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Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”

There’s no question about it: David Bellos makes the case for the fame of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). It’s the novel of the century and possibly then some. But let’s begin much later than the year of the novel’s publication. When he died at eighty-three in 1885 (surviving “his sons, his wife, his lover and almost every man of his own generation,”) nearly two million people “took part in the procession accompanying his mortal remains to the Panthéon.” Not as many people who attended Donald Trump’s swearing in but still a significant number. Bellos’ concludes, “Never before and never since has such a large crowd been seen in Paris. The entire city turned out to honour the playwright, the poet, the reformer and campaigner, but the vast mass of people following the hearse were paying homage to the beloved author of Les Misérables.

That will never happen again. No writer will ever reach such fame and admiration. Surprising, Hugo achieved this respect even though he lived much of his professional life in exile in the Channel Islands, first Jersey and subsequently Guernsey, refusing to set foot in France as long as Louis-Napoléon remained in power. Almost his entire great novel was written in exile. The publication of the massive manuscript became extremely complicated because the book was typeset in Paris and Brussels, which necessitated an elaborate scheme involving trains and boats to get the page proofs back to the author for correction. And the lengthy novel, itself, was published over many months.

Hugo was already a national treasure by the time he published Les Misérables, because of his enormous output as a revered poet but also his earlier novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1832). Yet, book publishing was a complicated, if not risky, business during his lifetime. Books were expensive items, not something most people could afford. The paper was made from pulped rags, not wood. Typesetting novelcenturyhad to be done by hand, and the printing presses at the time were terribly inefficient, prone to breaking down. As late as “the 1860s one volume of a new work still cost two or three times a labourer’s daily wage.” And Les Misérables ran to ten volumes. Many readers had access to the novel because of lending libraries—for a fee. Since there were no good copyright laws or treaties, pirated editions of popular books popped up almost immediately and undercut the original publisher’s investment.

Hugo had spent years writing the novel and wanted remuneration equal to his effort, i.e., “more than had ever been paid for any book.” He worked out an agreement with a new publishing firm. The payment “was much more than Hugo’s own weight in gold—turned into twenty-franc gold pieces, it would have weighed more than 97kh. It represented twenty years of a bishop’s stipend, enough money to endow a chair at the Sorbonne or to build a small railway. Taken at today’s price of gold, it would come to around £3 million, but since it entitled the publisher to sell the book for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature.” Even so, the publisher, Lacroix, made a fortune (which he later lost). And for Hugo, his money did not decrease because there was no inflation.

Surprisingly, while negotiations for publication were still going on, no one knew precisely how long the novel would be in printed form. Hugo had written with a goose quill. A huge trunk was required for the manuscript. Because of endless corrections and additions, Hugo had worked out a detailed numbering sequence for the pages, but still the book’s length was not clear until the process of setting the type had begun. Before that began, it was Hugo’s mistress, Juliette Drouet, who lived next door, and did most of the editing, but everyone in the household (including his two sons and his wife) and other hired assistants were involved in the lengthy process of publication.

The somewhat mixed reviews of the novel did not curtail its sales. It was an enormous commercial success. There were 22 pirated editions during the first year, and, soon, nine authorized translations. There were numerous unauthorized dramatic versions also, and much later a short film rendering a scene from the novel, made by the Lumière brothers in 1895. Ever since then, no novel has been so widely filmed, in so many counties. A four-hour silent version appeared in French in 1912 followed by a six-hour silent version in 1925. “Overall, there are now at least sixty-five screen versions of Les Misérables in languages as varied as Russian, Farsi, Turkish, Tamul and Arabic as well as in French, English, and Japanese.” Then the innumerable stage versions, plus Cameron Mackintosh’s musical in 1985.

To what can we attribute this enormous success? Bellos refers to Jean Valjean’s “moral self-awareness,” no easy accomplishment for many people. This is largely outside of a religious context, rooted instead in conscience. Numerous times Valjean has to make agonizing decisions about honesty and duty. “What he models is the potential that the poorest and most wretched have to become worthy citizens. His repeated victories over physical, moral and emotional obstacles make him a hero…but they also assert, against the attitudes prevalent at the time, that moral progress is possible for all, in every social sphere.” It helps, of course, that he is also enormously successful in business (after his years in prison) and that he uses his profits to help others. Jean Valjean’s decency reflects back upon Victor Hugo, who—in this superb biography of a novel rather than a man—stands tall, and often alone, engaging with the raw material of squalor and inhumanity, and then shaping it into one of the most riveting stories of all times.

NOTE: If you are like me, someone who has never read the entire novel, but, instead, one of the innumerable abridged versions, or someone who has never read the Les Misérables, Bellos suggests a plan of action. The complete text runs to 365 chapters, arguing for a one-a-day approach for a year of reading. Bellos recommends the Penguin edition of 2013, translated by Christopher Donougher.

David Bellos: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pp., $27

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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