12 December, 2004

Update: Story of a Soul, Les Misérables, next book in the dock...

I finished Story of a Soul a couple of weeks ago. ...I think. Maybe it was last week. Either way, I meant to write something about it sooner, but I've been busy.

The skinny on St. Thérèse's book is that it's a lot like the recent film about her: if you want to read this book and learn about St. Thérèse of Liseux's life, from childhood to death, then by all means start at the beginning.

If instead you are looking for spiritual insight, you can (in my opinion) skip the first few chapters. The last few chapters deal with her "little way", her "night of faith," her suffering and her eventual death. I found them much more moving and insightful than anything in the first half of the book. I think (idle speculation) that St. Thérèse was simply writing for her and her sisters' personal enjoyment at first; only later did she begin to think that her reflections would help other souls who wanted to become saints.

As for Les Misérables, I have reached the final 300-page stretch! I will probably finish it by the end of the year, perhaps by the end of the week!

My current opinion is the same: I never expected that Victor Hugo would make me sympathize so strongly with the monarchist cause. I guess that's fair: Dostoevsky, a confirmed anti-revolutionary, didn't always give me the most favorable view of the folks running the Russian monarchy; he simply presented them as less bad than the revolutionaries. Hugo however portrays his revolutionaries as messianic; some of them (Enjolras) appear flawless. The book only becomes interesting when Javert or one of the Thenardiérs are on the scene (including Gavroche and Eponine), although the failed scientist M. Mabeuf has a charm of his own, as does Marius' grandfather and at last Valjean, the latter only because he finally becomes human by feeling a father's jealousy for Cosette.

As I read these pages on the émeute of 1852, I find myself wondering what Hugo would have to say about the war in Iraq. Hugo insists that any violence, no matter how brutal, is justified, so long as it is in support of progress, where he defines "progress" as democracy, education, liberty, etc. This would seem to favor the Americans and our allies in Iraq.

On the other hand, Hugo likewise rails against foreign oppression. In my reading today, Hugo equated pretty much every French Republican boogeyman with foreign oppression. This is how Marius Pontmercy finally justifies his joining his friends at the barricade: his father fought for France against foreign enemies; he too will fight France's foreign enemies: the monarchy, the doctrine of divine right, etc. This is not so favorable to the Americans in Iraq.

The only exception Hugo makes to this rule, is when the armies of Bonaparte are doing the oppressing — er, sorry, "liberating". It's quite curious: France leads the world, in Hugo's mind, and therefore France has a "divine right" (if I may abuse his term) to impose her system on others.

You might say that someone who is looking in Les Misérables for justification or condemnation of the American invasion in Iraq doesn't exactly deserve much in the way of respect, and you'd be right. Let me assure you that I can think for myself; I'm merely wondering what Hugo would think.

My next book will be Oriana Fallaci's Insciallah. (My version is Italian, so the title's spelled differently.) I can heartily recommend another, much shorter, book of hers, Letter to a Child Never Born.

After that, Eugenio Corti's Processo e Morte di Stalin. I can't find an English translation at Barnes & Noble, but Corti is better-known among literate American Catholics for his giant novel The Red Horse.

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