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Still a Novel for Our Times

Hugo’s “Les Miserables” Revisited

by JOHN WIGHT

Modern literature suffers from the lack of an epic novel that encompasses and defines the times in which we live, containing as a result that elusive but necessary quality of timelessness necessary to accord it the status of the classic. Perhaps Don Delilio’s Underworld (1997) is the closet there has been to claiming that mantle over the past thirty years or so, but since then there has been little to get excited about among the plethora of vacuous tripe proffered by the mainstream – which in the main consists of novels written by middle class people for other middle class people wherein the most common issues being grappled with are unsatisfying sex lives and deciding on the colour of the wallpaper in the sitting room of the second house in the country.

Where is the serious work of western literature that deals with seismic events such as 9/11, the war on Iraq, the war on terror, Guantanamo, Palestine; on issues such as the plight of asylum seekers, immigrants, the struggles of the poor and dispossessed in the 21st century?

Having just re-read Victor Hugo’s magnificent Les Miserables, this lack of serious literature in and of our time is even more evident.

Les Miserables – the story and its characters – has been a permanent cultural fixture for the best part of a generation, most commonly associated with the musical adaptation, which has now been performed in 21 languages in 42 countries around the world and is estimated to have been seen by 60 million people since first opening to poor reviews in Paris in 1980. The movie version of the musical, starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, was released earlier this year to excellent reviews, but previous to this there had been three movie adaptations of the book; the last of those starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush in 1998.

In addition there has a radio production, a TV movie version, and a TV mini series, further evidence of the enduring resonance and impact of the characters created by Hugo in his great novel, which was originally published in 1862.

The themes encapsulated in the novel – redemption, love, justice, crime and punishment, morality, and human solidarity – unfold in the course of a story that begins at the end of Napoleon’s ‘hundred days’ after his return from exile on Elba, and ends in 1832 just after the short-lived June Rebellion of Republicans in Paris against the monarchy of Louis Phillipe.

The central thrust of the story revolves around the ongoing efforts of escaped convict Jean Valjean to escape the clutches of his nemesis the fanatical police inspector Javert, who is obsessed with putting him back in prison.

Valjean, an escaped convict, is a heroic figure whose courage and compassion – revealed in the face of dramatic and extreme episodes of cruelty, tragedy, and injustice – points to the disjuncture that exists between the law and morality in a society in which extreme wealth and status exists on a foundation of extreme poverty and injustice. Jean Valjean’s personal journey takes him from the depths of despair as a convict to the heights of social status and comfort as a wealthy businessman turned mayor of a small provincial town, before being plunged back down to the depths when he reveals his true identity to Javert and is sent back to prison.

Thereafter he once again escapes to ultimately find happiness as guardian of the infant Cosette, whom he rescues from the cruelty of her previous guardians the Thernardiers, in whose care she was placed for a price by her suffering mother Fantine.

There is not enough space to unpick the novel in its entirety, but it contains some of the most dramatic, heartrending, and inspiring scenes ever written in a work of historical fiction. Unlike many historical novels – where the story unfolds in and around actual historical events – the characters created by Hugo are equal to the backdrop rather than dwarfed by them, as they are for example in Gustave Flaubert’s Salambo, set in Carthage during the epoch of the Barcas.

Victor Hugo’s description of the Battle of Waterloo, which takes up nineteen chapters in the book, is worth the purchase price alone. I found myself inspired to source more factual material about this famous historical event after reading his treatment of it, especially the charge of the French Cuirassiers over the sunken road against the massed squares of the British infantry at the battle’s climax. It is a section of the novel that invites comparison with other great historical works in which major battles have been depicted.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is perhaps the most obvious in this regard. His depiction of the Battle of Borodino similarly humanises one of the most important military encounters of the Napoleonic wars. Ernest Hemingway cited Tolstoy’s treatment of the battle as his inspiration when writing the battle scenes in his A Farewell to Arms. Another historical novel regularly praised for its battle scenes is Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which follows the exploits of the story’s protagonist, Private Henry Fleming, as a soldier with the fictional 304th New York Regiment during the US Civil War. The interesting thing about Crane is that he wrote the novel never having tasted combat or life in the military.

The only contemporary novel I can think of which sits on a par with the aforementioned works when it comes to graphically and effectively describing the fear, tension, courage, and brutality of war is Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – especially the tunnel scenes under the trenches with Jack Firebrace, which are exquisite and unforgettable.

Les Miserables eclipses each of the aforementioned when the story moves beyond the battle scenes, however. The characters of War and Peace, for example, members of the Russian nobility, leave you cold with their bourgeois conceits, while in The Red Badge of Courage Crane only skims the surface when it comes to the Civil War, focusing instead on the personal exploits of one particular soldier in battle and in the process missing the opportunity to unpick the political and social issue of slavery that served as the backdrop to those battles. As for Hemingway, mawkish sentimentality runs in parallel with some of the most poetic prose every written in the English language in A Farewell to Arms. As a result I am willing to assert Hemingway’s other great war novel – For Whom the Bell Tolls - as the better of the two and more deserving of being considered to have stood the test of time as a classic.

But getting back to Les Miserables, some of the many truly wonderful scenes depicted, apart from Waterloo, involve Jean Valjean rescuing Cosette from the cruel treatment of her guardians, the Thernadiers, already mentioned; the suspense of Valjean’s escape with Cosette from Javert through the streets of Paris, culminating in them taking refuge in a convent; the courageous defence of the barricade in Paris against Royalist troops during the June Rebellion, where the idealistic and defiant young Republicans hold out until every one of them, apart from Marius, is killed.

Then, immediately after the barricade falls, we have Jean Valjean’s heroic escape from the troops through the sewers of Paris, carrying the wounded Marius on his back. This section of the novel in particular includes some sublime writing that succeeds in reminding you why great works of fiction often eclipse works of philosophy in helping us understand the human condition.

In comparison to other classic works of literature that explore the human condition in a time of great social and political upheaval, Les Miserables is up there with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook; Emile Zola’s Germinal; and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As for Dickens, he couldn’t lace Victor Hugo’s boots as a novelist – not with his penchant for substituting caricatures for living breathing characters in his novels and his irritating paternalism when it comes to his treatment of the poor.

The recently deceased President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, credited Les Miserables with turning him into a socialist. Reading the novel it is clear to see why. Even Homer’s Iliad pales in comparison when it comes to the epic sweep of the story and its characters. Indeed, it would be impossible to come up with a more courageous, noble and heroic character in all of world literature than Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean.

In explaining his motivation for writing the novel, Hugo wrote that

I don’t know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: “open up, I am here for you”.

Surely there could be no nobler or more profound justification for a work of literature ever articulated in the history of western culture.

John Wight is a writer and commentator, based in Scotland. He is the author of  Dreams That Die, a memoir of his experiences in Hollywood.