Finishing up Les Miserables. Feels like I've been given a year-long tour of Paris over 170 years ago. A lot of it, particularly the parts about crime and sanitation, strikes me as not being so different from Manila, even the Manila of today.
It's an almost indescribable book, crammed with riches and excesses, everything from sublime drama to risible melodrama, an extensive lecture on argot, an incredible treatise on the Paris' sewer system (he argues for recycling Parisian shit into fertilizer, this over a century before the concept of recycling and environmental awareness became so popular), a tremendous description of two vast barricades erected in 1848, and an entire section on the battle at Waterloo that is perhaps one of the greatest battle sequences I've ever read.
Maybe the only thing missing is a piece on Parisian food. I'd love to hear what he has to say about the street grub and haute cuisine of the time, and he threatened to do just that with a description of carpes aux gras (a stuffed carp) at one point, but shies away at the last moment. Damn.
About the characters: almost everything about Jean Valjean and Javert are sublime, some of the lesser characters--Eponine and Gavroche and their rodent family; various walk-ons including M. Gillenormand--are good to excellent; everything about his lovebirds Marius and that insufferable spoiled brat Cosette are irritating. His hell is magnificent, his heaven an interior decorator's nightmare, kitschy and embarrassing. Unfortunately, the last pages are devoted to the lovers, making you wish Valjean had just drowned the brat and advised Marius to get it on with Eponine--she did save his life, after all.
Still, the embarrassing does little to erase the great. It's been a long, long slog--a thousand five hundred pages--but the trip's been more than worth it.