listen up les mis fandom, let me tell you the story of how the brick was translated into chinese: long story short, love, blood, tears, frustration, and 50 years of pain.
so Yu Fang and Dan Li (I’m just gonna call them Yu and Dan for short) met in university in france studying french lit and violin, respectively. they were first introduced to les mis at a seminar about hugo’s work in ~1921, and literally bonded over their shared love of this book. after getting married and returning to china, they decided to start translating the brick, no big deal, dan finished up to book 3 in 1932 and sent in the preliminary manuscript– only for a military aircraft to bomb shanghai and destroy the press where the manuscript was being held… of course there was no other copy, and years of work were lost in a blaze of flame. so the war came and went and in 1954, when everything was finally sort of okay again, Dan was invited to retranslate the entire thing. so like the trooper he did… up to book 3.
just as he was almost finished with book 3 again… it’s the year 1966 and boom, cultural revolution. the couple were both locked up for their involvement in now-banned literature and endured years of physical, mental, and emotional toil. they were released in 1977 and went home… only to find that the manuscript they’d kept hidden in an old paper box had been torn to shreds by mice and time. dan was 71 at that point, but still tried to secretly retranslate everything for the third time, and he did, up to book 4- but by then, his health was failing and in 1977 had to be admitted to the hospital. up to the very moment he died in hospital, he was still mulling over his old french dictionary and trying to finish his work, nearly nonsensical near the end but still mumbling translations. when he died, his family found bits of his translation of book 5 under his pillow. there was no satisfying conclusion to his nearly 50 years of work (1929-1977).
dan’s death took a hard toll on his wife: she couldn’t sleep or eat but felt like she needed to help him finish his work at all costs- she couldn’t leave the story unfinished. all they’d ever wanted was to give cosette the ending she deserved. so 3 months after her husband’s death, the 74-year-old ate nothing but a bowl of porridge a day and managed to finally finish off book 5 after nine months of doing little else. finally, it was published in 1984 and is now an absolutely renowned edition.
this couple literally had the luck of bossuet and the suffering of valjean, but in the end, however bittersweet the moment, a masterpiece was finally brought alive to an entire nation.
I almost forgot to mention to you guys that today i was highly amused and delighted to discover that my publishing house has an author called Paul Joly who wrote .. L’ABC du Feng Shui.
I mean. Please tell me i’m not the only one thinking it’s an awesome coincidence. The only thing that could have made this even better is if the author had been called “Jean” tbh.
(maybe I should precise that my modern!times!Joly is DEFINITELY an expert in Feng Shui. It’s totally one of his Things.)
hugo: hmm this book is going along well
hugo: hold up, nobody’s died mid-song yet
hugo: better fix that
This is an unusually good examination of Les Mis, the way it’s been received and reinterpreted, and the politics of the story and Hugo himself over his life. And also the intro alone is SO MUCH of what I want to yell at an enormous number of reviews.
What is usually elided in conversations about this show is that one of its defining characteristics is the foregrounding and embrace of an attempt at violent revolution by a group of students with guns. Their rebellion ends in bloody failure but the attempt is honored, not mocked. Forgotten in the tedious critiques of technical nit-picking and whining over the melodramatic plot and its Christian quest for forgiveness, there is a central political problem at the heart of the work which places one man’s quest for redemption against the crucial backdrop of a society under revolution.
Fans describe the story as a universal one of “eternal truths” and societal “archetypes”, but Jean Valjean’s problem is his relationship with a government that not only misuses and perverts its power, but facilitates and reproduces a society that is perversely stratified. Granting that Jean Valjean’s saint-like quest for personal salvation forms the redemptive core of the story, what if the global popularity of this work also echoes the perennial frustration with government’s interminable persecution of innocents and its obsessive zeal for crushing liberatory movements?
The perennial hostility of critics would then remind us more of the nervous murmurs and outright hostility of elites whenever the masses begin to congregate, build barricades, camp out and demand a better world. The tears of the audiences would not remind us that the “people” are easily conned into weeping over a melodramatic spectacle that apes the gospels, but perhaps allows a vicarious vision of rebelling against unjust rule while remaining true to desire and love.
Also, it talks about Louise Michel!
Go read the thing!
i feel like someday, in the les mis fandom and the hamilton fandom and any fandom which has french characters, we’ll need to have a Discussion about pet names. and which ones are/aren’t appropriate for a grown man.
Hugo: They began the prologue, which we will gladly spare the reader.
Hugo: *launches into a detailed account of the prologue*