A re­vival of the mu­si­cal and a new ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to Vic­tor Hugo are proof of the en­dur­ing ap­peal of Les Mis­er­ables, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

YOU will hear the people singing soon enough, but first let’s go back to the ori­gins of Les Mis­er­ables. Long be­fore the stage jug­ger­naut of Les Mis came an epic French novel that was the pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion of its day. On first print­ing in 1862, Les Mis­er­ables was a ru­n­away best­seller. Avid Parisians formed syn­di­cates to ob­tain copies. Pirate ver­sions changed hands faster than episodes of Game of Thrones.

Al­most im­me­di­ately, Vic­tor Hugo’s novel was a hot property for adap­ta­tion. Within months, nine trans­la­tions had ap­peared; within a year, the first drama­tised ver­sions were on stage. In the 152 years since, Les Mis­er­ables has been made into ra­dio plays, tele­vi­sion se­ries, about 50 movies and a well-known mu­si­cal. It may be that Hugo’s cast of he­roes, vil­lains, waifs and grotesques is too vi­tal to be con­tained within the printed medium; or that the adap­ta­tion in­dus­try sensed a ter­rific story hid­den in a doorstop­per novel — 1300 pages in mod­ern English edi­tions — that less de­ter­mined read­ers other­wise would not dis­cover for them­selves (this writer among them).

What­ever the rea­son for the novel’s abun­dant af­ter­life, the State Li­brary of Vic­to­ria is mak­ing a strong case for the au­then­tic lit­er­ary source. To co­in­cide with a Mel­bourne re­vival of the Schon­berg-Bou­blil mu­si­cal of Les Mis­er­ables, the li­brary is hold­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion that ex­plores Hugo’s life and times, as well as the many spinoffs his lit­er­ary project has pro­duced.

The li­brary re­cently pur­chased, for the ex­hi­bi­tion and for its per­ma­nent collection, a first edi­tion of Les Mis­er­ables. The novel was pub­lished si­mul­ta­ne­ously in France and Bel­gium in 1862, and the SLV’s is an edi­tion pub­lished by A. Lacroix, Ver­boeck­hoven & Co, Brussels, in 10 books of five vol­umes.

Ahead of the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing, li­brary staff in­vited Re­view to the rare books depart­ment to in­spect the new ac­qui­si­tion. The first vol­ume lay supine upon a white pil­low, open at the page of Hugo’s fa­mous pref­ace, dated Jan­uary 1, 1862.

Cu­ra­tor Anais Lel­louche reads the French pref­ace and of­fers a si­mul­ta­ne­ous trans­la­tion, re­fer­ring, in her charm­ingly in­flected English, to Hugo’s in­dict­ment of so­cial dam­na­tion, the degra­da­tion of men, down­fall of women and the wast­ing of chil­dren. A printed trans­la­tion con­cludes: “As long as ig­no­rance and mis­ery ex­ist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are per­haps not en­tirely use­less.”

Also on dis­play will be doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs of Paris, char­ac­ter stud­ies and paint­ings by Hugo, a plas­ter bust of the au­thor by Au­guste Rodin, and cos­tumes and de­signs from the mu­si­cal. Most pre­cious of all is a loan, from the Bi­b­lio­theque Na­tionale de France, of the first of two vol­umes of Hugo’s au­to­graph man­u­script of Les Mis­er­ables. It is the first time the man­u­script has left Europe.

It’s a cu­rios­ity that Hugo, one of the gi­ants of 19th-century French lit­er­a­ture, wrote most of Les Mis­er­ables while in ex­ile on the Bri­tish Chan­nel Is­lands. The cel­e­brated au­thor of The Hunch­back of Notre Dame and mem­ber of the Academie Fran­caise had made him­self un­pop­u­lar with the Sec­ond Em­pire un­der Napoleon III, and he fled first to Bel­gium, then to the is­lands

June 28-29, 2014 of Jersey and Guernsey. Hugo’s project with Les Mis­er­ables was to de­pict the con­di­tions of Paris’s un­der­class. The sprawl­ing saga fol­lows the story of the con­vict Jean Val­jean, his per­se­cu­tion by the po­lice in­spec­tor Javert, and his path to re­demp­tion via many twists, turns and im­prob­a­ble co­in­ci­dences. It is also one of the first documents of so­cial re­al­ism, in which Hugo of­fers lengthy di­gres­sions on things such as Paris’s sew­er­age sys­tem, re­li­gious or­ders and the bat­tle of Water­loo.

He wit­nessed the ri­ots of June 1832, when dis­ease, food short­ages and anti-monar­chist sen­ti­ment led to the erec­tion of bar­ri­cades and armed bat­tles on the streets of Paris. It is this up­ris­ing that gal­vanises his char­ac­ters and forms the cli­max of Les Mis­er­ables (not, as is some­times as­sumed, the French Revo­lu­tion of 1789).

Lel­louche says Hugo iden­ti­fied most strongly with Mar­ius Pont­mercy, the ide­al­is­tic young hero — in the au­thor’s words, “a hand­some young man with thick, very dark hair, a high, in­tel­li­gent fore­head” — who rep­re­sents a France free from op­pres­sion. So Les Mis­er­ables is a story span­ning more than 20 years, a polemic on so­ci­ety’s ills and a vi­sion for the fu­ture.

“He re­vis­ited what he wrote and added pas­sages that were more po­lit­i­cal and about his­tory,” Lel­louche says. “(The novel) was crit­i­cised for its di­a­tribes. They are very im­por­tant be­cause Les Mis­er­ables is not just a story about love, it’s a story of the century. We want this per­sonal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory, other­wise it is just an­other story about pas­sion. I think they (the di­a­tribes) en­rich the novel.”

In its pol­i­tics and nar­ra­tive fer­vour, and in its fu­sion of thought and feel­ing (to bor­row a for­mu­la­tion from the great French cul­tural critic Jac­ques Barzun), Les Mis­er­ables is a thor­oughly ro­man­ti­cist work. It is a per­sonal state­ment that seeks to speak to all people.

This is the qual­ity that com­poser ClaudeMichel Schon­berg and lyri­cist Alain Bou­blil tapped when they set about mak­ing their mu­si­cal. Over cof­fee dur­ing a re­cent visit to Mel­bourne, Schon­berg ex­plains that Hugo pro­duced, in ef­fect, an opera in words. The char­ac­ters, the emo­tional pitch and the force of des­tiny in­her­ent in the story all lend them­selves to mu­si­cal treat­ment. Gi­a­como Puc­cini con­sid­ered an adap­ta­tion of Les Mis­er­ables af­ter the suc­cess of his ear­lier Paris opera, La Bo­heme, Schon­berg says, but gave the idea away be­cause “it was too com­pli­cated to put on stage”.

“It is a writ­ten opera, it has such di­men­sion, it is al­ways over the board,” Schon­berg says (he means “over the top”). “Vic­tor Hugo was a big per­son­al­ity, a big ro­man­tic, the way he ex­presses ev­ery­thing is big­ger than life.”

Schon­berg and Bou­blil had pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated on a mu­si­cal called La Revo­lu­tion Fran­caise, nail­ing their tri­coleur to the mast of epic mu­si­cal theatre. In 1978 Bou­blil saw a re­vival of Oliver! and that show’s pick­pock­ets, mi­sers and vil­lains — Lionel Bart’s mu­si­cal is based on Oliver Twist — led him and Schon­berg to think about sim­i­larly Dick­en­sian char­ac­ters in Hugo’s novel.

“We are telling sto­ries through the mu­sic,” Schon­berg says. “It’s the book that gives you the in­spi­ra­tion to write some­thing. In the Vic­tor Hugo book, there is the phrase by Fan­tine when she says, ‘I dreamed a dream.’ Af­ter read­ing it, I know to write a song.”

Schon­berg grew up in a mu­si­cal fam­ily and has some im­pres­sive fore­bears. He is a dis­tant rel­a­tive of a court mu­si­cian to Tsar Ni­cholas II, and of se­ri­al­ist com­poser Arnold Schoen­berg (al­though Claude-Michel’s em­i­nently singable tunes have lit­tle com­mon har­mony with Arnold’s hard­core do­de­ca­phoni­cism.)

When he was a boy, Schon­berg lis­tened to 78

Les Mis­er­ables records of op­eras such as Car­men, Madam But­ter­fly and The Tales of Hoff­mann. He had early suc­cess as a song­writer and pro­ducer of pop records, but his love for opera has in­formed his work in the theatre, as has his in­stinct for earcatch­ing pop.

He men­tions Mozart and Richard Strauss as com­posers whose arias keep step with the nat­u­ral rhythms of speech, some­thing he has also tried to do. He once had a dis­cus­sion on the sub­ject with con­duc­tor Ge­org Solti — they met dur­ing a de­layed Eurostar jour­ney — who said Strauss had ex­plained to him that the cor­rect tem­pos for Der Rosenkava­lier were sim­i­lar to speech.

“I al­ways write the mu­sic on the phras­ing of the spo­ken lan­guage,” Schon­berg says. “It’s al­ways what I do be­cause I want the au­di­ence af­ter five min­utes to for­get that (the cast) are singing and to be car­ried by the story.”

Schon­berg pitched his mu­si­cal score to the over­size emo­tions of opera, but he is also a fan of the “wall of sound” pop records pi­o­neered by Phil Spec­tor. It’s telling that Schon­berg and Bou­blil’s first two col­lab­o­ra­tions, Le Revo­lu­tion Fran­caise and Les Mis­er­ables, both had their first per­for­mances in a sta­dium, the Palais des Sports in Paris, not a lyric theatre.

“To try to do a min­i­mal­ist ver­sion of Les Mis­er­ables, it won’t work, be­cause the novel is stronger than that, the char­ac­ters are stronger than the ac­tors,” he says, punch­ing the cafe ta­ble with his fin­ger. “And you have to fol­low Vic­tor Hugo’s steps. If you try to work against the novel, against Vic­tor Hugo, you are the loser.”

Les Mis­er­ables played for three months at the Palais des Sports in 1980, but the ver­sion that took the world by storm is the Lon­don pro­duc­tion first staged by Cameron Mack­in­tosh and the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany in 1985. It was di­rected by Trevor Nunn, with English lyr-

Vic­tor Hugo, above, in 1862, the year was pub­lished; the orig­i­nal man­u­script, left and be­low

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