Peter Brooks

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The Novel of the Cen­tury:

The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Ad­ven­ture of Les Misérables by David Bel­los.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux,

307 pp., $27.00

Is Vic­tor Hugo’s Les Misérables, as David Bel­los would have us be­lieve, “the great­est novel of the nine­teenth cen­tury”? A num­ber of ti­tles in that great­est cen­tury of the novel can surely lay claim to this ac­co­lade: War and Peace, Madame Bo­vary, The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov, Mid­dle­march, maybe also The Char­ter­house of Parma, Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, Lost Il­lu­sions. I don’t think Les Misérables makes the cut, though not be­cause it isn’t great in its pe­cu­liar way.

Bel­los comes closer to the truth, and the prob­lem, when he writes: “The episode in the sew­ers,” in which Jean Val­jean car­ries the wounded Mar­ius af­ter the fall of their bar­ri­cade, “makes Les Misérables some­thing grander than a novel in the nine­teenth-cen­tury mode. It reaches out to­wards the cre­ation of a legend and the trans­for­ma­tion of a char­ac­ter into a myth.” What­ever it is, Les Misérables doesn’t quite qual­ify as a novel. It’s some kind of mon­stre sacré. It has lent it­self well to var­i­ous adap­ta­tions over the decades since its pub­li­ca­tion in 1862, per­haps a sign that its form is so elas­tic, or unim­por­tant, that its mat­ter can eas­ily be re­worked with­out los­ing the book’s essence. Flaubert, who ad­mired Hugo greatly, was caus­tic:

I found in this book nei­ther truth nor grandeur. . . . The char­ac­ters are man­nequins, sugar candy fig­ures. . . . You are not al­lowed to paint such a false portrait of so­ci­ety when you’re a con­tem­po­rary of Balzac and Dick­ens.

Flaubert wanted a greater re­al­ism. It is true also that Hugo doesn’t have the abil­ity of Dick­ens, Balzac, or even Eugène Sue to make his plots dra­ma­tize the is­sues at the heart of the novel. He al­ways has to in­ter­vene in his own voice, end­lessly ser­mo­niz­ing. So­cial re­al­i­ties are not so much ob­served as pos­tu­lated by an Olympian author. It’s at times like the gar­ru­lous­ness of an old man in love with his own voice. Read­ing Les Misérables, one of­ten wishes Hugo would shut up.

Yet even Flaubert con­ceded that Hugo’s sub­ject was great and im­por­tant. Les Misères, as the orig­i­nal work­ing ti­tle of the novel had it—poverty, mis­ery, so­cial des­ti­tu­tion, the cre­ation of a class of the wretched of the earth— was the pro­found and in­escapable is­sue for think­ing per­sons of the nine­teenth cen­tury. How had the evo­lu­tion of so­ci­ety and in­dus­try cre­ated such a vast and grow­ing un­der­class? It re­mains a cru­cial is­sue for us to­day, though one has the im­pres­sion that it has ceased to have the moral ur­gency it had for Hugo and many of his con­tem­po­raries. Nine­teenth-cen­tury France pro­duced some re­mark­able in­quiries into so­cial mis­ery, in­clud­ing Eugène Buret’s De la mis­ère des classes la­borieuses en An­gleterre et en France (1840); LouisRené Villermé’s re­port on tex­tile work­ers in Tableau de l’état physique et moral des ou­vri­ers em­ployés dans les man­u­fac­tures de co­ton, de laine et de soie (1840); and Alexan­dre Par­ent-Duchâtelet’s re­mark­ably thor­ough and in­flu­en­tial study of pros­ti­tu­tion in Paris, De la pros­ti­tu­tion dans la ville de Paris, con­sid­érée sous le rap­port de l’hy­giène publique, de la morale et de l’ad­min­is­tra­tion (1836). Such works in­vented so­ci­o­log­i­cal in­quiry. And then across the Channel came the most fa­mous, Friedrich En­gels’s The Con­di­tion of the Work­ing Class in Eng­land (1845).

The shift from Les Misères to Les Misérables, Bel­los writes, re­flected Hugo’s de­ci­sion that his ac­count of so­ci­ety would come not in a tract but in a novel about those who lived in poverty, and some­times in crime, since the grim life of des­ti­tu­tion of­ten in­cluded crime, petty and great. As Louis Che­va­lier con­tended in his mag­is­te­rial study La­bor­ing Classes and Dan­ger­ous Classes (Classes la­borieuses et classes dan­gereuses), for the nine­teenth-cen­tury bour­geoisie, the work­ing class, which had be­come vastly larger and more vis­i­ble in cities, was newly seen as dan­ger­ous, the po­ten­tial agent of crime and in­sur­rec­tion.

The facts of so­cial mis­ery in­creas­ingly were there to see—if any­one wanted to look at them. As Hugo writes early in Les Misérables, “So­ci­ety must look at th­ese things be­cause it cre­ates them.” The pro­gram of the novel is ex­plic­itly “the erad­i­ca­tion of mis­ery.” Hugo’s fa­mous prefa­tory note ends: “So long as ig­no­rance and mis­ery ex­ist on earth, books like this may not be with­out use.” We are sum­moned by the very rhetoric of the pas­sage to en­ter a melo­drama of so­cial con­cern, one in which plot and char­ac­ters ex­ist in a state of ex­cru­ci­at­ing ex­trem­ity, fre­quently com­mented on by the author. Hugo goes much fur­ther than he had in his ear­lier novel about the last day of a man con­demned to the guil­lo­tine, Le dernier jour d’un con­damné (The Last Day of a Con­demned Man), pub­lished in 1829 and then again in 1832 with a pref­ace that makes a re­sound­ing plea against cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. “The scaf­fold is the only ed­i­fice that rev­o­lu­tions don’t abol­ish,” he wrote, a truth only too of­ten con­firmed since then. One may find the ear­lier and much shorter novel a more ef­fec­tive tract than the sprawl­ing Les Misérables, but it’s the later novel that has at­tained mythic sta­tus. Jean Val­jean’s nine­teen years of im­pris­on­ment for steal­ing a loaf of bread still res­onate to­day in a so­ci­ety that has in­car­cer­ated more of its misérables than any other.

In The Novel of the Cen­tury, Bel­los cites a let­ter from Hugo’s Bel­gian pub­lisher, Al­bert Lacroix, to the novelist upon re­ceipt of the fi­nal in­stall­ment of cor­rected proofs: Your work, dear master, is that great and mag­nif­i­cent for­est where ev­ery­thing ex­ists, merges and com­bines. Like the song of birds, the call of the ea­gle, the ray of the di­vine, you show us all that is there: the ec­stasy of hearts, the ul­cers on souls, the dark­ness of minds, joy and suf­fer­ing. . . . Your book is the for­est of hu­man life and of our nine­teenth cen­tury. It leaves us cap­ti­vated, pen­e­trated, moved, trans­fig­ured, re­newed, im­proved and pen­sive.

As Bel­los com­ments, the pub­lisher has be­gun to sound like the novelist him­self. Lacroix speaks for in­nu­mer­able of Hugo’s con­tem­po­rary read­ers. This was sub­lime stuff. By the time of his death in 1885, at age eighty-three, Hugo was a na­tional hero, his fu­neral cortège one of those im­mense cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions that nine­teenth-cen­tury France turned into a pop­u­lar art form.

Bel­los’s fine book could be seen as part of the re­cent crit­i­cal genre that Joyce Carol Oates bap­tized the “bib­liomem­oir” (Re­becca Mead’s My Life in Mid­dle­march is the best-known ex­am­ple). But it is not so much about Bel­los’s per­sonal en­gage­ment with the novel as a study of its gen­e­sis, its pro­duc­tion, its re­cep­tion, and notably its lan­guage. Hugo’s first ideas for Les Misérables reached back to 1845, but it was only in 1860 that he be­gan work on his early draft again. He was by this point fa­mously an ex­ile from Napoleon III’s Sec­ond Em­pire—one of its op­po­nents pro­scribed af­ter the coup d’état of De­cem­ber 2, 1851. He had re­fused to ac­cept amnesty when it was later of­fered by the man he called “Napoléon le Petit.” He had set­tled fi­nally on the is­land of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he com­manded a view of the sea from his study on the top floor of Hauteville House, while a large cast of fam­ily, lover, and ser­vants ran the house­hold and copied his manuscripts. The story of the com­po­si­tion of the novel, and of the jour­ney of man­u­script, proofs, then cor­rected proofs be­tween Guernsey and Brus­sels, is one of the most en­ter­tain­ing and il­lu­mi­nat­ing in Bel­los’s book. Be­cause of the un­pre­dictabil­ity of French cen­sor­ship un­der the Sec­ond Em­pire (as with the tri­als of Flaubert’s Madame Bo­vary and Baude­laire’s Les fleurs du mal) and his un­stint­ing op­po­si­tion to the regime, Hugo chose as his pri­mary pub­lisher the Bel­gian com­pany A. Lacroix, Ver­boekhoven & Cie, de­mand­ing, and ob­tain­ing, the high­est price ever paid for a novel.

He worked on the re­vi­sion of his man­u­script from seven to eleven o’clock in the morn­ing, then gave it to his two de­voted scribes, his long­stand­ing lover Juli­ette Drouet and his sis­ter-in-law Julie Chenay. In the af­ter­noon he re­vised the copies they had com­pleted, then in the evening from eight o’clock to mid­night he cor­rected proofs of the pages al­ready set in print. Ev­ery­thing—man­u­script, proofs, and proof cor­rec­tions—had to travel on the thrice-weekly mail boat to Southamp­ton, then on from there to Lon­don, Dover, Os­tend, and Brus­sels. Ma­te­rial from the pub­lisher took the re­verse jour­ney to St. Peter Port on Guernsey. When the book was pub­lished in the spring of 1862, it was an in­ter­na­tional launch, with the first vol­umes on sale not only in Brus­sels but also in Paris, Leipzig, Lon­don, and St. Peters­burg. Edi­tion fol­lowed edi­tion as the novel turned into an enor­mous best seller. Bel­los rel­ishes the de­tails of the novel, and those he fur­nishes are mostly well worth hav­ing, such as the na­ture of the loaf of bread Jean Val­jean steals: not the baguette we now ad­mire but the loaf of the poor, “an oval weigh­ing four and a half pounds, with a thick black crust and heavy grey meal inside.” Bel­los de­tails the book’s “money plot” in a tour de force that ex­plains how Jean Val­jean, the es­caped con­vict who be­comes Mon­sieur Madeleine, makes his for­tune man­u­fac­tur­ing syn­thetic jet jew­elry, and why he de­posits his prof­its with the Lafitte Bank. Bel­los also ex­plains why, when Val­jean is obliged to with­draw the money in bank notes (in gold coin it would have weighed 465 pounds) and bury it in a chest, it never loses its value over ten years (no in­fla­tion).

Like­wise, the de­tails of book pub­lish­ing: around 1860, shortly be­fore the pub­li­ca­tion of Les Misérables, the steam press, the stereo­type that took the place of lead char­ac­ters, and the man­u­fac­ture of cheap paper from vegetable mat­ter con­verged to make the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the printed book a re­al­ity. The first two vol­umes of the novel sold out in two days.

Best of all is Bel­los’s com­mand of the French lan­guage, in­clud­ing its

lin­guis­tic un­der­class, ar­got. As some­one who from early in his ca­reer had sought to open up lit­er­ary lan­guage to a broader ver­nac­u­lar (“I put a red bon­net on the old dic­tionary”), Hugo saw the rich re­sources of slang as a kind of coun­ter­lan­guage. He was of course fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Sue and Balzac, who both found the lan­guage of the crim­i­nal un­der­world rich in ex­pres­sive metaphor and en­ergy.

Hugo is more dis­cur­sive on the sub­ject, in­evitably, es­pe­cially in his re­flec­tions on how ar­got both con­sti­tutes a col­or­ful lan­guage in its own right and at the same time fig­ures as a kind of ex­cres­cence on stan­dard lan­guage that re­flects the mis­ère of its users. In this ap­par­ent con­tra­dic­tion, Bel­los points out, lies the prob­lem we still face: Would speak­ers of var­i­ous di­alects be better off if they learned a stan­dard lan­guage? In Les Misérables, both the vil­lain­ous Thé­nardiers and the love­able gamin Gavroche are ex­am­ples of “func­tional diglos­sia,” com­pe­tent in what­ever reg­is­ter of lan­guage is needed for the oc­ca­sion.

The char­ac­ters’ var­i­ous id­i­olects, along with Hugo’s of­ten Lati­nate rhetoric, give the novel “an opulent, overblown style that is the op­po­site of how com­po­si­tion teach­ers think English should be writ­ten nowa­days,” as Bel­los puts it. And he goes on to an­a­lyze in some de­tail Hugo’s rhetor­i­cal de­vices. He is an ex­cel­lent guide to a kind of nine­teenth-cen­tury high style that needs to be en­joyed for it­self if we are to re­spond fully to Hugo’s epic am­bi­tions. At his best, Hugo achieves an elo­quence hard to match. For in­stance, this pas­sage on Jean Val­jean’s anger af­ter his years of in­car­cer­a­tion:

Af­ter all, hu­man so­ci­ety had done him noth­ing but harm. This an­gry face that it calls Jus­tice, and that it presents to those it smites, was the only one he had ever seen. The only rea­son other peo­ple had laid a hand on him was to hurt him. He had had no phys­i­cal con­tact with any­one that had not been a blow struck against him.... With ev­ery suc­ceed­ing in­jury, he had grad­u­ally come to the firm be­lief that life is a war, and in this war he was the van­quished. He had no other weapon than his ha­tred. He re­solved to hone it in prison and take it with him when he left.


Hugo’s epic am­bi­tions of­ten fail to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful novel, in part be­cause we rarely see the world through the eyes of the main char­ac­ter, Jean Val­jean. If the ge­nius of the novel as an imag­i­na­tive form is closely linked to its abil­ity to make us see through other eyes, to ex­pe­ri­ence life through another con­scious­ness (Flaubert, Dos­to­evsky, James, and Proust all tes­tify to this), Hugo does not make much use of Val­jean as a means to ob­serve the world. “Val­jean must surely be the least talk­a­tive pro­tag­o­nist of nine­teen­th­cen­tury fic­tion be­fore Melville’s Bartleby,” writes Bel­los (though Bartleby in fact pre­dates Val­jean by a decade). Hugo makes no at­tempt to cre­ate a spo­ken lan­guage for this peas­ant turned mayor. At two mo­ments of crit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing—whether he should re­veal his ex-con­vict sta­tus to save the in­no­cent Champ­math­ieu from con­vic­tion in his place, and whether he should give Cosette up to her beloved Mar­ius—we are wit­ness to a kind of dra­matic for­mal de­bate within Val­jean’s mind. Hugo of­fers crises of con­science, then, but no at­tempt to ren­der the move­ments of con­scious­ness. We fol­low Val­jean’s ac­tions in­stead, along with the novelist’s com­men­tary on them. The fa­mous slog through the sew­ers of Paris, “the In­tes­tine of Le­viathan,” in which Val­jean car­ries the wounded Mar­ius over his shoul­der, un­folds with scarcely a re­flec­tion from the hero.

It is also pre­ceded by Hugo’s dis­qui­si­tion on the sew­ers, which in­cludes pas­sages on the loss of use­ful fer­til­izer that should be re­cy­cled rather than dumped in the Seine, the progress of their ex­ten­sion and im­prove­ment over the years (Par­ent-Duchâtelet had done an im­por­tant study of Paris sew­ers a few years be­fore his work on pros­ti­tu­tion), and rec­om­men­da­tions for fu­ture progress. Balzac and Tol­stoy can an­noy us with their polem­i­cal di­gres­sions, but in Les Misérables, just about ev­ery piece of ac­tion is pre­ceded by a kind of es­say. The novel be­gins with a long presentation of the char­ac­ter of Bishop Myriel be­fore Val­jean ever ap­pears at his door. Part II starts with a mem­o­rable es­say on the Bat­tle of Water­loo, Part III with a me­moran­dum on the street chil­dren of Paris, and Part IV with an es­say on the virtues and short­com­ings of King Louis-Philippe, who reigned from 1830 un­til the rev­o­lu­tion of 1848—the lat­ter the sub­ject of another di­gres­sion at the start of Part V. Les Misérables breaks all the rules of nov­el­is­tic com­po­si­tion. It is clear that its pop­u­lar­ity has never suf­fered from its over­stuffed re­ple­tion. As the notably durable mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion from 1980 demon­strated, there is some­thing for ev­ery­one in Les Mis. Hugo’s ca­pac­ity to play on a full emo­tional reg­is­ter, from sac­cha­rine pathos to heroic up­lift, has given his novel an afterlife that seems to defy the changes of taste over the decades. It’s as pop­u­lar in Rus­sia as in France; it has lent it­self to Ja­panese an­i­mated film adap­ta­tions and to num­ber­less fan fic­tions. The main fig­ures re­main un­touched by adap­ta­tion, el­e­ments of a uni­verse that still cor­re­sponds to our un­der­stand­ing of how life can be re­con­fig­ured in the height­ened con­flicts of melo­drama.

B el­los ti­tles his first chapter “Vic­tor Hugo Opens His Eyes,” which picks from Hugo’s Choses vues, the jour­nal in which he re­counted things that struck him, a cou­ple of pow­er­ful in­ci­dents that would be in­cor­po­rated in the novel. In one, a well-dressed young man on a win­try night shoves a hand­ful of snow down the back of a pros­ti­tute, she fights back, and she is ar­rested. Hugo fol­lows her to the po­lice sta­tion and, as a celebrity, ob­tains her re­lease. That story, with Fan­tine and Val­jean as the prin­ci­pal ac­tors, would be­come part of the novel. In another episode, Hugo wit­nessed a wretch be­ing dragged to prison for steal­ing a loaf of bread, while a “daz­zlingly beau­ti­ful” aris­to­cratic woman played with her baby in her silkuphol­stered car­riage. The mis­er­able man stares at the woman, but she never looks at him. There for Hugo is the po­ten­tial for rev­o­lu­tion: “Once this man re­al­izes that this woman ex­ists while the woman does not no­tice that the man is there, a catas­tro­phe is in­evitable.” Hugo, who be­gan his lit­er­ary ca­reer as a young roy­al­ist, coed­i­tor with his broth­ers of the mag­a­zine Le Con­ser­va­teur lit­téraire, evolved to­ward po­lit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism and then, in his un­re­lent­ing op­po­si­tion to Napoleon III and the crim­i­nal coup d’état that be­gan his reign, be­came the very sym­bol of re­sis­tance to an au­thor­i­tar­ian state. His pol­i­tics were vis­ceral rather than the­o­ret­i­cal, but al­most al­ways marked by a spirit of gen­eros­ity and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Though he fought against the work­ers’ upris­ing in the June Days of 1848 (and tried to ex­plain why in one of the di­gres­sions of Les Misérables), by the spring of 1871 and the bloody sup­pres­sion of the Paris Com­mune by the of­fi­cial govern­ment—which sent the French army from Versailles to in­vade the city— Hugo was the rare pub­lic fig­ure who of­fered refuge, in Bel­gium, for those Com­mu­nards who es­caped the slaugh­ter and ag­i­tated for their amnesty.

In his fi­nal novel, Qu­a­trevingt-treize (Ninety-Three, named for the year of the Ter­ror dur­ing the French Rev­o­lu­tion), he at­tempted a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of his war­ring com­pa­tri­ots: those who had never ac­cepted the re­pub­lic and those for whom the re­pub­lic was the in­dis­putable in­cep­tion of the mod­ern world. That novel, for all its in­flated rhetoric, con­cludes in ex­tra­or­di­nary fi­nal chap­ters in which the three main char­ac­ters—an unre­deemed Bre­ton aris­to­crat, his great-nephew who be­comes a repub­li­can gen­eral, and a for­mer priest who be­comes a doc­tri­naire rev­o­lu­tion­ary—de­bate the mean­ing of rev­o­lu­tion, rights, jus­tice, equal­ity, and so­cial democ­racy.

In Les Misérables, at the mo­ment of the bar­ri­cade of the rue de la Chan­vrerie dur­ing the brief upris­ing sparked by the fu­neral of Gen­eral La­mar­que in 1832, Hugo ex­presses his sol­i­dar­ity with the “mag­nif­i­cent hu­man move­ment ir­re­sistibly be­gun on July 14, 1789.... The French Rev­o­lu­tion is an act of God.” That sums up his po­lit­i­cal and hu­man­i­tar­ian com­mit­ment as well as any­thing. To re­main faith­ful to the spirit of the French Rev­o­lu­tion means tak­ing no­tice of so­cial mis­ery and com­mit­ting your­self to a fu­ture of so­cial jus­tice. He com­pares the work of crim­i­nal pun­ish­ment to the sea clos­ing over a drown­ing man: “the in­ex­orable so­cial night into which the pe­nal sys­tem throws its con­demned.” That’s a les­son that we still need to hear. In his al­le­giance to the French Rev­o­lu­tion, Hugo takes from the slo­gan “lib­erté, égal­ité, fra­ter­nité” es­pe­cially the last term, and he makes it his own: Les Misérables is an op­er­atic trib­ute to fra­ter­nity, to so­cial co­he­sion, to the no­tion that we are stronger to­gether than apart.

Vic­tor Hugo on the ter­race of Hauteville House, Guernsey, where he wrote Les Misérables, 1868

Vic­tor Hugo

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