Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Aren't Any Floors for Me to Sweep

Look at me, racing along on the Les Mis Project. This next section of Volume 2: Cosette in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was a brief interlude. A little breath taken between the drama of Valjean retreiving Cosette from the Thenardiers, and... well, whatever comes next. More drama, indubitably. 

This is what I like: a true to text
scene from the book that matches
the part I'm posting about.
Book Fourth - The Gorbeau Hovel

Scene: Outskirts of Paris. Not the city, not a town, just an area with some buildings and some history. A house (numbered both 50 and 52, to confuse everyone) that looks like a shack, but is large inside. It used to be the residence of a lawer named Gorbeau, so that's the name that sticks with it. A dilapidated door and window huddle along the street, mismatched but both grim. "This door with an unclean, and this window with an honest though dilapidated air, thus beheld on the same house, produced the effect of two incomplete beggars walking side by side, with different miens beneath the same rags, the one having always been a mendicant, and the other having always been a gentleman." (p.296)

There are plenty of details about this house. An entire chapter's worth. Hugo deploys some more fun language:

  • "As a whole, it was not over a hundred years old. A hundred years is youth in a church and age in a house. It seems as though man's lodging partook of his ephemeral character, and God's house of his eternity." (p.296)
  • "Collectors of petty details, who become herbalists of anecdotes, and prick slippery dates into their memories with a pin...." (p.296) (Herbalist of Anecdotes is totally my new tumblr name.)
  • It's a dismal area. "As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks of monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, building erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles." (p.298)
  • "Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored." (p.298)
Anyhow, this hovel, not surprisingly, is the nowhere haven that Valjean retreats to with Cosette. They have a

room, warm and safe, and Cosette sleeps a long, healing sleep, give or take an instinctive startle response (jumping up, searching for her broom) when there was a noise in the street. She wakes, accepts her new lot in life, plays with her doll, and is content. As is Valjean:

  • "Some new thing had come into his soul. Jean Vlajean had never loved anything; for twenty-five years he had been alone in the world. He had never been father, lover, husband, friend. In the prison he had been vicious, gloomy, chaste, ignorant, and shy." (p.300)
  • "When he saw Cosette, when he had taken possession of her, carried her off, and delivered her, he felt his heart move within him." (p.300)
  • "It was the second white apparition which he had encountered. The Bishop had caused the dawn of virtue to rise on his horizon; Cosette caused the dawn of love to rise." (p.300)
  • "Nature, a difference of fifty years, had set a profound gulf between Jean Valjean and Cosette; destiny filled in this gulf. Destiny suddenly united and wedded with its irresistible power these two uprooted existences, differing in age, alike in sorrow. One, in fact, completed the other. Cosette's instinct sought a father, as Jean Valjean's instinct sought a child." (p.300)
So, happy families time. They didn't do a whole lot - stayed in, let the portress take care of shopping, took the occasional walk. He taught her to read, and "remembered that it was with the idea of doing evil that he had learned to read in prison. This idea had ended in teaching a child to read. Then the ex-convict smiled with the pensive smile of the angels." (p.301) The theory is that, if not for Cosette, that re-incarceration would have undone all the good that the Bishop had done for him, and Valjean would have ended up even more of a bitter and angry wretch than he'd been after his first 19-year stint. After all, it was by doing good (saving Champmathieu from hanging in his place) that he'd been thrown back in prison. Plus, he'd seen Fantine's slow and miserable death, which didn't help his outlook any. But then he found Cosette. "He protected her, and she strengthened him. Thanks to him, she could walk through life; thanks to her, he could continue in virtue. He was that child's stay, and she was his prop. Oh, unfathomable and divine mystery of the balances of destiny!" (p.302)

On their walks around the neighborhood, since Valjean was still wearing the poor old coat that the Thenardiers had so disparaged, sometimes people offered him a sou, assuming he was poor. He always accepted kindly. And then, of course, he gave more than was given to him to actual beggars. "This had its disadvantages. He began to be known in the neighborhood under the name of the beggar who gives alms." (p.302)

His portress was a suspicious sort, and spied on him one day as he removed a 1000 franc note from the lining of his coat. He asked her to change it, claiming it was his quarterly income, but it didn't stop her from gossiping with the neighbors. She also took the opportunity to feel the lining of his coat one day, and was a little taken aback by how many bank notes there seemed to be within."She also noticed that there were all sorts of things in the pockets. Not only the needles, thread, and scissors which she had seen, but a big pocket-book, a very large knife, and - a suspicious circumstance - several wigs of various colors. Each pocket of this coat had the air of being in a manner provided against unexpected accidents." (p.303)

Now some drama: there was a beggar who sat by a well near Valjean's church, and Valjean gave him coins regularly. One evening as he handed over the alms, the beggar looked up at him and Valjean freaked the heck out. He didn't say anything, but even though he looked at him carefully the next day and was reassured it was the same guy as usual, the terrible feeling stuck with him that it had been, that once, his old enemy Javert under those rags.

Later in the week, as he and Cosette were reading together, Valjean heard a strange, heavy footfall in the corridor. He hushed Cosette and sent her to bed, then hunkered down for the night with his back to the door, because he could tell someone was at the keyhole, looking in and listening. (He did briefly think it could be the portress, because "there is nothing which so strongly resembles the step of a man as that of an old woman." (p.304)) 

In the morning he heard the footfalls approaching again, and looked out the keyhole to figure if it was an old woman or a booted man freaking him out. It was a man. He couldn't see very well, but "the formidable neck and shoulders belonged to Javert." (p.305) The portress claimed it was just some random guy named Dumont or something, who was renting a room down the hall. No big deal. But Valjean had the heebie-jeebies good now, and that evening he collected his cash, scoped out the street, took Cosette by the hand, and walked out. 

I presume they're bugging out of town, but we shall see in the next exciting installment!

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