High School.  And it all started with a librarian ushering me to the aisle of historical fiction.  Take home message:  Who knows how one book will influence your life.
And now in 2011, I hear of protests in Wisconsin, in Libya, in Egypt; As an adult I have a deeper appreciation for the tendency of history to repeat itself, the importance to read and talk about history... and the role of Truth Tell to bring healing after generations of trauma.  It's so easy for Americans to point fingers at other countries where genocidal policies reigned and human rights were stripped, but I look forward to the healing that can happen for Americans and the globe if we begin by looking in the mirror and by talking about history.

Les Misérables focuses on the struggles of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his experience of redemption. It is rich with French history, politics, romance, moral philosophy, justice, religion. It was also in the summer of 1982 when I began collecting quotes in my journals and here are some of my favorites from Victor Hugo:
  "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come."
    "There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher."  "To die is nothing; but it is terrible not to live."
  "There is nothing like dream to create the future.  Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow."   "Work, which makes a man free, and thought which makes him worthy of freedom..."
"Emergencies have always been necessary to progress.  It was darkness which produced the lamp.  It was fog that produced the compass.  It was hunger that drove us to exploration.  And it took a depression to teach us  the real value of a job." 
"Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to to sleep in peace.  God is awake"
"Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face."  
(On the first of Spring 2011...I  say to Mr. Hugo, "well spoken!" )