Taming a monster: getting to grips with 'Les Misérables'
An expansive analysis of Victor Hugo's masterpiece transports Frances Wilson beyond the barricades
Before it became the West End's most enduring show, Les Misérables was the world's best-loved book. It remains, according to The Novel of the Century, France's greatest gift to the world; greater than the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and even pasteurised milk. We talk in extremes when the subject is Les Mis (surely the only novel with a nickname). We also revert to numbers, which is appropriate for a tale whose hero was formerly known as prisoner 24601. The novel has been translated into 22 languages and the Schönberg and Boublil musical has shown in 349 cities to 70 million people. Taking 14 years to write, consisting of 1,500 pages, 630,000 words and 365 chapters, Les Misérables was sold to the publisher for the largest sum ever paid - the modern equivalent of €3.4m for an eight-year contract - and its printing required 22 tonnes of lead type.
Victor Hugo had created, so he boasted, a "monster with seven masts, five funnels and paddle wheels a hundred feet across". The implication, explains author David Bellos, is that his book was bigger than the SS Leviathan, once the largest vessel on Earth. Bellos is a professor of French literature at Princeton, and The Novel of the Century is packed with nerdy facts such as this. He also calculates that if Hugo's advance had been turned into 20 franc gold pieces, "it would weigh more than 97kg".
This is an expansive book about the making of another expansive book. It is also a guide to reading Les Misérables, as Bellos chaperones us through the turbulence of 19th-century France, the mysteries of the French language and the labyrinth of Hugo's vast mind.
A poet and politician who was already celebrated for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hugo set out in Les Misérables to make the world a better place, and give his fractured country what he called "a work of love and pity; a cry for reconciliation". Les Misérables did everything it was possible for a novel to do, and covered every conceivable subject, from Hugo's thoughts on the efficacy of recycling human waste to his re-evaluation of Napoleon's defeat. It combines a cracking good story with an exploration of Enlightenment ideas, a treatise on the importance of duty, and a vision of social redemption.
The only subjects that went unmentioned were sex and adultery: Hugo's male characters are celibate and his lovers remain virgins until marriage. A man with a great sexual appetite himself, Hugo had a bevy of mistresses to keep him satisfied.
The novel of the century spanned the century. The stories of Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, Gavroche and the Thénardiers begins in 1815, the year of Waterloo, and ends in 1832, the year of the anti-monarchist uprising. The novel itself was begun in 1848, when the king was displaced by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, but progress was impeded by the coup d'état of 1851, after which Hugo, his family and mistress in tow, chose exile in Guernsey.
It was not until 1860 that he once again picked up his quill and, working on loose sheets of blue paper in a sun-filled, sea-facing room he called his "Look-Out", he returned to the dark alleyways and subterranean sewers of the city he had not seen for nearly a decade. The final words of Les Misérables were written in a hotel in Belgium, with a grand view of the site on which Wellington had his victory.
The man who began the book, Bellos shows, bore no relation to the man who completed it. Hugo's transformation from establishment monarchist to visionary outcast took place alongside the tale of transformation that was emerging on the ink-covered pages filling up his trunk.
The Novel of the Century, like Les Misérables itself, is divided into five parts, and Bellos, like Hugo, interrupts his narrative with diversionary essays. He explains how the system of money worked, how Valjean grew rich on the manufacture of black beads, and how the opening of a film of Les Misérables would look if he, Bellos, was in charge of the treatment.
The 2012 film, based on the musical, opens with galley slaves pulling oars (a scene that doesn't occur in the novel), but Bellos imagines a camera panning the battlefield of Waterloo at dusk on June 18, 1815.
Through this golden light we are reminded of the battle itself, earlier that day: French and British soldiers standing on their lines, big guns facing both sides while shells explode, muskets fire, horses neigh and men scream. The camera then zooms in on the wounded, among whom is Baron Georges Pontmercy, father of the hero Marius, who is having the ring removed from his finger by a scavenger who turns out to be Thénardier. This snatch of screenplay is one of the highlights of the book.
Bellos is terrific on the meanings of the characters' names, on the symbolism of colours, and on the absence of any inner life in Valjean. Noticing everything, he insists we do too. The only thing that defeats him is the French word misérable itself. Britons and Americans tend to think that it means the state of misery, but misérable comes closer to meaning "outcast", "wretched" or "oppressed". None of these is quite right, however. Misérables, Bellos explains, is slippery and Janus-faced, which is why the English-speaking world leaves it untranslated.
It is a pleasing irony that Hugo, whose masterpiece, he said, "was for everyone: it speaks to England as much as to Spain, to Italy as much as to France, to Germany as much as to Ireland", gave it a title that spoke only to his beloved country.