Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables debuted 150 years ago in 1862 and now has become the literal definition of The Big Book. Les Miserables is:
-One of the longest novels in history: 1,900 pages in the original French, 1,400 in English.
-365 chapters long.
-One of the “half-dozen greatest novels of the world,” said Upton Sinclair.
-Packed with 11 major and 40+ minor characters.
-The book that launched at least 60 film versions (#61 coming soon to multiple multiplexes near you).
-The source of countless dramatic adaptations, including the musical, which has played in 42 countries to about a billion people.
-An ever-flowing fount of video games, unofficial sequels and prequels, adoring websites, comic books, radio shows, spoofs and satires, festivals, full-length cartoons, academic dissertations and an inordinate plethora of 24601-themed swag. (For the uninitiated, 24601 was protagonist Jean Valjean’s prison number.)
-The inspiration for many modernized versions, including the TV series The Fugitive and every story about misunderstood revolutionaries. The Last Poets, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Rage Against the Machine all pay homage to author Victor Hugo.
-Still universally loved and critically panned. Flaubert didn’t like it, many reviewers called it “immoral,” and French literary lions the Goncourt brothers despised it. As you can tell, critical opinion doesn’t count for much.
Modern attention-span-deficient types may not have the chops to read The Big Book, and will most likely encounter Hugo’s monstre either in a theatre or a theater. Here, as a public service for the easily distracted, are a few short, digestible factoids to help the contemporary audience make sense of the experience:
-Les Miserables doesn’t just translate from the Gallic as “The Miserables.” It also can mean “The Wretched,” “The Poor Ones,” or “The Victims.” (You know, the 47 percent.)
-Hugo didn’t write the first romantic sociological treatise about society’s role in fostering crime and criminal behavior, but he definitely wrote the definitive version. Modern literature since then has followed the path that he and Dickens blazed. Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Steinbeck are all Victor Hugo’s kids.
-Literature used to be for and about the upper classes, who could read; not the lower classes, who were illiterate. More than any other book, Les Miserables changed that.
-Les Miserables isn’t just one novel; it’s five:
oThe Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic in the Rue St. Denis
-All five stories revolve around homeless ex-con Valjean and his attempts to escape the relentless pursuit of rabid, rule-bound cop Javert, while trying to turn his life around and do good for others. This fact alone—that a major work of art features a working-class hero—stood as revolutionary in 1862.
-Contrary to popular belief, the books of Les Miserables aren’t set during the French Revolution (1789) but instead cover the years between 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated at Waterloo, and 1832, when French students rioted against rising prices and food shortages in the futile, failed June Rebellion.
-The ineluctable themes of the novel—misery, poverty, injustice and, despite all that, human altruism—have continued to resonate for literally billions of people for a century and a half, probably because they’re universal.
-When the novel was released, Hugo and his publisher engaged in the shortest correspondence in history. Hugo, in political exile in England at the time, wondered how the book was selling, and telegraphed “?”. The publisher replied “!”. The book went on to sell 9,000 bazillion copies worldwide. Confederate soldiers loved it, and called themselves “Lee’s Miserables” toward the end of the Civil War.
-Hugo wasn’t just a poet and dramatist and novelist, he was a lower case-R republican who opposed the royalists and their imperialistic aims, was exiled for 19 years and eventually served in the French Senate. He promoted democratic reforms, convinced Queen Victoria to spare the lives of six Irish “terrorists,” helped do away with the death penalty in Portugal, Switzerland and Columbia, and tried to convince the United States not to execute anti-slavery activist John Brown.
-Hugo was caught in a hail of bullets during the Rebellion. He escaped injury.
-His other great novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, is also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Lon Chaney, dude!
-Verdi based his opera Rigoletto on Hugo’s 1832 play Le roi s’amuse.
-Hugo is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, in the pauper’s pine coffin his will stipulated.
-Just about every city, town and village in France has an Avenue Victor Hugo.
-His funeral, in 1885, drew two million mourners. Top that, hipster ironists.
If you do decide to tackle this Very Important Book, a commendable life goal, by perusing either the abridged version at 800+ pages or the original behemoth, you’ll likely notice a few striking characteristics generally absent from 21st-century fiction. Victor Hugo’s writing builds its power on the repetition of lengthy expository passages, and even lengthier visual descriptions of settings and people and societal conditions. His wandering, unfocused style sometimes turns tedious and paternalistic. But, if you let it, Hugo’s rambling freedom from the tyranny of narrative drive can seem curiously refreshing and charmingly conversational, in stark contrast to the microwaveable minimalist style currently en vogue.
Let’s put it this way—our estimable author had no fear of leaving the boulevards of his plot and diverting us down a few alleys and underground passages for a couple of successive chapters, or many, for that matter. Let’s not be hasty, he tells us—let us relax into the narrative and flow slowly with it, because it’s a big, deep torrent, this river of life. Hugo famously wrote entire digressive sections of Les Miserables about The Battle of Waterloo, Parisian street slang (argot), prostitution, the case against closed religious orders, the Paris sewers and whatever else struck his fancy. Never one to meet a point he couldn’t belabor, he attempted, in this single volume, to explore the entire scope of human experience as he knew it in 19th-century Europe. Imagine that—just taking on such a task—and you’ll start to understand why his family crest reads Ego Hugo. It takes enormous ambition and bold confidence to do what Hugo did. Because of it, Victor Hugo became for 40 years the progressive conscience of what he famously named The United States of Europe.
And this big old doorstop of a tome, in spite of or because of its desultory pace, continues to inspire even at its advanced age. Les Miserables has been the source of several recent films and television mini-series, which is pretty funny, since the book itself constitutes a mega-series. In fact, that’s the point—Hugo’s sprawling, messy, all-over-the-map exploration of the human condition paints a cinematic, 3D IMAX visual of What Life Was Like. This novel, so visually descriptive and endlessly, minutely observational, delivered a cinematic scope and feel even before cinema came into being. Maybe that’s why so many films have used this great novel as their source—it speaks to us in a uniquely rich, sensual language. Here’s a passage for your delectation:
Spring in Paris is often accompanied by keen and sharp north winds, that do not exactly freeze, but do produce frostbite; these winds, which mar the most beautiful days, have precisely the effect of those cold drafts that sneak into a warm room through the cracks around a window or a poorly closed door. It seemed as though the dreary door of winter were partly open and the wind coming that way. In the spring of 1832, the time when the first great epidemic of this century broke out in Europe, these winds were sharper and more piercing than ever. A door still more icy than that of winter was ajar, the door of the sepulcher. The breath of cholera was felt in those winds.
Reading Hugo’s work today lets you meander slowly through the forest of his mind and see what the great writer and poet and playwright saw as Europe reeled from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment into the Industrial Age. This huge change in human fortunes took a gigantic toll, and that toll justifies the monumental scope of Les Miserables and its focus on the poor people who bore the brunt of the vast social movement from monarchy to democracy through revolution and war and hunger.
The romantic, visual and hyperbolic Hugo style has its detractors: bloated, tasteless, inept and vulgar, the critics railed. But reading Les Miserables today can be a laconic, discursive exercise, relaxing and bracing at the same time, like taking a very long cross-country hike in the company of a fascinating raconteur or eating a month’s worth of leisurely dinners with a particularly conversant Nobel Laureate. Yes, the storytelling can drag, the dialogue can get pretty rococo, the minor characterizations can sometimes be a little two-dimensional—but oh, what beautiful bone structure! If Hugo’s descriptions seem ornate, flowery and overwrought to us moderns, they’re dead-on emotionally. He sees to the core of his subjects and isn’t afraid to call them out. The characters do things you would never expect, and the horrible weight of society’s expectations and errant energies bears down on them the same way our contemporary culture does on us. Naturalistic despite its romanticism, sociologically penetrating and psychologically acute, Les Miserables can rightly be called one of the first modern novels.
The Fantine section begins, for example, by concentrating for a scant hundred pages or so on the gentle, saintly Bishop of Digne in rural France. The Bishop, Hugo writes, actually had the Christ-like concern for the poor that most church officials severely lacked:
“He inclined toward the distressed and the repentant. The universe appeared to him a vast disease; he perceived fever everywhere, he auscultated suffering everywhere, and without trying to solve the enigma, he endeavored to stanch the wound. The formidable spectacle of created things prompted a tenderness in him; he was always busy finding for himself and inspiring in others the best way of sympathizing and comforting; the whole world was to this good and rare priest a permanent subject of sadness seeking to be consoled.”
The broad-minded Bishop famously influences the course of Jean Valjean’s life by taking him in when no one else will, despite his yellow convict’s passport, and then insisting to the police that Valjean didn’t steal his silver candlesticks, that they were a gift. This selfless, kind gesture convinces Valjean that human goodness is possible, and he resolves to remake himself in that image. The rest of the book reports on Valjean’s spiritual progress as his nobility plays itself out against a corrupt and heartless world that occasionally shows him flashes of goodness and reason. Sentimental? No question. Powerful, gut-wrenching, redemptive? All those, too.
Everything Hugo writes in Les Miserables, and the key to the book’s remarkable longevity and impact, revolves around one central thesis—that a universal moral order exists, far above and beyond the day-to-day vagaries of sect, sanctimony and the secular laws of civilization. Each human being has that morality within, Hugo argues and his characters continue to exemplify. And every one of us, he insists, has the potential for charity, courage and compassion—we all possess an essential, inherent human nobility. We’re not born in sin, but in beauty, Hugo tells us. This realization doesn’t seem so revolutionary today, but it did then, and it has underpinned modern humanity’s self-understanding ever since.
If you’d like to return to the source material for so much of Western literature and civilization; if you want to imbibe some of the zeitgeist’s first class-conscious social realism; if you have a desire to discover the thematic headwaters of so much of our art; if you want to understand the origins of the idea of the common good, go to Hugo. Reading his art may remind you who you are and why we humans create.
David Langness is a writer, literary critic and hot rodder who lives in Northern California.