I finished the audio book of Victor Hugo’s Les Miseriables recently. Finished being the operative word: at 3 volumes of 12-15 cassettes each, it took awhile to get through this one. On top of it’s intrinsic size, I also listened to some other pieces in between to space out my library visits (just under 20 tapes per batch can be done comfortably)
Beyond a storyline that spans nearly 20 years, Hugo makes frequent and extended use of historical vignettes. It would probably not be hard to accuse him of presenting all the background material that authors are supposed to have but not belabor their readers with. However, much of this material is actually welcome context for someone far removed from early 19th century France. The vignettes are also artfully integrated; most are presented just as the become relevant (that is, the history of a location just as the character enters it.) Other times he blurs the magic circle of the story by integrating the story time and reader’s time. For instance, an extended description of the battle of Waterloo relates only in one small detail to the story proper. Yet it is presented at a time when years in the story are elapsing unseen – by the time that the text returns to the main narrative, time has passed for the reader as well as the characters. Furthermore, the connection with Waterloo only become important later in the story – by which time the description of the battle is in the distant past, just as it was in history.
Meanwhile, amidst the extensive historical accounts and occasional preachy events, are some artfully constructed situations. One character is held paralyzed, witness to a crime that he could stop at any time, but is unable to as he is torn within between loyalty to the past and the terrible reality of the present situation. In another a character who embodies the relentless application of law is discontented – indeed, destroyed – by encountering a situation where the most just action ran counter to the law. Hugo, through his character, ponders whether right action is following the law of god.
In between volumes, I also read (or heard) Darwin on Trial. It proposes that the theories of natural selection and evolution are just that – theories. While they may be the best theories that we have, the available evidence does not support them as anything like the given facts they are usually presented as. For instance, the fossil record shows long periods of stable life forms, rather than the continuous stream of incremental change evolution predicts.
Most recently was Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. What I took away: Lincoln was a deeply religious man who struggled with the conflicts between his personal beliefs, his oath to the constitution, and the inevitable coming of civil war. In his view, the war was punishment from god visited upon both parts of the country for allowing slavery to exist, and a necessary stage in removing slavery.
Next up: Brave New World and Shindler’s List