Not everybody loved Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic novel, when it was first published. As David Bellos writes in his new book The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables: “It was also fortunate that the nasty gossip in the small world of French letters wasn’t loud enough to reach ears on an island cliff,” referring to Hugo’s exiled home on an island off the coast of Normandy, “for some of it would have raised welts on the thickest of skins.”
It was 1862, and everybody in French letters had an opinion on the hefty novel. Charles Baudelaire drafted a favorable public review, only to turn around and tell his mother that Les Mis was “filthy and inept.” Gustave Flaubert wrote several letters damning the saga, including one declaiming the book as meant “for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack.” Alexandre Dumas said reading it was like “swimming in mercury.” And Prosper Merimee said that the book’s popularity showed humans were dumber than apes.
But Bellos shows that Hugo’s big book, which has remained profitable since its release, could take the blow. It quickly gained international popularity, and Confederate soldiers even shared editions on the battlefield:
The soldiers, with a quick instinct of appropriateness born of experience, rechristened the work, Lee’s Miserables, and certainly no book ever achieved the popularity of that most marvelous picture of life. They watched with eager eyes and hearts its progress along the line. They formed groups around the camp-fire and the man who was deemed to have the greatest elocutionary development was appointed reader for the assembly.
Bellos, a professor at Princeton, is known for his translations of the French writer Georges Perec and the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare. But The Novel of the Century proves he’s also equipped to tackle le Léviathan of French literature. His book is the story of a literary pregnancy; it begins with the creator’s pains and ends with the child as the center of the universe. About halfway through, the book ceases to be a story of Hugo—his politics, his offspring, his wife and his mistress—and becomes a straight narrative about the Jupiter of fiction, which yanks along all lesser satellites in its wake.
Trying to explain “What Historical Authors Mean To Us Today” is tricky. But if anybody deserves the treatment, it’s Hugo. Bellos could have been less academic and more adventurous when summing up Les Mis’ influence, yet he makes up for his hesitance to wax poetic with his startling exactness. The Novel of the Century, for example, reveals a great deal about French coinage and the intricacies of Victorian authorial contracts. (If this sounds boring, it isn’t.) And the details of how Les Mis went from scribbled notes to the massive work we know reads less like railway schedules and more like the day-to-day details of celebrity life. One chapter, called “Invisible History,” reminds us that modern people have forgotten a lot about the past, including assumptions that used to be so widely-held that Hugo didn’t feel the need to explain them. For instance, before the invention of cheap synthetic dyes, clothing-color mattered a great deal more: bankers wore green, yellow meant poor, red denoted humility or radicalism. That section alone is worth the price of admission.
Bellos makes the case that Les Mis is the keystone arch of 19th century literature, yet he lacks the vaunting, subjective analysis that other writers on Hugo have demonstrated. A book of such magnitude deserves a more macroscopic study, but perhaps Les Mis is the only book big enough to comment on itself. In which case, a mirror, not a thoughtful catalog, is required. But until Hugo returns from the grave or Les Mis renders up its secrets in the fullness of time, Bellos’ fine volume will do.