By Susie Allen, AB'09
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

Hearing the richness and rhythm of this language makes the work even more extraordinary.”
—Robert Morrissey
Professor of French Literature

When Alison James first heard that colleague Robert Morrissey was planning a marathon reading for charity of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel Les Misérables—aloud and in French—she initially didn’t know how to respond.

“I thought it was crazy,” recalls James, Assistant Professor in Romance Languages & Literature.

James quickly came around, calling the reading “a wonderful idea,” but even Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor in Romance Languages & Literature, admits the project was unusual. “It was one of those strange ideas you have when you’re in a poetic mood and not thinking of practical things,” he explains. “Thank God for the University Community Service Center. They did a spectacular job in handling many of the logistics.”

The event, held May 14–19, brought together students and faculty from all over campus. In the lobby of the Joseph Regenstein Library, which organized a special exhibition on Les Misérables for the occasion, observers had many reactions to the reading. Many paused to listen to Diana Camosy, who sat on a bright-red inflatable chair with a copy of the novel perched on her knees. Her voice was calm and purposeful as she read aloud. Beside her sat a jug, into which passersby pitched coins and crumpled bills.

“What are they doing?” one student asked incredulously. Others were intrigued—and, in the case of fourth-year Vince Tilson, sympathetic. “Les Misérables—that describes my life right now,” Tilson joked, explaining that he was putting the finishing touches on his BA paper. “I’m a prisoner of the Reg until 5 p.m.”

While preparing course materials for a class on Les Misérables during Spring Quarter, Morrissey was struck by the relevance of Hugo’s 1862 masterpiece. The novel’s connection to the present-day world and its passionate portrayal of human misery and suffering also resonated with students.

“It’s rare to get such a clear correspondence between text and context, between one’s teaching in a literature course and current events,” says Morrissey. “But it’s impossible to read Les Misérables without reflecting on the current morals and values of our society.”

Enthusiasm Reaches to the Faculty

When Morrissey proposed the marathon reading to his students, their response was enthusiastic. They settled on a three-day reading period and recruited volunteers to read in half-hour shifts. The response was so overwhelming that they ultimately decided to extend the reading three days to include more readers. And the list grew, as faculty members from several University departments joined the event: Paul Cheney, Assistant Professor in History; Daisy Delogu, Assistant Professor in Romance Languages & Literature; Philippe Desan, the Howard L. Willett Professor in Romance Languages & Literature; John Goldsmith, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in Linguistics and Computer Science; Jean-Luc Marion, the Nuveen Professor in the Divinity School; and recently elected French Academy member Andrew Abbott, the Gustavus F. & Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology.

Third-year Jessie Reuteler, a student in Morrissey’s French 218 class, was won over by her teacher’s passion for the project. Reuteler says she was looking forward to the experience, but adds, “It’s nerve-wracking to know you’ll get a random portion somewhere in the five volumes.”

Morrissey believes reading aloud enhances the story’s impact. “Hearing the richness and rhythm of this language makes the work even more extraordinary. One tends to read for plot, but if you slow down, you see the extraordinary richness of passages that describe the city of Paris or the splendor of the various gardens that play such an important role in Hugo’s universe.”

Another Economic Connection

Morrissey had planned to use the reading to raise money for charity. After meeting with former student Andrew Grene, AB’87, who now serves in Haiti as an advisor to the head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation, Morrissey was inspired to find a Haitian charity. Grene suggested Fonkoze, an organization that offers microcredit to impoverished Haitian women.

Choosing Fonkoze also was a way to welcome new faculty member Daniel Desormeaux, a Haitian native and specialist in French and Francophone literatures, who came to campus to kick off the marathon. Desormeaux will offer courses on literature from francophone countries worldwide, when he joins the French Department in the fall.

Desormeaux was 12 when he first read Les Misérables, and it remains close to his heart. “I remember reading and discovering a world of good and evil. It’s beautiful.” When he learned the event would benefit his home country, he felt compelled to participate. “Not only is it an honor, it’s an obligation.”

Desormeaux says the reading was a wonderful beginning to his experience at the University. “It’s something that you see very rarely—students, faculty, and community coming together to read a book. I’m so glad to start that way.”