Thursday, February 14, 2013

I Run a Business of Repute; I am the Mayor of This Town!

This next part of the Les Mis Project was a long one, full of misery. 

Book 5 of Volume 1: Fantine of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (I'm getting quite adept at accenting my Es on the keyboard! You never know what a project of this nature will bring you.) 15% through the whole. We've just left Baby Cosette with the Thenardiers and Fantine has made her way to M. sur M. in search of a new life with fewer financial problems.

Is this the best 70s paperback
with yellow-edged paper
font you've ever seen, or what?
Book Fifth - The Descent - well, that title doesn't bode well for Fantine. It starts out fine. Turns out, in Fantine's absence from town, some super smart, brave, nice guy called Father Madeline has shown up out of nowhere in particular spreading goodness to all. (No one asked for his papers after he showed up in the nick of time to save the guard-captain's kids from a burning building. Very convenient!) He figured out a new, cheaper way to manufacture the black glass trinkets the town was known for, and it was a clear case of trickle-down economics. "This very small change had, in fact, prodigiously reduced the cost of the raw material, which had rendered it possible in the first place, to raise the price of manufacture, a benefit to the country; in the second place, to improve the workmanship, an advantage to the consumer; in the third place, to sell at a lower price, while trebling the profit, which was a benefit to the manufacturer." (p.120)

So, Father Madeline has become wealthy and respected, runs his factories with strict moral guidelines and plenty of pay for all, endows schools and hospitals, seeks out the poor to enrich them, yadda yadda yadda. Your basic living saint. He has plenty of cash, but still spends a million or so on teacher salaries, nursery schools, infrastructure, etc. The King decides he should be mayor. He says no thanks. They freak out. The King tries to give him the Legion of Honor for his invention. He says no thanks. No one can figure him out. Five years later, the King and everyone say again he should be mayor, and he's trying to refuse despite the crowds insisting he take it, and finally when an old townswoman says, "A good mayor is a useful thing. Is he drawing back before the good which he can do?" (p.123), he takes the job.

Also, he's gentle but an expert shot when he has to be, super strong but only uses his strength to do things like lift carts caught in the mud and stop runaway bulls, the usual. He always hands coins to begging kids, advises farmers about how to improve various bits of their lives, does good works as anonymously as he can, makes toys for the children. Did I mention the living saint thing? Hugo is very intent that we pick up on this facet of M. Madeline. Just to emphasize:

  • "...respect became complete, unanimous, cordial, and towards 1821 the moment arrived when the word 'Monsieur le Maire' was pronounced at M. sur M. with almost the same accent as 'Monseigneur the Bishop' had been pronounced in D-- in 1815. People came from a distance of ten leagues to consult M. Madeline. He put an end to differences, he prevented lawsuits, he reconciled enemies. Every one took him for the judge, and with good reason. It seemed as though he had for a soul the book of the natural law. It was like an epidemic of veneration, which in the course of six or seven years gradually took possession of the whole district." (p.126)
But! There's one suspicious guy who fails utterly to be charmed by M. Madeline. I love how Hugo has him look at Madeline: "with folded arms and a slow shake of the head, and his upper lip raised in company with his lower to his nose, a sort of significant grimace...." (p.127) You guessed it, right? It's Javert. He's a police inspector, who moved to town after Madeline had become successful, so he missed out on the whole 'save the kids, bypass the passport' episode. You get the feeling that even if it had been Javert's babies who were saved from the fire, though, he'd still have asked for Madeline's papers. Here's another gem of a description:

  • "When Javert laughed, - and his laugh was rare and terrible, - his thin lips parted and revealed to view not only his teeth, but his gums, and around his nose there formed a flattened and savage fold, as on the muzzle of a wild beast. Javert, serious, was a watchdog; when he laughed, he was a tiger." (p.128) Sexy!
  • And then one day a guy who doesn't even like Madeline much gets trapped under a cart, is a soon-to-be-dead old man, and Madeline is telling the rubber-neckers to get under the cart to lift it, as it's sinking into the mud. Everyone looks at him like he's crazy. Cart's HEAVY, dude. And Javert, cool as can be, says, "I have never known but one man capable of doing what you ask." (p.130) They have a stare-down while Javert emphasizes that the strong man he knew was a convict at Toulon, and Madeline again offers to pay the refusing bystanders good cash if they'll get under the cart, and finally: "Madeline raised his head, met Javert's falcon eye still fixed upon him, looked at the motionless peasants, and smiled sadly. Then, without saying a word, he fell on his knees, and before the crowd had even had time to utter a cry, he was underneath the vehicle." (p.131)
  • Of course after much tension and agony, he gets the cart up and saves the old man. "Madeline rose. He was pale, though dripping with perspiration. His clothes were torn and covered with mud. All wept. The old man kissed his knees and called him the good God. As for him, he bore upon his countenance an indescribable expression of happy and celestial suffering, and he fixed his tranquil eye on Javert, who was still staring at him." (p.131) Dun dun dun!!
M. Madeline continues to rise, Javert continues to watch, and Fantine works steadily away, even though the Thenardiers keep raising the cost of keeping Cosette. She can't write, so she has to have a letter-writer send the payments, and the mean gossips take plenty of note. The letter-writer is a bit of a loose-lipped drinker, so it's not long before the mean gossips figure out about the child, and ensure that she loses her job. She's not brave enough to approach the mayor about it (the forewoman is the one who sent her off), and tries to earn enough by sewing shirts. Then Cosette needs winter clothes, so she sells her gorgeous blond hair. (The Thenardiers gave the petticoat she sent to Eponine.) 

Not long down the road, they say she needs lots of cash for medicine (they didn't like getting clothes instead of cash after Fantine sold her hair.) She comes across a "dental professor" who offers her a gold napoleon for each of her pretty white front teeth. It repulses her (she's not the only one! ick!) but she needs the two coins for Cosette's medicine. When her neighbor sees the money later that night and asks where she got it, "...she smiled. The candle illuminated her countenance. It was a bloody smile. A reddish saliva soiled the corners of her lips, and she had a black hole in her mouth." (p.138) Thanks for that graphic description, Hugo!

She had to move to the attic since she couldn't afford the regular rooms. It was "one of those attics whose extremity forms an angle with the floor, and knocks you on the head every instant. The poor occupant can reach the end of his chamber as he can the end of his destiny, only by bending over more and more." (p.138) In case we weren't sure how it was going with Fantine.

The innkeepers want 100 francs or they'll throw Cosette out. Fantine is sewing seventeen hours per day, but can't make nearly enough cash. She also sows her hatred of M. Madeline, who she blames for this whole predicament. She can't get 100 francs honestly. Finally, sad, desperate, " 'Come!' said she, 'let us sell what is left.'   The unfortunate girl became a woman of the town." (p.138) (This slow descent into prostitution and destitution is the first big deviation from the musical, which until this point had compressed action but not directly messed with causality.) 

A local lout starts to heckle Fantine one night. She ignores him, but he only steps up his abuse, until he's shoving a handful of snow down the back of her only 'good' dress, and she flips out and attacks him. Of course she's the one Javert hauls in to jail. (Oh - check out the lout:)

  • "At that period a dandy was composed of a tall collar, a big cravat, a watch with trinkets, three vests of different colors, worn one on top of the other - the red and blue inside; of a short-waisted olive coat, with a codfish tail, a double row of silver buttons set close to each other and running up to the shoulder; and a pair of trousers of a lighter shade of olive, ornamented on the two seams with an indefinite, but always uneven, number of lines, varying from one to eleven - a limit which was never exceeded. Add to this, high shoes with little irons on the heels, a tall hat with a narrow brim, hair worn in a tuft, an enormous cane, and conversation set up by puns of Potier. Over all, spurs and a mustache. At that epoch mustaches indicated the bourgeois, and spurs the pedestrian. The provincial dandy wore the longest of spurs and the fiercest of mustaches." (p.140)
Anyway, Javert has Fantine at the station-house (everyone tries to get a look at what's happening, because "Curiosity is a sort of gluttony. To see is to devour." (p.141)) She sobs and begs and explains about the snow and about Cosette and asks for his pity and help. Poor Fantine. "Great sorrow us a divine and terrible ray, which transfigures the unhappy. At that moment Fantine had become beautiful once more." (p.142)

Javert don't care. "She would have softened a heart of granite; but a heart of wood cannot be softened." (p.142) He's all set to toss her in jail for six months, when Madeline speaks up. He's heard it all, unobserved by either. He stops the soldiers, and when Javert calls him "Mr. Mayor," Fantine pulls away from the soldiers and spits in Madeline's face. Madeline wipes his face and tells Javert to set her free. Ay caramba!

  • "Javert felt that he was on the verge of going mad. He experienced at that moment, blow upon blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions which he had ever undergone in all his life. To see a woman of the town spit in the mayor's face was a thing so monstrous that, in his most daring flights of fancy, he would have regarded it as a sacrilege to believe it possible. On the other hand, at the very bottom of his thought, he made a hideous comparison as to what this woman was, and as to what this mayor might be; and then he, which horror, caught a glimpse of I know not what simple explanation of this prodigious attack. But when he beheld that mayor, that magistrate, calmly wipe his face and say, 'Set this woman at liberty,' he underwent a sort of intoxication of amazement; thought and word failed him equally; the sum total of possible astonishment had been exceeded in his case. He remained mute." (p.143)
  • Fantine's a little confused, too. She's so anti-Madeline that she's sure it's Javert who stopped her trek to the cells. But he still wants to send her, and again the Mayor stops it. Javert argues that she's broken the law, and finally, "M. Madeline folded his arms, and said in a severe voice which no one in the town had heard hitherto: - 'The matter to which you refer is one connected with the municipal police. According to the terms of articles nine, eleven, fifteen, and sixty-six of the code of criminal examination, I am the judge. I order that this woman shall be set at liberty.' " (p.145)
  • Javert finally, coldly, stiffly, gives in and leaves. Fantine doesn't know what to make of these powerful authority figures fighting over her fate. "And at the very moment when she had insulted him in so hideous a fashion, he had saved her! Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled." (p.146) Recurring theme much, Hugo?
And then! M. Madeline tells her he will help her get Cosette back, set them up with a home and living expenses wherever she likes, absolve her of her sins, pay her debts, and basically make her life dreamy. So Fantine faints, and that's the end of the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment