The long life and fas­ci­nat­ing launch of ‘Les Misérables’

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL LIND­GREN book­world@wash­post.com

Abi­og­ra­phy of a book, rather than a per­son, is a rel­a­tively new wrin­kle in non­fic­tion. When the ap­proach suc­ceeds, as it does with David Bel­los’s “The Novel of the Cen­tury: The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables,’ ” the re­sult can be gen­uinely fresh and in­spir­ing.

Bel­los’s book is a ma­jor ac­com­books plish­ment. His warm and en­gag­ing study of Vic­tor Hugo’s 1862 mas­ter­piece re­news faith in the idea, so fun­da­men­tal to the mys­te­ri­ous at­trac­tion of lit­er­a­ture, that great books of what­ever age con­tinue to be worth­while ob­jects of at­ten­tion. In ap­ply­ing a melange of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, lin­guis­tics, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and his­tory to the study of one of the best­known, if least-un­der­stood, great of all time, he il­lu­mi­nates the work in a way that tran­scends con­ven­tional lit­er­ary crit­i­cism.

Bel­low dis­plays a daz­zling range of eru­di­tion with light­ness and easy wit, and al­most ev­ery sec­tion bears sur­pris­ing in­sights. He shows, for ex­am­ple, how dif­fer­ent French words for money — rang­ing from “francs” to “sous” to “napoléons” — carry sub­tle de­no­ta­tions of class, ef­fec­tively be­com­ing “sign and sub­stance of the so­cial in­jus­tices that ‘Les Misérables’ sought to dra­ma­tize.”

The novel’s hero, Jean Val­jean, makes his for­tune by start­ing a fac­tory that man­u­fac­tures black beads, which Bel­los el­e­gantly un­packs as a case study in niche man­u­fac­tur­ing, right down to cal­cu­la­tions of ma­te­ri­als, unit costs and gross mar­gins. He writes with clar­ity and grace about the com­plex po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence of 19th-cen­tury France and its ef­fect on Hugo, most no­tably in his nearly two-decade ex­ile from his home­land.

The sec­tion on the pub­li­ca­tion of “Les Misérables” is one of the most in­for­ma­tive ac­counts of the me­chan­ics of the 19th-cen­tury book busi­ness that I have ever read. And you need not nec­es­sar­ily be a book per­son to find this study of what Bel­los calls “the first truly in­ter­na­tional book launch” fas­ci­nat­ing. For starters, the ad­vance Hugo re­ceived was the equiv­a­lent of al­most $2.5 mil­lion to­day, and its fi­nanc­ing by “a car­rot-haired young busi­ness­man called Al­bert Lacroix” puts the novel “at the van­guard . . . of the use of ven­ture cap­i­tal to fund the arts.”

The phys­i­cal process of com­po­si­tion and print­ing was mind-bog­gling: Thou­sands of proof pages had to be sent via ship and coach be­tween Hugo in ex­ile in the Chan­nel Is­lands and Lacroix in Brus­sels, a stag­ger­ing task in the face of the on­rush­ing dead­line for the book’s pub­li­ca­tion. (These pas­sages are enough to give any­one who works in pub­lish­ing a kind of de­layed-sym­pa­thy anx­i­ety.)

“Les Misérables” was the first book in the his­tory of pub­lish­ing to be em­bar­goed — that is, to be with­held from sale un­til a spec­i­fied date be­cause of the fear of what we would now call “spoilers.” In­deed, the ap­pear­ance of a pi­rated Bel­gian edi­tion mere weeks be­fore the sched­uled pub­li­ca­tion date in April 1862 caused the whole un­wieldy ap­pa­ra­tus to be pushed to the break­ing point. When the novel did fi­nally ap­pear, the up­roar put a mod­ern­day Harry Pot­ter re­lease party to shame, with po­lice­men be­ing called upon to re­strain un­ruly cus­tomers who “verged on a riot.”

As the ti­tle sug­gests, Bel­los is en­dear­ingly pro­tec­tive of his sub­ject, snarling at “se­ri­ous read­ers [who] have of­ten turned up their noses at a work they as­sume to fall be­low the level of great art” be­cause of “the some­time in­ept adap­ta­tions of it.” (This last is a dig at the egre­gious mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion and its reign of ter­ror over Broad­way.)

Per­haps the only way Bel­los stum­bles is by oc­ca­sion­ally over­reach­ing for the sig­nif­i­cance of the novel’s con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance. Writ­ing of the “so­cial mech­a­nisms that con­demn some peo­ple to poverty,” he stiffly lists “fac­tors iden­ti­fied by mod­ern so­cial sci­en­tists” in an odd-sound­ing at­tempt to prove the novel’s pre­science. Later, he makes the baf­fling state­ment that a cer­tain utopian strain in Hugo’s novel led in some way to the foun­da­tion of the Euro­pean Union and the United Na­tions.

As a rule, I am sus­pi­cious of at­tempts to up­date a novel’s mer­its to make it fit con­tem­po­rary ideas of so­cial value — a trend that critic Louis Me­nand once de­scribed as “pre­sen­tiz­ing.” Bel­los can re­lax a lit­tle: We don’t need “Les Misérables” to be the best novel of the 21st cen­tury; it doesn’t even need to be the best novel of the 19th cen­tury. He is surely right in say­ing that since it is “not a re­as­sur­ing tale of the tri­umph of good over evil, but a demon­stra­tion of how hard it is to be good,” it will never go out of style.

Michael Lind­gren is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

THE NOVEL OF THE CEN­TURY The Ex­tra­or­di­nary Adventure of “Les Misérables” By David Bel­los Far­rar Straus Giroux. 307 pp. $27

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