Category Archives: Les Misérables

Javert’s suicide

There’s something terribly abrupt in Javert’s suicide, in Russell Crowe’s performance of Les Miserables, and the way the song builds logically toward its climax doesn’t fully prepare you for the impact of his leap into the void. You keep expecting an alternate ending, the way he gazes over the edge – you can tell this is not what he wants, and that he regrets it, in the Homeric sense of regret (best described in Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force).

It calls to mind a vignette I read recently about a suicide attempt made by a young woman who had just had a fight with her husband – she survived, and tried to wipe the blood away herself when he discovered her in the bathroom, as if to smooth things over. He screamed, and took her straight to a hospital, whence began her journey into psychiatric care.

The patient in the vignette had a genetic disorder that caused cumulative liver disease which reached a breaking point in her early 20s and predisposed her to disorganized thinking and emotional distress (Wilson’s disease). So one would think she’s not representative of suicides, on the face of it. But there’s something necessarily abrupt and unnatural about a turn to suicide, in anyone who hasn’t already been contemplating it for years. And there’s that apologetic reaction face one naturally puts on when caught red-handed after a failed attempt. It’s not insincere, it’s just abrupt.

This poem, based on the 55th Psalm, captures Javert’s thoughts in between his escape at the barricades and his confrontation with Jean Valjean in the sewers, and highlights how differently things might have turned out, if they had never met again. (But could it have ever ended that way? Could Javert have let himself fail to find Valjean?)

Stars, bend your gaze, hear my prayer,
in your firmament, smile on my plea.
If you hear me below, shine the brighter!
For in turmoil, I stagger and groan.
From the press of the enemy,
from the onslaught of reckless, foul crime,
when the scoundrels of cheapstreet take up arms
and in fury the mob seeks my life,
my breast shudders painfully,
death-terrors flood my senses,
fear sends tremors through me,
and horror of vice floods my soul.
Would I could rise like the eagle,
to soar far from here and take rest.
I would wander the mountainous deserts,
and plunge in the lakes of the highlands,
to wash away all that has touched me,
and live far from the riotous crowds.
Stars, bring your silence to bear,
for I’ve witnessed the outrages here,
criminals ceaselessly circle their prey,
and all Paris is party to mischief,
preying on those most defenseless –
chicanery governs the market square.
No rascal defies me, that I might shrug,
no hatred pursues me, that I might hide.
But you – a pillar of industry,
my equal, a full citizen,
with whom I conferred on my duties,
to whom I once gladly deferred!
May his kind meet their deaths with more haste.
Perdition should take him alive.
For they feather their nests with the spoils of crime.
I call on the stars in dismay,
and their steadiness shows me my fate.
Through the night I have dreaded the dawn
and racked my soul with questions,
for only the stars know my thoughts.
This fugitive ransomed my life,
when in battle, outnumbered, I fell,
a captive among reckless men –
inflamed by their own penury,
such malcontents flinch at no crime.
He released me behind his men’s backs,
a traitor to even his own.
His smoothness was vile as a snake’s;
in his heart he desired my death.
His words were of mercy and peace,
but he came here to take up the sword.
I can only fall back on the law,
for the laws of the heavens are firm.
They protect righteous men from the mob.
I pray that the stars intercede,
and carry him down to destruction.
Men who hide vice in their hearts
will not long outrun death’s embrace.
For myself, I must trust in the stars.

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Filed under Acting, Les Misérables, Music, Poetry

Javert

On Wednesday of this week, October 14, Herbert Kretzmer, the lyricist who wrote the English-language songs for Broadway (and Hollywood)’s adaptation of a little-known French musical we now know as Les Mis, died just a few days after his 95th birthday.

The NYT obit describes Kretzmer’s beginnings as “a South African journalist who sold his accordion to buy passage to Europe” in the 1950s. In London he distinguished himself as a film and theater critic, and it was while supporting himself as a critic that he took up music again, much to the critics’ dismay. Les Mis offended the sensibilities of most of the critics who reviewed it, but audiences loved it anyways – opening in 1987, the Broadway musical ran for 16 years.

I still remember when Les Mis first came to my home town – everyone at my elementary school was buzzing about it! I never saw it until Les Mis came to Hollywood, and even then I might’ve missed it if Russell Crowe hadn’t joined the cast, but I melted for Crowe’s Javert. Here’s an adaptation of the 25th Psalm in honor of Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics for Javert’s “Stars.”

To you, the sentinel stars, I lift my heart.
Your order I trust. Let me not be ashamed,
let me take on this fugitive face to face.
Yes, let those who love righteousness not be mocked.
Bring the lawless to heel, with his crimes laid bare.
Your ways in the heavens are my example,
in your courses you shine, your aims straight and sure.
Lead me in this darkness and show me the way,
for you are the watchers, who find those who stray.
To you alone I have always looked for faith.
Recalling your constancy, silent and bright,
your celestial kindness, guarding the night,
forget my lowly birth and my parents’ crimes.
You lifted my gaze from life in the gutters;
for the sake of your goodness, I serve the law.
Pure and upright are the gates of paradise –
you show those who fall the whirling, flaming sword.
The heavens lead the lowly, teach them justice,
and show the motherless that all is not lost.
All your laws’ precepts signal gentleness, truth,
and safety for the virtuous among us.
For the sake of these fair memories, O stars,
may you forgive this failure in my duty.
Whosoever the seeker who fears the law,
your light will guide him, showing him how to choose.
His life will want for nothing, for your bounty
will invest him and his progeny and theirs.
The stars will guide only those who fear trespass,
and to you through my oath I choose to be bound.
My eyes I raised each night to seek your guidance,
freed by your help from corruption’s bitter nets.
Turn to me, my night sky’s shining gaze, grant me
grace in my affliction, searching the gutters
alone in the dark. The strain has grown too great,
from this abyss of failure bring me away.
Witness my struggle and my hesitation
and grant me forbearance, for I have failed you.
See you my enemies teeming here below
who, with outrages to decency, spite me?
Safeguard my honor at this awful impasse.
Let me not falter now – I shelter in you.
May uprightness – integrity – preserve me,
for at this precipice, I offer you all.
Redeem, you stars, our Paris from corruption.

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Filed under Acting, Les Misérables, Music, Poetry, Roll Credits