#164: THE HYDRA AND THE ANGEL. The reader’s first experience of Victor Hugo’s gargantuan novel Les Miserables is that it’s like driving cross-country in a rattletrap car so old you no longer know what’s holding it together. In addition to its sentimentality and wild coincidences it is perforated, more than any other great novel, by huge, gaping digressions: sixty pages on the battle at Waterloo, forty pages on the life of a Bernardine convent, twenty pages on Parisian argot, twenty pages on the history of Parisian sewers. Like later novels shaped by narrative interruptus—The Name of the Rose, The Blind Assassin, Possession—its plot line suffers from massive ADD. There are a lot of potholes on the way to the west coast.
The actual plot line is relatively simple: Jean Valjean is rescued after his escape from prison by the example of a pious bishop, but is recognized as an escapee and pursued by an obsessive policeman, Javert; in his flight Jean Valjean adopts an orphan, Cosette (the daughter of a fallen woman, Fantine), and the book details his attempts to retain his freedom in the face of Javert’s pursuit. Marius, the disowned grandson of a royalist bourgeois, meets and falls in love with Cosette. The action, across the north and south of France, centers at length in Paris, and includes an account of the barricades of the Paris uprising in 1832, and proceeds—if that’s the word—to the final confrontation and resolution of Jean Valjean’s predicament.
This is only the slenderest framework of one of the longest novels in European literature (my copy of the old Pleiade edition weighs in at 1500 pages). Its gigantism is everywhere, not least in Hugo’s heightened and rhetorical style: French Romanticism writ large. In some of this, very much in the tone of moral concern, he recalls Dickens, his closest twin in literature. Orwell said of Dickens, “His imagination overwhelms everything, like a weed,” but in Hugo the weeds are the size of venerable oaks. And there is a crucial difference in the tone of their irony. Dickens’s irony is often excruciating comedy: the more dreadful the characters are, the funnier they are. Hugo’s irony, with its relentless seriousness, has a quality of physical assault, of almost overwhelming effect. In Marius’s final confrontation with the horrible innkeeper Thenardier, Thenardier’s attempt at blackmail finally collapses when Marius realizes that he is himself the man Thenardier is accusing Jean Valjean of having murdered. Being tugged through the novel’s massive pileup of poverty, revolution, crime, coincidence, loyalty, love and death—like Jean Valjean’s exodus through the Parisian sewers—the reader occasionally remembers that the entirety of this convulsive drama originates in one almost inconsequent act—the theft of a loaf of bread by a hungry boy. Some writer’s ironies are like being slapped in the face; Hugo’s are like being punched ‘til you see stars.
The difference in the tone between Les Miserables and Dickens’s social criticism is the difference in intent. Both wrote, as Orwell said of Dickens, as men who were “generously angry,” which in Dickens is the source of the comedy. But Hugo called his work “an essay on the infinite,” and it is in this way the novel exercises its inescapable narrative pull. Hugo said the novel is about “the immense strokes of luck, good or bad, that are calibrated by an infinity which escapes us.” Here is the real reason for the book’s enormity, so that Hugo can include the fact from far, far out in left field that may unexpectedly form our fates. Nothing is incidental, for everything is involved and included in our destinies. Hugo said Les Miserables is “a progress…from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life…the hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.” But there is tragedy as well, as men play out to the ends of their characters. What draws us on through the accumulation of scene and detail, from the quiet dignity of an elderly bishop in a southern French village, through the relentless pursuit by the implacable Javert, past the barricades of the Paris Uprising, is the inexorable fate of Jean Valjean, which renders the book unforgettable. Hugo tells us finally: “L’ame peut guerir; le sort, non.” “The soul may heal; but not destiny.”
The ideal follow-up to reading Les Miserables is David Bellos’ entertaining study The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017). Bellos pitches into his study of the book’s composition and historical background with a grand exuberance fit to his topic, and throws his hooks into a startling variety of subjects, from Hugo’s individual and somewhat slippery political and religious beliefs, to his expansion of the novel’s earlier form to its present enormity, to the almost Machiavellian efforts to insure the book would escape pirated editions. He follows the money, from the vocabulary of French coinage as class indicator to Hugo’s pulling off what Bellos calls “The contract of the century” (Hugo got paid the kind of money we now associate with movie contracts). He conveys the ways in which the vast sprawl of this titanic fiction extended to every facet of its creation, from Hugo’s expansion of the vocabulary acceptable in literary fiction to his homegrown Guernsey Island transcription factory. He helps you see more of the book’s accomplishment than you might on your own, without a hint of academic must.
I’ve glanced at several of the English translations, the best of which seems to me to be Julie Rose’s version, published in Modern Library in 2008 and which, in Adam Gopnik’s words, “marvelously removes the yellowed varish from Hugo’s prose and gives us the racy, breathless and passionate intelligence of the original.”
It seems almost impossible to speak of Les Miserables these days without reference to the musical version. I was living in the U.K. during the original run of the London production, at which point the score was already ubiquitous, and with its long-running success it seems to have taken on a certain horrific permanence. I can only say, for my own taste, that its success baffles me, that I think the music execrable and the English lyrics feeble, and that it has tied itself to a great novel like a tin can to the tail of a noble, faithful and beautiful dog.