THE BLOG
12/19/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

A Walk With Jean Valjean and Cosette, Part 3

The first of a series of walks by the co-translator (with Norman MacAfee) of the first complete, modern edition of Victor Hugo's great novel, Les Misérables: Signet Classics, 1987, the most popular English translation and the official tie-in edition to the beloved musical.

The walk will be published in three parts. (See parts one and two.) This is the third.

WALK I

JEAN VALJEAN LEADS COSETTE TO THEIR FIRST PARIS HOME:

PARC MONCEAU ENTRANCE TO BOULEVARD DE L'HÔPITAL-PLACE D'ITALIE

Walk 1-Part 3- Arrondissement 13

Metro Start: Glacière - go 1 block left on Blvd., then right on Santé, for L-M Nordmann

Metro End: Place d'Italie

Within sight of the Barrière de la Santé, Valjean and Cosette turned left into the greater seclusion of the Rue de l'Ourcine (Hedgehog); this lovely, gently sloping rue Léon-Maurice-Nordmann (after a Resistance hero), though somewhat built-up, manages to preserve the charm of a few low-scale old buildings. A stolid yellow brick enclave on the right is well set back. On the left, however, the low houses depicted on old maps are perhaps the same as those now nicely fenced between spare country-style facades and backed by a vine-cloaked nest of artists' studios. One, farthest along, though long slated for demolition, may still look out on the road with patient beauty, restraint in its dormers and wood-frame windows, yet showing lines of age above its rough masonry base.

Valjean, probably hesitates as he passes the first street crossing, the Rue de la Glacière.(Of that icehouse, nothing remains, nor of the little Bièvre River just ahead, source of ice renowned for flavor even beyond Paris.) Peering beyond the next crossing at small lights visible through the darkness, Valjean catches sight of an indistinct complex called the Abbaye des Cordelières at its founding in the 13th century. Nowadays, as the Broca Clinique de Gerontology, where the elderly patients enjoy the sheltered paths, the complex is graced by the skeletal end wall and gothic window of the early refectory.

To avoid a structure so large where surely someone must be on watch (serving then as a shelter and workhouse for aged paupers), Valjean turns to the right, into the short Rue des Anglaises (since 1877 named rue des Tanneries, for nearby leather works), and walked between modest houses with white, unadorned facades. On the right, at # 28, he passes the stone-framed entrance to the Benedictine Couvent des Anglaises. Maintained from the 17th century until the Revolution by an order fleeing persecution in England, the premises - like many church properties provided with large spaces - held prisoners bound for the guillotine just thirty years before this Christmas of 1832. The nuns themselves fared better, ultimately repatriating to England. Outlines of the cloister arches can be glimpsed today within the private courtyard of the four-storey structure, which is divided into studios and ateliers for artists.

But the convent did not interest the fugitive, eager to press on towards the apartment he had already taken. He looked down at the child beside him:

The day had been strange and filled with emotion for Cosette. Crouching behind hedges, they had eaten bread and cheese bought at isolated taverns. They had often changed carriages and traveled short distances on foot. She did not complain, but she was tired, as Valjean knew from her pulling more heavily at his hand while they walked. He took her in his arms; Cosette, without letting go of her doll Catherine, laid her head on Jean Valjean's shoulder and went to sleep.

A left turn at the end of the block puts them on the Rue du Petit Champ (now Rue du Champ de l'Alouette- Street of the Field of the Lark), and then the appealing six-spoked intersection, Place Bourdet, in order to take the second right onto the rue Corvisart, which runs beside school-grounds of the modern Lycée Rodin. In Valjean's time, the view soon became more bucolic. At that point, with the roadway sloping ever downward, Valjean is undoubtedly relieved to be leaving clustered houses for open fields on both sides, the gentle lapping of the Bièvre audible ahead.

If there was light enough, he may have glimpsed, set back up the slope on the right, the buildings of Clos Paven. In a few words - an old market-garden farmhouse built in the time of Louis XIII, the heavy roof grotesquely pierced by dormers - Hugo expresses his disdain for a bygone style, the assertive triangular dormers now landmarked in the rare locations where they have survived. The Clos edged the Champ de l'Alouette, theactual Field of the Lark, as Hugo and most others interpreted the name, unless it came from a local landowner. In any case, the beautiful site, with its view across Paris, was the only local landscape Hugo deemed worthy of the Dutch landscape artist, Jacob van Ruysdaël. It was here, some seven years later in the story, that young Marius Pontmercy sat brooding about the nameless young girl and her mysterious guardian.

Leaving the steep slopes to the right, and bearing left towards the Biévre, which still ran clear in these upper reaches just within the city walls, Valjean, carrying Cosette in his arms, crossed over a small bridge beside the Moulin de Croulebarbe, a 13th-century mill that stood there, powered by the river flow. He then took the steep rise of the rue de Crouleberbe, with its smattering of houses laid out above a retaining wall, which ran partway along the eastern shore of the river. Before following his lead, do take the steps down into the bosky Place René Le Gall, one of the recent changes to the route. Here new playgrounds are now sheltered by young trees and old ones meet above the paths that trace the river branches which ran there until 1912, when the contaminating dyes and acids from small workshops and tanneries, and pollution from local habitations, required that the river be covered over.

At the end of the welcoming paths of the square, at the top of the right-hand steps, stands the simple, yet grand Garde Mobilier Nationale, the state storehouse since 1935 of fine furnishings for government properties around the world, which stands next a graceful row of identicalstone houses that ascend the bending to rim the rue Berbier du Mets. Up the right fork of the street, the celebrated Manufacture des Gobelins, makers of dyes and tapestries since the 15th century, is still engaged in meticulous handwork, its entire production reserved for the state.

Scaling the rest of the sloping Croulebarbe along the flank of the Gobelins with Cosette still in his arms, Valjean peered out at the well-travelled old rue Mouffetard (now Avenue des Gobelins), descending from the so-called Mont Sainte-Geneviève of the Latin Quartier, then ducked across the wide roadway and between the houses of Rue du Banquier on the far side. He gratefully took the first right and, like a horse nearing the stable, skirted the open fields of the Rue des Vignes-Saint-Marcel(Rue Rubens). At the right-hand corner with the Boulevard de l'Hôpital, the weary pair reached the Masure Gorbeau, a barnlike wreck of a place half-hidden by vines, which would be their home - later shared, through what might be considered great fictional economy or the author's deep reliance on coincidence - by other downtrodden souls among the cast of Les Misérables, including the dreaded Thénardiers. There, at a remote, decrepit, and inconspicuous location with crumbling walls, with a small corner room partitioned off for Cosette, the pair -- prison-hardened man and frightened child -- would enjoy for a while the first warm affection that either had known.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.