Saturday, 9 March 2013

Les Miserables ... and the Battle of Waterloo

Amongst the things other than wargaming that I do to relax is to read and to watch films. The recent release of a film version of the musical LES MISERABLES made me realise that I had only ever read an abridged version of Victor Hugo's book, and so I downloaded a translation onto my Kindle and began to read it.

It is a very, very long book ... but so far I have enjoyed the experience, and I am coming to understand why, some years ago, a colleague of mine told me that you could not understand the history of France in the era between the two Napoleons unless you had read LES MISERABLES.

Victor Hugo's style of storytelling is ... interesting. It does not follow a linear path, but seems to go backwards, forwards, and even sideways ... but it works. It also contains what can best be described as essays about philosophy, human nature, and historical events.

One of the essays that describe a historical event deals with the Battle of Waterloo. It is told from the point-of-view of a visitor to the battlefield some years after the battle. The narrator describes what the battlefield looks like whilst describing the events that took place in each location. In one part of the narrative it concentrates on the fighting in and around Hougoumont, in another the French cavalry charge against the British squares. The description has a French bias, but is none the less well worth reading because of it.

Two things in particular stand out from what Victor Hugo wrote. Firstly he describes Waterloo as a 'first class battle won by a second class captain' (a comment that quite a few people might describe as being contentious); secondly he names the true victor at Waterloo as being Cambronne, to whom Hugo attributes the comment 'Merde!' when the remnants of the Imperial Guard are called upon to surrender.


N.B. According to Rougement, Cambronne replied: 'La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!' ('The Guard dies and does not surrender!'). I must admit that I prefer Victor Hugo's version.

I have yet to finish LES MISERABLES (I am about one-third of the way through it), but as I wrote above, so far I am enjoying reading it.

12 comments:

  1. If my history memory serves me correctly while both versions are poetic didn't Cambronne actually surrender ?

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  2. Anthony,

    Cambronne was certainly injured and subsequently captured by the British ... and he may well not have said the words attributed to him ... but it is still a great story!

    All the best,

    Bob

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  3. I read the book way back in my senior year of HS; it takes a while to get going, but after that it is quite compelling!

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  4. Gonsalvo,

    I must admit that I did have to work at it at first ... but I soon began to realise how good a writer Hugo was, and to appreciate the deviations from the purely linear form followed by most novels.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  5. Never read Les Miserables. Sounds in the vein of War and Peace, which I did. I found myself struggling to get through the philosophical bits, but the story was great. I need to get a hold of the BBC War & Peace with Anthony Hopkins. That's what got me to read the book.

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  6. Sean,

    Funnily enough, I have never read WAR AND PEACE! I did, however, watch the BBC adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins ... and I really enjoyed it.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  7. Can't understand France between the Napoleons without reading Les Mis?

    My A Level and degree in History beg to differ....

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  8. Trebian,

    It was a comment made to me by a French-born colleague ... and I must admit that reading LES MISERABLES has led me to look into some aspects of French history between 1815 and 1832 of which I previously had only a vague knowledge or understanding.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  9. Thanks Bob

    It's now on my list of books to read

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  10. Geordie an Exiled FoG,

    It does take a bit of getting into, but once you do I hope that you will find the effort worth it.

    All the best,

    Bob

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  11. Spike is an avid reader of Victor Hugo, and has also watched many of the film adaptations of his works. We are hoping to soon get a free evening to see the film version of the musical Les Miserables.

    I highly recommend Sergei Bondarchuk's film version of War and Peace. When it ran on TV in the early 1970's, I knew I would be a Napoleonic gamer for life....
    -Steve

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  12. Steven Page,

    I know that Victor Hugo's style of writing does not appeal to everyone, but I am finding LES MISERABLES to be an interesting story, even with all the asides, the philosophy, and the psychological insights. I can see why it has been adapted for film and TV. The characters are so interesting.

    I have not see the whole of Sergei Bondarchuk's film version of WAR AND PEACE, although I have seen short excerpts from the battle scenes. A truly panoramic film.

    All the best,

    Bob

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