The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

by David Bellos


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

Winner of the American Library in Paris Book Award, 2017

Les Misérables is among the most popular and enduring novels ever written. Like Inspector Javert’s dogged pursuit of Jean Valjean, its appeal has never waned, but only grown broader in its one-hundred-and-fifty-year life. Whether we encounter Victor Hugo’s story on the page, onstage, or on-screen, Les Misérables continues to captivate while also, perhaps unexpectedly, speaking to contemporary concerns. In The Novel of the Century, the acclaimed scholar and translator David Bellos tells us why.

This enchanting biography of a classic of world literature is written for “Les Mis” fanatics and novices alike. Casting decades of scholarship into accessible narrative form, Bellos brings to life the extraordinary story of how Victor Hugo managed to write his novel of the downtrodden despite a revolution, a coup d’état, and political exile; how he pulled off a pathbreaking deal to get it published; and how his approach to the “social question” would define his era’s moral imagination. More than an ode to Hugo’s masterpiece, The Novel of the Century also shows that what Les Misérables has to say about poverty, history, and revolution is full of meaning today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537401
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/13/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 751,316
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 16.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Bellos is a well-known translator of modern French fiction and the author of several prizewinning biographies of French literary figures. His irreverent study of translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (2011), was a runner-up for the Los Angeles Times book prize and has itself been translated into Korean, Spanish, German, and French. He teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and holds the rank of Officier in France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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The Novel of the Century

The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables

By David Bellos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2017 David Bellos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71629-5


Victor Hugo Opens His Eyes

Victor-Marie Hugo was born in 1802 in the garrison town of Besançon, where his father was stationed. At that time France was under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican soldier whose meteoric career had brought him to be commander in chief and, from 1799, the inspirational leader of a nation turned upside down by the Revolution of 1789 and now asserting itself on the European stage.

Hugo's father and uncle were both soldiers in Napoleon's armies and rose to high rank in the campaigns that brought almost all of continental Europe under French rule for a time. Napoleon was crowned emperor at Notre-Dame Cathedral in 1804 and won more great victories after that. The invasion of Russia in 1812 was the turning point. Unable to hold Moscow through the winter, the Great Army began a retreat that turned into a rout. The first French Empire came to its end on 18 June 1815, at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was banished to St Helena, and a Bourbon monarch, Louis XVIII, was restored to the French throne.

Hugo was an intellectually precocious thirteen-year-old when Napoleon fell. He had a great gift for Latin and a prodigious talent for writing fixed-meter verse in French. His father's fortunes shrivelled on the fall of the Napoleonic world, and Hugo left school soon after to earn a living by his pen, which was not an easy thing to do. But his years of scraping by on odd jobs and small commissions did not last long. He was soon recognized as a 'sublime child' for the verses he wrote; he won prizes and acquired royal patronage too. He wrote a breathless short novel about a slave revolt in Haiti culled from secondary sources and also dashed off a seafaring yarn before he ever smelled salt water. Hugo soon became a leading figure in a group of writers and artists of his own generation who called themselves 'Romantics', and set about conquering the theatre, the highest rung on the narrow ladder of literary fame. He was already a Parisian celebrity when his tragedy Hernani was performed in 1830, and its unconventional treatment of the strict rules of classical French theatre caused a great stir. He then turned his hand to historical fiction, a genre made fashionable throughout Europe by Walter Scott. Notre-Dame de Paris (also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) appeared in 1831 and was an immense success. Its publication came just a year before the death of the German poet Goethe, the undisputed eminence of European literature for the preceding half-century. Victor Hugo was ready and willing to take on his mantle of European genius-in -chief.

Hugo's poetry and plays of the 1830s confirmed his prominent position and he was elected to a seat in the Académie française, making him one of France's forty 'immortals' at the early age of thirty-nine. His standing was such that in 1845 he was appointed to the Chambre des pairs, the Upper House of the French parliament, making him a pair de France or 'lord of the realm'. A splendid career crowned by a spectacular honour for a man still so young. How much higher could he go?

He didn't. Between his maiden speech as a peer and his wet and windy landing on Guernsey in 1855 came ten turbulent years that turned him from a pillar of the establishment into an exile, from a brilliant careerist into a stand-alone protester, from a man of the middle into a spokesman for progressive causes. The social and political transformation of Victor Hugo accompanied and affected profoundly the story of transformation that became Les Misérables.

Hugo lost a great deal from the political changes that took place in France between 1848 and 1852, and though he ceased for a while to be a wealthy man, he never became poor in the way Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers were. In that respect the central thread of Les Misérables is not drawn out of the life of Victor Hugo. On the other hand, he knew quite a lot about the material conditions of people far less fortunate than he was. Some of that knowledge he gleaned from reading books, surveys and reports, but he learned it most of all from what he saw.

* * *

Near the peak of his glory in January 1841, when he lived in a spectacular apartment in Place Royale chock full of antique bric-a -brac (the square is now called Place des Vosges, and the apartment is another Maison de Victor Hugo), he went to a dinner party where an army general held forth on the pointlessness of pursuing the conquest of Algeria (first undertaken in 1830, as a punitive raid). Hugo was walking down Rue Taitbout in search of a cab to take him home on that wintry night when a well-dressed young man in the street picked up a handful of snow and shoved it down the back of a girl in a low-cut dress. She screamed out loud and then fell upon the middle-class lout. He hit back, and the noise of the scuffle alerted the police. They ran up and took not the man but the girl into custody. 'Come along with us, you'll get six months for that.'

This story comes from Choses vues ('Things Seen'), a precious ragbag of reportage, memoir, gossip and (literally) things seen to which Hugo kept adding all his life. Unlike other pieces, this report is in the third person, referring to the author not as 'I' but as 'V. H.'. It turns out that it was actually written by Hugo's wife Adèle and put in the wrong folder in the ocean of manuscripts that Hugo left on his death. When was it written? Perhaps shortly after the event, but more probably in 1861 or 1862, when Adèle was drafting a memoir of her life with Hugo, published a few months after Les Misérables. Hugo cooperated in the endeavour and allowed his wife to scavenge his memory over dinners on Guernsey. At Hauteville House, as at most other times, Victor Hugo was not averse to talking about himself.

In the text Adèle wrote down, V. H. accompanies the girl to the police station, hesitates to say who he is at first, then decides to identify himself as a member of the Académie française in the hope that pulling rank would stop an injustice being done. He asked the police to release the girl because the offence committed had not been committed by her. V. H. signed a statement, and the girl was let off. She couldn't stop saying how grateful she was. '"How good the gentleman is! My God, how good he is!" These unfortunate women are astonished and grateful not only when you take pity on them; they are just as grateful when you are just.'

Except for telling the story to Adèle – perhaps twenty years later, or perhaps that very night – Hugo never boasted about his generous intervention. What he did do was to attach this episode to the life of Jean Valjean, who saves Fantine from a spell in jail after an identical assault on a snowy night in Montreuil.

There were plenty of poor people to be seen on the streets of Paris, and no shortage of petty thieves either. But Hugo tried to see through the scenes that he encountered and make out the social and political meanings they had. Here's one that he wrote up on a sheet of paper that he put away in 'Things Seen'. It is going too far to call it the inspiration for the story of Valjean, but it certainly belongs to the material from which Les Misérables was made:

Yesterday ... I was on my way to the Chambre des pairs. It was a fine day but very cold despite the noonday sun. In Rue de Tournon I saw a man being led away by two soldiers. He was fair-haired, pale, thin and drawn; about thirty, coarse canvas trousers, bare and bruised feet in clogs with bloody linens wrapped around his ankles in lieu of stockings; a short blouse with mud stains on the back, showing that he usually slept on the streets; no hat and hair standing on end. He had a loaf under his arm. People around said he'd stolen the loaf and that was why he was being taken away ...

A coach was standing outside the barracks door. It was a covered coach with a coat of arms and a ducal crown on its lanterns ... The windows were raised, but you could see the interior upholstered in buttoned yellow silk. The man staring at the coach drew my own eyes towards it. Inside was a dazzlingly beautiful woman with a fresh white complexion, wearing a pink hat and a black velvet dress, laughing and playing with a charming sixteen-month-old baby swaddled in ribbons and lace and furs.

The woman did not see the fearsome man who was looking at her.

It made me think.

That man was no longer a man in my eyes but the spectre of la misère, of poverty, the misshapen and lugubrious apparition in broad daylight, in broad sunlight, of a revolution that is still deep in the shadows, but is on its way. Previously, the poor could rub shoulders with the rich, such a ghost could meet such brilliance; but each did not look at the other. They went on their way. Things could go on like that for a long time. But once this man realizes that this woman exists while the woman does not notice that the man is there, a catastrophe is inevitable.

The loaf stolen by the man who looked at the Duchess, like the one stolen by Valjean in Les Misérables, was not the stick loaf we now think of as 'French bread'. The white-flour baguette was not invented until 1838, and it remained a high-priced specialty for decades after that. The standard loaf of the poor in nineteenth-century France was an oval weighing four and a half pounds, with a thick black crust and heavy grey meal inside. Not the sort of thing you would want to eat nowadays.

Hugo was probably not alone in fearing that injustice as well as the mental gulf between rich and poor would lead to a social catastrophe. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he adhered to no particular plan for averting it – he wasn't a Fourierist or a Saint-Simonian or a socialist, nor even a convinced republican yet. He also had no idea how soon the catastrophe would come.

31 August 1847

A pieceworker brings his master, a shoemaker, a job for which the contract price is three francs. The master finds the work shoddy and won't give the man more than fifty sous. The pieceworker refuses to accept it. A row ensues. The master throws the worker out. He comes back with some fellows and breaks the cobbler's windows with stones. A crowd gathers. A riot ... The whole of Paris is in chaos.

I do not like these symptoms. When there's poison in the blood even a small pimple can set off the malady. A mere graze can lead to an amputated limb.

In the 1840s, France was a constitutional monarchy with a legislative body elected by male taxpayers alone. Because there was no tax on incomes, gains, inheritances or consumption, taxes were levied exclusively on property, and every voter was therefore an owner of a building or of land. The charge of a government responsible to an assembly representing the well-off defined in this way was to maintain order among those less privileged than the voters it served. That's to say, improving the lives of the ragged masses was of interest only if it helped to head off civil strife. The Paris poor were an edgy crowd, always on the brink of disturbing the peace. What caused the common people to be disorderly so often? Were they idle by nature? Irremediably bad? Was poverty the cause of their frightening behaviour, or was their behaviour the reason they stayed poor?

Despite a long history of political and military conflict between them, England and France were constantly borrowing ideas from each other. The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert, for example, the great monument of Enlightenment thought, began as an imitation of Chambers's Cyclopaedia. Its article on 'poverty', however, strikes modern readers as something less than enlightened, for it begins by berating the poor for their own plight. But it turns this conventional attitude around by then attacking monarchs for creating the conditions that turn the poor into such lamentable folk:

Few souls are strong enough not to be laid low and eventually debased by poverty. Common folk are unbelievably stupid. I do not know what magical illusion makes them blind to their current poverty and to the even greater poverty that awaits them in old age. Poverty is the mother of great crimes; sovereigns are responsible for making people misérable and it is they who will be judged in this world and the next for the crimes that poverty commits.

A more substantial contribution to the European debate on the 'problem of the poor' comes from the writings of an English cleric, Robert Malthus. And he was even less sympathetic to the lower classes than the French contributor to the Encyclopédie.

Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 but read for many decades after that, claims that, absent the benefits of education and refinement, human beings are naturally idle and can be roused to productive labour only by a pressing need. Its second premise is that the uneducated and unrefined always take the easiest path. Given the opportunity, poor people steal what they need instead of working to acquire it. In Malthus's dim view of human nature, the poor constitute a different species. Few of his contemporaries yet dared imagine that the overall size of the cake to be shared out could be increased or that poverty itself might be relieved by agricultural, industrial and technological improvements that had barely begun. For that reason, even people who were not convinced by Malthus's grim analysis of the unequal race between population and the land's capacity to feed it took it for granted that crime and poverty were two sides of the same coin. The 'lower classes' were most often seen as 'dangerous classes' in England and in France.

But there were other forces at work. Support for the 'lame and the halt' had long been the responsibility of the church. Malthus and the Encyclopédie both expressed in their different ways profound scepticism, if not outright hostility, to the alleviation of the suffering of the poor by religious institutions. In England, however, there was a separate tradition with no equivalent in France. Laws dating from the reign of Elizabeth I obliged parish councils to give 'outdoor relief' to the sick, the disabled, abandoned children and the old. These 'Poor Laws' did not apply to the ill-paid, ill-clad, ill-fed and ill-housed but only to people we might now call victims of life events. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a change arose in the way the laws were applied. The new rule required parish councils to give relief to labourers whose earnings fell below the poverty line and to unemployed men, including those who were fit for work. This administrative tweak had immense long-term effect on social policy, and it also changed the way the word 'poor' was understood. It came to refer to people who for whatever reason did not have enough to live on – the modern meaning of the word 'poor' (misérable in French), replacing the older sense of 'victim of misfortune'. The gradual but fundamental shift in meaning from 'laid low by ill fortune' to 'short of money' ran into a wall of resistance from entrenched economic, moral and political positions, and it took a century and more for them to be overcome. Les Misérables was a key element in the history of that long-drawn-out change.

The French Revolution established new political rights for all its citizens, but it did not have much to say about the economic origins of poverty. Article 21 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, for example, reiterates the traditional distinction between the needy (orphans, the disabled, the sick and the aged) and everybody else: 'Society owes subsistence to citizens in misfortune, either by providing them with work, or by giving means of existence to those who are not fit to work'. Had the article been put into practice it would simply have brought France into line with the Poor Laws of England as they had been for two centuries already, by providing income support to the destitute with no opportunity to work ('citizens in misfortune') and leaving the able -bodied and the unemployed to fend for themselves. But this was just a paper reform. In revolutionary France the state had no institutions or resources to provide alms to those who had no prospect of supporting themselves. As under the old regime, in towns large and small there were beggars on the corner of every street.

The ever more visible gap between needs and resources was filled to some extent by private charitable institutions, many of them acting on behalf of or in association with the church, and also by individual philanthropists. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel is an exemplar of private charity of that kind. He donates 90 per cent of his stipend to a range of philanthropic institutions, not all of which are specifically religious ones, some giving care to unmarried mothers ('Societies for Maternal Charity'), others giving education to 'girls in need' or looking after foundlings, orphans and hospital patients. These charities are chosen by Hugo on Myriel's behalf, so to speak, because Fantine's life might have been less harsh and less short had she been helped by any of them. However, many potential donors to charitable enterprises were held back by a worry that the ideas of Malthus made sharper and more pressing: how can an association or a benevolent individual provide assistance to people in need without giving a free ride to the idle and the bad? Even those who rejected Malthus's prediction of an ever-rising tide of scum needed guidance to allow them to distinguish 'honest poor folk' from the dangerous and inherently criminal underclass that could so quickly turn into a mob.


Excerpted from The Novel of the Century by David Bellos. Copyright © 2017 David Bellos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: the Journey of Les Misérables


1. Victor Hugo Opens His Eyes

2. Fantine

3. The First Draft

Interlude: Invisible History


4. The Money Plot

5. Hauteville House

6. The Beliefs of Victor Hugo

7. Hugo Gets Back to Work

Interlude: Inventing the Names


8. Victory at Waterloo

9. The Contract of the Century

10. The Five Parts of Les Misérables

Interlude: The Mind of Jean Valjean


11. The Start of It All

12. The Paris of Les Misérables

13. The Politics of Les Misérables

14. The Stumbling Block

Interlude: High Style, Low Style, Latin and Slang


15. Publication Day: 4 April 1862

16. The Story without End

17. The Meaning of Les Misérables

Epilogue: Journey’s End

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