7 Les Mis Takes (1/18/13)

— 1 —

With my Javert medley of posts and the First Things essay on justice of yesterday, I may have exhausted (for the next few days at least) my Les Mis blogging, but, luckily, I’ve got the whole internet to draw on for this week’s Les Mis clipshow.

And I have to start with the Les Fiscal Miserables tumblr, which greatly lightened my heart during the fiscal cliff negotiations.  I am totally picking two of my favorites to embed:



— 2 —

Friend of the blog Yvain has written two meditations on Les Mis, justice, and goodness.  In the first, he uses Valjean as a lens on what it means for good to be a positive force, instead of the absence of evil, and, in the second, he defends Valjean’s choice to spare Javert against a commenter raising utilitarian questions.

— 3 —

But there’s not just moral and political commentary!  There’s also math!  Via flowing data, Jeff Clark did a whole bunch of infographics based on the text of the novel.

— 4 —

I may have complained (a lot) about Crowe’s Javert, but I was interested by his take on how to make constant singing feel natural in a movie:

Once he’d made the decision, then came the really hard part: directing a whole team of (very willing) actors who aren’t talking, but singing. Surprisingly, he says, the singing part wasn’t necessarily the problem: “It felt more novel to be doing a film with soliloquies because it isn’t a form that is allowed in the modern movie, you don’t have characters who talk by themselves for three minutes.

“Russell [Crowe who plays Javert] said something early on which was that you could see many of them as prayers. One of the solutions to the soliloquising was to think of it in relationship to people praying out loud or in their head.”

— 5 —

I’m delighted by the way Les Mis figures into this priest’s vocation story:

Monseigneur Bienvenu never knew! The heroism of Valjean’s subsequent life was unknown to the bishop. Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Eponine, the Thénardiers, Gavroche, Javert, the barricades, the students, the wedding—all unknown. The bishop sent Valjean off with his silver and a promise, never to see or hear from him again. For all he knew, Valjean went back to his old ways. And yet it did not seem to matter. He treated Valjean as he treated everyone: as Christ would. Bienvenu was the unknowing mover of all that was to follow. But for his act of mercy toward Valjean, the whole beautiful story would not have been.

This was when it hit me. I thought of the bishop, and the impact he made and what his priesthood meant. I can remember praying, “Lord, if that’s what it’s about, if my life can do that… sign me up.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

— 6 —

And speaking of the Valjean turned Bishop, Colm Wilkinson, here he is singing “Bring Him Home” with three other Valjeans:

This video of Crowe and Jackman singing “Confrontation” is rather different in tone.


— 7 —

Finally, here are some interesting things I learned when rereading Les Mis that are rot13’d in case you don’t want any spoilers for information that appears only in the novel:

How did Valjean manage to become mayor? Gur gbja vf na vaqhfgevny uho sbe gur znahsnpgher bs wrg.  (Gung’f jung gurl jrer fgevatvat va gur snpgbel).  Nsgre Inywrna neevirf, ur gnxrf n ybbx ng gurve zrgubqf naq pbzrf hc jvgu fbzr ersvarzragf gung cebqhpr purncre, uvture-dhnyvgl wrg.  N fnvag naq na ratvarre!

What happened to the Thenardiers after the scene at the wedding? Zzr. Guraneqvre qvrf (bs qvfrnfr, V guvax) naq Z. Guraneqvre tbrf gb Nzrevpn gb orpbzr n fynir genqre.

Who are Gavroche’s parents? Gur Guraneqvref.  V xvq lbh abg.  Ur vf gur guveq bs gurve svir puvyqera va gur obbx, ohg ur naq gur gjb sbyybjvat uvz yvir ba gur fgerrgf, abg jvgu gur snzvyl.


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  • S. Murphy

    Never heard of rot13 before. How cool! What a great way to handle spoilers. Thank you!

  • I have to say, I love the way the movie staged “Confrontation.” Maybe now the stage version will have swordfighting!
    Russell Crowe is not the voice I prefer for Javert. BUT–I think he made legitimate artistic choices, playing him as a straight-and-narrow, no emotion law enforcer. (Sort of Mr. Spock-ish) Stars, yeah, OK, I wasn’t thrilled. But I thought the suicide scene was well done.

  • Kristin

    Colm Wilkinson’s voice is so beautiful.
    On the other hand, thank you for giving me some Friday fun with those boys from Down Under.

    • Oh, Colm Wilkinson. Voice. Like. Butter. He was great in The Tudors, too!
      Story about “Bring Him Home”: In dress rehearsals, the whole cast listened to him sing it. When it was over, Trevor Nunn (one of the directors) talked about how the song sums up the idea of God in the storyline, etc. Patti LuPone, who was singing Fantine, said, “Well, yes, but you didn’t tell us you’d engaged Him to sing it.”

      • leahlibresco

        That is wonderful! I’d never heard that before.

        • I am your source for all Les Miz and Phantom trivia…. 🙂

      • Ally

        I’d never heard it, and I thought I was the queen of random Les Miz and Phantom trivia, but I defer the title to Emily.

        I really miss all my websites from when I was in college and had time to read all the stuff that leads to great trivia… I have tried and tried to find the website that had the tale of “the night of three Marii” (I don’t remember all the specifics, except it was a UK tour production, sometime before I read the page in 2001-2002ish, and they were already down to understudies, when the understudy got food poisoning and ends up running off the stage during the barricade scene because he can no longer keep throwing up in the bucket they had for him on stage, so the actors on stage quickly start calling one of the other students Marius, and Valjean carries him off, and the next scene had the stage manager who had played Marius before in the role… The whole thing was told quite hilariously)

        Anyway, sometimes the trivia is a good thing and sometimes it leads to problems. Like when you are a librarian and a student comes needing info for his recital notes of “Music of the Night” and you can tell him the whole background of how it was originally entitled “Married Man” but for the life of you, you can’t find any legit sources online that tell of it, even though you know you read it somewhere reliable more than once. (And at the time my copy of The Complete Phantom of the Opera which I thought might have it, was still boxed up.) So I’m like, here’s some great info, but your professor may not allow you to use the librarian as a source!

        • We can duke it out–Master of Trivia Game-Take No Prisoners. 🙂

  • Hanna

    Hi Leah!
    I want to thank you for everything you’ve written about Les Mis; I’ve found all of it really powerful. I’m curious if you might have any insight as to why the Church banned the book when it first came out? I’ve been struggling to find an answer, since there doesn’t seem to be much that a Catholic could object to. There are so many beautiful ideas in this story, but I’m hesitant to accept them until I know exactly which ones the Church had a problem with. Thoughts?

    • deiseach

      Taking a wild guess, I imagine it was probably objected to for mixed political and religious reasons by some group of French Catholics; Hugo probably didn’t bother making any of the revisions that would be necessary to get the condemnation overturned, as I don’t imagine he cared whether or not he was on the Index, and therefore the proscription went ahead (and was probably ignored and forgotten about by practically everyone; if you really wanted to read the book, you could walk into any bookstore and get your hands on it).

      The political angle is probably more important than the religious one – or rather, they are bound up together. Hugo’s novel celebrates those who participated in the June Rebellion, he was seen as republican, anti-clerical and indeed a Freethinker (according to the Wikipedia article, there were “740 attacks on Les Misérables in the Catholic press”). So, although I don’t know who made the complaint, as I said I would not be at all surprised to find it was a bunch of Monarchists who wrote to Rome complaining “Must we throw this filth at our pop kids?” about a sympathetic and even attractive view of vice and sin (a prostitute with an illegitimate child), the implicit criticism of the French clergy by contrast with the good Bishop (unlike his brother bishops and the younger priests, he is not ambitious, wealthy or remote from and uninterested in the poor) and the pro-republican, pro-revolutionary angle.

      And off-topic, but again from that Wikipedia article:

      ” Dedicated to the channel island of Guernsey where he spent 15 years of exile, Hugo’s depiction of Man’s battle with the sea and the horrible creatures lurking beneath its depths spawned an unusual fad in Paris: Squids. From squid dishes and exhibitions, to squid hats and parties, Parisians became fascinated by these unusual sea creatures, which at the time were still considered by many to be mythical.”

      Squid hats. That’s your next costume making project right there, Leah! 🙂

    • My understanding (which might be wrong) is that Les Miserables was not placed on the Index for anything specific to it; rather, the works of Victor Hugo in general had already been placed on the list due to some of the content of earlier works, and it’s just the case that no official exception was made for Les Miserables at the time it was published. I don’t know how often exceptions of that sort were made anyway, but even if they were handed out easily, it would probably have been difficult to get one at the time for the sort of reason deiseach notes.

      It’s worth pointing out, though, that the Church did not in this period ban books; books on the Index were still published, could still be bought in bookstores, and could still be read in or borrowed from libraries, even Catholic ones. The idea behind the Index was that if a book was on the list it should only be read for legitimate research purposes, and ideally after consultation with your local bishop. Catholic libraries would usually buy the books, for instance, but they wouldn’t put them in open stacks, and you would need either a letter from your bishop or proof of legitimate research purpose to get into the closed stacks where they were found; for much the same reason that there are libraries today that have collections of Nazi or racist propaganda or other controversial kinds of works, but put them in closed stacks available only to researchers. And there was a period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when lots and lots of controversial Catholic books were put on the Index, not because the Church was taking any stand about the context (when Malebranche was put on the Index, for instance, it was still considered obvious that a Catholic could legitimately accept Malebranche’s philosophy, and his works were still widely read by Catholic philosophers and theologians), but simply to highlight that it was controversial and that its Catholic statements could not necessarily be regarded as statements of official Catholic doctrine. Being put on the Index was little more than being flagged as To Be Read with Caution for some reason.

      In any case, as long as you read with common sense, I wouldn’t worry about it.

      • Hanna

        It wasn’t Hugo who was put on the Index, it was a few of his works in particular. And I understand that it can be a great book if read with discernment, but that discernment is exactly what I’m struggling with. Looking at possible reasons it was put on the Index, we have:
        Politics. I’m not an expert on this period of history, but I would agree with Hugo that a republic is something worth fighting for. Especially if people are struggling to have their basic needs met in the current system.
        “Sympathetic and even attractive view of vice and sin”: There is nothing attractive about the way prostitution is depicted. I guess you could argue that Hugo espouses situational ethics, and tries to convince us that Fantine’s decision is justified in this case, and even praiseworthy. But the biggest thing I took from it was that we have to have compassion for people caught in this system, and work to ensure that no woman falls victim to it again.
        Implicit criticism of the French clergy: What’s wrong with calling out hypocrisy in religious officials? Didn’t Jesus do the same thing?
        I trust that the Chuch had a good reason for putting this book on the Index. And if I knew what it was, I would be able to read the book with a discerning eye. But I can’t find the reason, and that’s what bothers me.

  • Mike

    Thanks for the post. Beautiful singing; a nice way to start the weekend.

  • Brand

    I do not know if Hugo was familiar with the New Testament in a systematic way but he intuitively grasped the truth that it calls the Golden Rule(love your neighbor as yourself/do to others as you would want others to do to you) the LAW.

    The word Law is the highest possible position in Judaism,there is nothing higher.The Golden Rule is given 5 titles:

    The Royal Law,Law of Christ.Perfect Law,Law of Freedom,Law of God

    Check it out here:

    James 2:8
    Galat 5:14
    Romans 13:8-10
    Matthew 7:12
    Galat 6:2
    1 Corinth 9:21
    James 1:25

  • Brandon B

    I know the priest who was inspired by Monseigneur Bienvenu! My goodness, what a small world.

    You’ll be happy to know that he also loves The Lord of the Rings and once taught a high school class on it.

    • leahlibresco

      I am happy indeed!