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Anyone who's ever read Victor Hugo's immortal masterpiece Les Misérables knows that it's a long read... mostly because Hugo goes on a bunch of random tangents in the middle—on such topics as the battle of Waterloo, Paris and its urchins, a certain convent, etc.

In fact the book opens with about 70 pages describing the Bishop before even introducing the main character, Jean Valjean. I know he was a crazy genius and everything, but what exactly was the purpose of these tangents?

If he wanted to comment on the battle of Waterloo, why not separately write an essay on the battle and save me an hour of time when I'm trying to read Les Misérables?

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    Hugo isn't really the only "offender". Try "War and Peace" for a worse set of tangents.
    – DVK
    Jan 19 '17 at 15:22
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    Or S. Morgenstern's work.
    – DVK
    Jan 19 '17 at 15:32
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    @DVK S. Morgenstern is undoubtedly the true master of tangents.
    – CHEESE
    Jan 19 '17 at 16:33
  • He was paid by the word (for real) Feb 11 '17 at 4:55
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    @Jolenealaska Do you have a source for that? If so, it might make a good answer here.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 30 '17 at 16:03
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Norman Denny has this to say in the introduction to his translation of Les Misérables:

Hugo [...] had little or no regard for the discipline of novel-writing. He was wholly unrestrained and unsparing of his reader. He had to say everything and more than everything; he was incapable of leaving anything out. [...]

One reason for [so many digressions] is that it was written over a period of nearly twenty years. A first unfinished novel entitled Misères was written during the three years from 1845 to 1848; it was then put aside for twelve years, to be completed in 1860-62 as Les Misérables.

About Waterloo:

Hugo, as he tells us, had tramped over the battlefield, presumably when he was living in Brussels in 1853; he had studied maps and army-lists and such professional records as were available to him, and out of this he concocted his own elaborate and poeticized layman's version of an event [...]. This is the largest of the digressions, and it is reasonable to assume that the bulk of it was written long before Hugo returned to his novel.

About Parenthèse:

Hugo's publisher, Lacroix, feeling that this would be trying the reader's patience altogether too high, urged him to take it out; but Hugo refused, as it seems for purely personal reasons: his cousin Marie, to whom he was attached, had taken the veil in 1848.

Denny then proceeds to drop some of these digressions to appendices in his translation, making his Les Misérables a far more pleasant prospect.

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    Suggestion: change "far more pleasant prospect" to "far less miserable prospect". The pun opportunity is golden.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 13 '20 at 19:01
  • @Randal'Thor I thought that would be too on the nose, so I went for the "les(s)"/"more", "miserable"/"pleasant" one. :D
    – muru
    May 22 '20 at 10:02
  • The link to the author page on Penguin Books UK seems to be broken.
    – user5387
    Aug 30 '20 at 14:32

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