12/18/2012 07:42 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

A Walk With Jean Valjean and Cosette, Part 2

The first of a series of walks by the translator (with Norman MacAfee) of the first complete, modern edition of Victor Hugo's great novel, < em> Les Misérables: </em>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 the first here. This is the second.

WALK I-Part 2



Arrondissement 14

Metro Start: either - Denfert-Rochereau; walk up Rue Denfert-Roch

Or RER B, Port Royal, walk down Av. De l'Observatoire

To the North Face of the Observatory

Metro End: Glacière

With a glance across his right shoulder at the tall Observatory, rising above a light mantle of snow, Valjean loses no further time in starting down the quick easterly pitch of the short Rue Cassin. The street was named for three generations of astronomers, directors of the Observatory who had, from 1669 to 1774, advanced the mapping of the skies - and of France. To honor the work done there in establishing the exact location of Paris, those measurements were anchored to the observatory building: that of longitude is demonstrated by a yellow brick line that spills down the southern slope of the handsome park gates on the Boulevard Arago.

The rare pedestrian on the roads at that late hour would have seen in Valjean a man who appeared to be . . <em>. Very poor and . . . very worthy. He wore a round hat, very old and carefully brushed, a long coat, completely threadbare, of coarse yellow cloth, a color that was not particularly unusual at the time, a large waist-coat with old-fashioned pockets, black trousers worn gray at the knees, black wool socks, and heavy shoes with copper buckles . . . From his hair, which was completely white . . . from his face which clearly bespoke exhaustion and weariness of life, one would have supposed him much older than sixty. From his firm . . . slow step and . . . remarkable vigor, one would hardly have thought him fifty . . . with a strange expression . . . Severe yet humble. In the depth of his eyes there was an ineffable tragic serenity. Beside him straggled a little girl dressed in mourning black, exhausted, but clutching a large doll given to her by her protector.

From Cassini, they turned right onto the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Jacques </em> to start down the ridge, as travelers have done since pre-Roman times, on their long journey south to Orléans and on to Italy since pre-Roman times. Partway down the block, on the left side and all the way to the first corner, Valjean could have barely made out the Hospice Cochin, named for its founder, Jacques-Denis Cochin (1726-83), a Paris-born priest who had advanced medical care of the poor. Now the hospice has grown to fill the entire block, including the tan brick clinics lining the street. To the right, up a steep driveway, stands the gracious stone Hôtel Massa, which existed in 1824, though not just here; originally located on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées at Rue de Boètie, the hotel was moved to this site, stone by stone, in 1928. It now serves as the private headquarters of La Societé des Gens de Lettres, an authors' guild founded by Victor Hugo and others.

Reaching the corner, Valjean, hand-in-hand with Cosette, turned left around the Hospice to walk along the rue Méchain, hardly more than a cart track between open fields. Construction in the intervening years notwithstanding, the view down the block still suggests a village or true faubourg more than a great city. Of the low-scale structures along the gentle slope, sections of the enlarged Cochin on the left now face a serene series of white-stuccoed buildings marked by traditional horizontal moldings, beside some more contemporary buildings.

By daylight, the clear spreading view, the swiftly passing show of grey-white clouds, the birdsong and peal of bells from the 17th-century Abbaye du Val-de-Grace, just over the brow of the hill to the north, established by Queen Anne of Austria in thanks for the birth of her son, the Sun King, Louis XIV, and now a military hospital -- all of these contributed - as they do today - to a timeless calm.

Near the end of Méchain, an old map shows a building on the left corner; today, birds chirp in the shrubs below the cheerful blue awnings of a modern hospital pavilion set back from the road. There Valjean took a right turn onto the Rue de la Santé, grateful for the long white stone wall on the far side, enclosing open land then, as now, for the vast vegetable garden of the Dames Augustines. The block-long nursing home run by nuns, sports a slate mansard roof that rises above the traditional wall to the left demarcating the property.

The Boulevard Arago, which opened only in the 1850s, bears the name, in this Observatory neighborhood, of another brilliant astronomer and statesman, François Arago (1786-1853). But on their darkening Christmas evening, Valjean , still carrying Cosette, continue briefly along the Rue de la Santé, known then in this southern section, as the Rue de Gentilly, that being the name of the village at the far outer end. Though on the right side, just before their next turn off, within the area of the present rough pebbled wall, once stood a 13th- century Maison de Santé (a nursing home) founded by Marguerite de Provence, the widow of Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis. Like Marguerite, a number of deposed wives or widows of deceased French kings around that time turned to real estate and to building worthy structures; there were, after all, few other occupations open to them. By the time Valjean and Cosette walk by, that facility had been moved a block south, and a charcoal market occupied its place.

Today, in a turn of bitter irony, the name Santé (Health) has passed on to a prison erected at the site in 1890, intended mainly for those awaiting trial, and now, recovered from a recent period of overcrowding, like many, it seems returned to productive service -- partly through public protest -- a sentiment that clearly echoes Hugo's own, as he relentlessly spoke against injustice in the prisons system.

In addition a plaque on the rough corner wall at Arago bears a moving tale of heroism: "On November 11, 1943, students were held in this prison who, at Gen. de Gaulle's urging, were first to rise against the enemy."