Great Novel of the People — Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

From Graham Robb‘s biography of Victor Hugo (1997):

On 3 April 1862, one of the biggest operations in publishing history went into action, directly inspired by Hugo himself. The first part of Les Miserables (Fantine) appeared in the wake of a mammoth advertising campaign…. Long before it came out, everyone knew that Les Miserables was not just a novel, it was ‘the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century’, ‘a vast mirror reflecting the human race, captured on a given day of its enormous existence’; ‘Dante made a hell with poetry; I have tried to make one with reality’….

The London Evening Star of 8 April reported that ‘The Miserablesof Victor Hugo [is] in the hands of all those who are able to purchase it and little circulating libraries have taken as many as fifty copies each.’ By the time Parts II and III appeared on 15 May, it was clear that Hugo had achieved the impossible: selling a work of serious fiction for the masses, or, for the time being, inspiring the masses with a desire to read it. It was one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached. The oxymoronic opinions of critics betray the unease created by Hugo — that the lower orders might also have their literature: ‘a cabinet de lecturenovel written by a man of genius’, according to Lytton Strachey half a century later, still fighting ‘bad taste’. In other words, Les Miserables was a jolly good book, but Victor Hugo never should have written it.

The view from the street was an inspiring contrast. At six o’clock on the morning of 15 May, inhabitants of the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank woke to find their narrow street jammed with what looked like a bread queue. People from all walks of life had come with wheelbarrows and hods and were squashed up against the door of Pagnerre’sbookshop, which unfortunately opened outwards. Inside, thousands of copies of Les Miserablesstood in columns that reached the ceiling. A few hours later, they had all vanished. Mme Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out. But the nameless readers remained loyal. Factory workers set up subscriptions to buy what would otherwise have cost them several weeks’ wages.

Meanwhile, back on his island, Hugo had been correcting proofs with a furious attention to detail which belies his breezy comments about the immateriality of commas…. Hugo’s characters were household names even before the last volumes were out. Jean Valjean, the ex-convict turned philanthropic factory owner; Javert, the maniacally dedicated police inspector; the saintly Bishop Mariel, who plants the seed of charity in Jean Valjean’s benighted soul and antagonizes the Church (both in the novel and in reality) by following Christ’s teaching to the letter; Fantine, the abandoned grisette, and her orphaned daughter, Cosette, rescued from the infernal inn-keepers, the Thenardiers, and raised as Jean Valjean’s own child; Marius, the son of a Napoleonic general who joins a gang of young republicans and falls in love with Cosette; Gavroche, the snotty-nosed street-wise, lantern-smashing gutter-snipe. Every character struck a chord and had such a profound effect on the French view of French society that even on a first reading one has a vague recollection of having read the novel before.

Les Miserablesetches Hugo’s view of the world so deeply in the mind that it is impossible to be the same person after reading it — not just because it takes a noticeable percentage of one’s life to read it. The key to its effect lies in Hugo’s use of a sporadically omniscient narrator who reintroduces his characters at long intervals as if through the eyes of an ignorant observer — a narrator who can best be described as God masquerading as a law-abiding bourgeois….

The title itself is a moral test…. Originally, a miserable was simply a pauper (misere means ‘destitution’ as well as ‘misfortune’). Since the Revolution, and especially since the advent of Napoleon III, a miserable had become a ‘dreg’, a sore on the shining face of the Second Empire. The new sense would dictate a translation like Scum of the Earth. Hugo’s sense would dictate The Wretched.

This distinctive binocular vision accounts for the schizophrenic reception given to the novel. Several critics called it ‘dangerous’, as did Rimbaud’s mother, who ticked off his teacher for lending him that pernicious book by ‘V. Hugot’…. Others accused Hugo of soiling the great tragedy of French history by quoting the defiant cry of General Cambronne to the English at Waterloo: ‘Merde!’, a word which had not appeared in decent literature since the eighteenth century. ‘Perhaps the finest word ever spoken by a Frenchman,’ wrote Hugo. To his disgust, it was omitted by the English translator….

…Perrot de Chezelles [a public prosecutor], in an ‘Examination of Les Miserables’, defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime. Criminals were evil.

One can see here the impact of Les Miserables on the Second Empire…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862.

One can also see the effect of that ‘haunting and horrible sense of insecurity’ identified by Robert Louis Stevenson as the root of the novel’s power:

The deadly weight of civilization to those who are below presses sensibly on our shoulders as we read. A sort of mocking indignation grows upon us as we find Society rejecting, again and again, the services of the most serviceable…. The terror we thus feel is a terror for the machinery of law, that we can hear tearing, in the dark, good and bad between its formidable wheels.

This is the touchstone of all adaptations of Les Miserables, musical to cinematic; to turn Javert, the tenacious respecter of authority, ‘that savage in the service of civilization’, into the villain of the piece is to deprive the novel of its dynamite, to point the finger at a single policeman instead of at the system he serves.

For those who recognized Hugo’s black-and-white vision as social reality seen from underneath…Les Miserables was a moral panacea, the Bible of popular optimism. It stood for faith in progress and the end to misery of every kind….

The ‘dangerous’ aspect of Les Miserables is almost as evident today as it was in 1862. If a single idea can be extracted from the whole, it is that persistent criminals are a product of the criminal justice system, a human and therefore a monstrous creation; that the burden of guilt lies with society and that the rational reform of institutions should take precedence over the punishment of individuals.

Written for the masses, Hugo’s novel placed itself at the side of the individual. It was history from the point of view of the scapegoat; which might account for the peculiar fact that so many who have practised on Hugo that glorification of the individual called biography have sided, perversely, with governments and a heavily censored press. With his seemingly unrepresentative life, his egocentrism, and his bizarre, patchwork religion, Hugo had produced the most lucid, humane and entertaining moral diagnosis of modern society ever written. For all the sniggering about his cranky predictions and self-serving idealism, it should now be said, 135 years after the novel appeared, that he was as close to being right as any writer can be, that a society based on the principles dredged by Hugo out of the sewers of Paris would be a just and a thriving society, and that, were biographers not far more prone  to the petty professionalism commonly ascribed to Hugo, readers should be advised immediately to put down this book and go read Les Miserables.

In the meantime, as a foretaste, something might be said of the novel’s ‘faults’ since they are still identified as such and used as an excuse to doctor the text.*

*[footnote] The best-known English translation (Penguin, 1982) is a Swiss cheese of unavowed omissions and bears out Hugo’s comments on translation as a form of censorship. The translator does admit to ‘thinning out, but never completely eliminating lapses’. Hundreds of bizarre, arresting images are lost in the process. Typical remarks in the translator’s introduction are: ‘wholly unrestrained’, ‘no regard for the discipline of novel-writing’, ‘moralizing rhetoric’, ‘exasperating’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘passages of mediocrity and banality’. This is strangely reminiscent of the passage on Aeschylus in Hugo’s William Shakespeare: ‘Barbaric, extravagant, emphatic, antithetical, bloated and absurd — such is the sentence passed on Shakespeare by the official rhetoric of today.’ ‘One used to say: power and fertility. Today, one says: a cup of herbal tea.’

The biggest supposed fault is Hugo’s notorious tendency to go charging off on vast ‘digressions’, the longest of which are the mini-treatises on Waterloo, convents, the sewers, and slang. A key to the installation of these vast plateaux in the labryrinth of plot-lines can be found in the second sentence of the first page: ‘Although this detail has no bearing whatsoever on the substance of our tale…’.

Few novels begin with a digression (in this case, the engrossing fifty-page story of Bishop Myriel); but few novels open their doors to such a wide arena. These interpolations were invitations to grasp the whole picture, to see that the Battle of Waterloo, for instance — described in a precise demonstration of Chaos Theory ** — can be subsumed in the great strange attractor of destiny, the ineluctable equilibrium of everything….

** [Endnote] ‘Geometry deceives; only the hurricane is accurate’ (Les Miserables)…. Also ‘Les Fleurs’…’Cloud forms are rigorous’…. ‘No thinker would dare to say that the scent of hawthorn is of no use to constellations’ (Les Miserables)…. ‘There are no absolute logical links in the human heart any more than there are perfect geometrical figures in celestial mechanics’ (Les Miserables)….

Pride of place in Hugo’s digressions goes to the magnificent excursus on sewage, which is organically attached to the rest of the novel and can be read on its own as an allegory of the whole work; Jean Valjean pulling himself out of the slime of moral blindness into which society has plunged him….

Despite his huge achievement, Hugo had lost none of his capacity for being stung by reviews and reacted almost as if he had written the novel for the small group of writers who made up ‘French literature’. ‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘

By the end of September 1862, Hugo was back on his island fortress, talking to his old friend, the Ocean, ‘which always agrees with me’, and which was full of cheering advice: ‘Remember the advice that, in Aeschylus, the Ocean gives to Prometheus: “To appear mad is the secret of the sage.”‘




Online text of Les Misérables


See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini


2 thoughts on “Great Novel of the People — Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo”

  1. have you read mario vargas llosa’s recent book on les mis? is it any good?
    unfortunately I read the swiss cheese version of Les Miserables. after taking your course too. the signet edition was cheaper as well. damn. I was lured by the noble packaging of the penguin edition and the promise of a scholarly introduction. I shouldn’t be such a sucker. mind you, there’s a new translation out (this year I think). I thought the penguin version came across in a quite stilted and sometimes quite corny fashion ( which oddly contrasted with the harsh content), but the underlying message of the novel still shines through…
    I’ve just finished Wizard of the Crow. total dynamite! Like an epic Jonathan Swift. Much more savvy and astute than Midnight’s children (and most of the ‘magical realist’ novels I’ve read). Nice to read a novel that uses style well but doesn’t subordinate it to its message.
    have you read ‘the fountain at the center of the world’ by rob newman? he’s a british comedian. it’s not bad…

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