The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Javert Off the Track?

When I was in college, I found an old copy of Les Miserables--this very translation, by Isabel Hapgood, which I have always found more fluid and more moving than the more often cited Charles Wilbour translation. I was and am fascinated by the novel, which has brilliantly written antagonists--each of whom struggles with the demands of his ideals, and each of whom manages to live up to them at a terrible price. Valjean, of course, has the higher, better vision, one of love as the source of justice, and law as its pale shadow. Javert only discerns this too late; he does what he can to live up to it (releasing Valjean at the end, writing a final memorandum in which he points out various abuses and petty cruelties that his fellow police officers are guilty of--but he a way forward through the chaotic thicket of moral choice:
To be obliged to confess this to oneself: infallibility is not infallible, there may exist error in the dogma, all has not been said when a code speaks, society is not perfect, authority is complicated with vacillation, a crack is possible in the immutable, judges are but men, the law may err, tribunals may make a mistake! to behold a rift in the immense blue pane of the firmament!
That which was passing in Javert was the Fampoux of a rectilinear conscience, the derailment of a soul, the crushing of a probity which had been irresistibly launched in a straight line and was breaking against God. It certainly was singular that the stoker of order, that the engineer of authority, mounted on the blind iron horse with its rigid road, could be unseated by a flash of light! that the immovable, the direct, the correct, the geometrical, the passive, the perfect, could bend! that there should exist for the locomotive a road to Damascus!
God, always within man, and refractory, He, the true conscience, to the false; a prohibition to the spark to die out; an order to the ray to remember the sun; an injunction to the soul to recognize the veritable absolute when confronted with the fictitious absolute, humanity which cannot be lost; the human heart indestructible; that splendid phenomenon, the finest, perhaps, of all our interior marvels, did Javert understand this? Did Javert penetrate it? Did Javert account for it to himself? Evidently he did not. But beneath the pressure of that incontestable incomprehensibility he felt his brain bursting.
He was less the man transfigured than the victim of this prodigy. In all this he perceived only the tremendous difficulty of existence. It seemed to him that, henceforth, his respiration was repressed forever. He was not accustomed to having something unknown hanging over his head.
Up to this point, everything above him had been, to his gaze, merely a smooth, limpid and simple surface; there was nothing incomprehensible, nothing obscure; nothing that was not defined, regularly disposed, linked, precise, circumscribed, exact, limited, closed, fully provided for; authority was a plane surface; there was no fall in it, no dizziness in its presence. Javert had never beheld the unknown except from below. The irregular, the unforeseen, the disordered opening of chaos, the possible slip over a precipice—this was the work of the lower regions, of rebels, of the wicked, of wretches. Now Javert threw himself back, and he was suddenly terrified by this unprecedented apparition: a gulf on high.
What! one was dismantled from top to bottom! one was disconcerted, absolutely! In what could one trust! That which had been agreed upon was giving way! What! the defect in society's armor could be discovered by a magnanimous wretch! What! an honest servitor of the law could suddenly find himself caught between two crimes—the crime of allowing a man to escape and the crime of arresting him! everything was not settled in the orders given by the State to the functionary! There might be blind alleys in duty! What,—all this was real! was it true that an ex-ruffian, weighed down with convictions, could rise erect and end by being in the right? Was this credible? were there cases in which the law should retire before transfigured crime, and stammer its excuses?—Yes, that was the state of the case! and Javert saw it! and Javert had touched it! and not only could he not deny it, but he had taken part in it.
Alas , this edition is a bit more--er, stylized than my copy, a slightly revised edition, but it gets across the point; Javert, previously content to rule his life by the Code, is confronted by the morality of the God whose existence has not been relevant to him, and cannot stretch to renewal of life. He can only stand by his lawless but good act, grasp the paradox--and die. Valjean too has a struggle which ends in his death--he starts by learning not to commit serious (stealing the bishop's sliver), then petty crime (stealing from a waif); then he is called to ever-increasing positive obligations and renunciation, ultimately dying because he has done his part. He succeeds more fully than does Javert, but it isn't easy--he does not like Marius or approve of him as a suitor for Cosette, but risks his life to save the young man anyway, and resigns his foster-daughter to him, renouncing his self-centered desire for her company for her benefit.

This makes the book sound more programmatic than it is. There's much humor, much melodrama, and much action. But at the core, two men, sorely tested in the story's crucible, both of whom pass, but each of whom died, ultimately, at his own hand (Javert more overtly, Valjean resigns life more passively).

The musical adaptation, of which a film version is being released in a few weeks, was very popular at that time (a quarter century ago!), and the members of the theater group I was cast in a small singing role with in the summer between college and law school would occasionally do some of the songs, among many others, at post-rehearsal parties. (I was a passable Thenardier for the comic leading lady's excellent Madame.)

The problem with this quite singable, slightly dated, show, though, was that it knocked off these rough edges. Valjean sings of Marius "He's like the son I might have known/If God had granted me a son," when in fact Valjean in the novel dislikes the little snerp and resents Cosette's interest in him. Likewise, Javert is portrayed in the play as seeing his authority as coming from God, where in the novel the Code is his only God. Javert is Hugo's depiction of a secular man who seeks his righteousness in irreproachability. Thenardier, like Fagin in Oliver! is considerably more funny and less threatening. &c.

But I wish the film well. The show enlivened an already lively summer for me, and led me to read that big, meaty novel, and encounter those two flawed heroes, Valjean and Javert in their complexity and their failures, as well as their more easily captured facets portrayed on the screen.


rick allen said...

Literature turned film invariably means drastic cuts, unless the film goes on a long time (like the serialized "Brideshead Revisited") or one films a shorter piece (like John Huston's "The Dead").

I happened to see a traveling stage version of the Les Miserables musical last year, and heartily enjoyed it, recognizing still it's far from Hugo, and especially disappointed that Javert becomes a villian and Thenardier a sort of loveable rougue. Interestingly, after seeing the musical I bought a CD of the original French "concept album," with a number of changes, such as not reprising the "Do you hear the people sing?" at the end. As you probably recall, Hugo was somewhat less enamored of the cause that got so many of his young characters slaughtered at the barricade, and that episode is much less central to the flow and themes of the novel.

But these things probably have to be. I just saw the new "Anna Karenina" this weekend, and liked it very much, but it obviously lacked a lot of Tolstoy. I was happy to see Levin given the part that he had, but quite obviously the finale of the novel, where Leven puzzles out how he can navigate between a Christianity he can't believe and a nihilism he can't accept, is entirely gone, other than in a side remark by one of Levin's former serfs that one must live for one's soul rather than one's belly. Kind of a crumb, but I don't know how the medium could handle it otherwise.

Anglocat said...

Too very true,Rick, and glad as always to hear from you.

Anglocat said...

By the bye, I like Les Mis, for sentimental reasons, and there are some nice bits embedded in the show. I'm just especially glad that it led me to the even better novel.