Victor Hugo, 1862
Collins, no date; in two volumes, bound in faux leather, in white slip case; illustrated by A A Dixon.
An English critic, V S Pritchett, once remarked that the narrator of Les Misérables sometimes seems to mistake himself for God. That may or may not have been a swipe at Victor Hugo – we will see that there was bitchiness on each side of the Channel – but there is little doubt that the ego of Hugo was as large as his sexual appetite, and the weapon he was given to satisfy it. And this novel may have been the largest monument left by this larger than life poet and man of affairs. It came out not long after A Tale of Two Cities, On the Eve, Great Expectations and Fathers and Children and was shortly followed by War and Peace, Our Mutual Friend, and Crime and Punishment.
This was the heyday of the nineteenth century novel – incisive social commentary; overdrawn characters; lachrymose family and love scenes; fantastic and wilfully unbelievable coincidences; and a capacity to bang on that may derive either from serial publication, or an ego as large as that of Wagner that allows the author to test the faith and staying power of the reader. For all that, this massive novel – the Everyman version runs to 1432 pages – holds a special place for the people of France, and there and elsewhere, people tackle this great book for the same reason that some tackle Everest – because it’s there.
The novel is about the wretched or dispossessed – the miserable ones. In it, the author says:
The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.
Those objectives are not in the minor key. The central character is Jean Valjean, a man driven to crime by poverty who is redeemed by the Christian charity of a prelate. He achieves success in another life, but his past keeps coming back – in the form of the pitiless Inspector Javert – one of the truly great characters in literature. Their story meshes with those of Fantine, who is abandoned pregnant by one of the better people, and her daughter Cosette and her man Marius.
This is how the action of the novel ends after the dying hero has told Cosette and Marius that he dies happy and asks them to allow him to put his hands upon their dearly beloved heads.
Cosette and Marius fell on their knees, overwhelmed, choked with tears, each grasping one of Jean Valjean’s hands. Those august hands moved no more.
He had fallen backwards, the light from the candlesticks fell upon him; his white face looked up towards heaven, he let Cosette and Marius cover his hands with kisses; he was dead.
The night was starless and very dark. Without doubt, in the gloom some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched arms awaiting the soul.
Here then is a writer for whom neither writing nor composition holds any fears whatsoever.
We can shorten this note because in the Everyman edition, Peter Washington has offered an invaluable insight.
In European literature up to the late eighteenth century, coincidence is a synonym for the workings of Divine Grace in the world. By Hugo’s time, few writers subscribed to this view….For most nineteenth century novelists and librettists, coincidence is simply a lazy way of jazzing up the plot or moving things forward, but in Hugo it seems to take on a genuine dramatic and philosophic value. Like Dickens at his best, he uses coincidence to articulate a sense of order and inevitability amid the terrifying flux of modern life. Even as we recognise how unlikely it is that Valjean would encounter Javert, or that Marius and the Thénardiers [the couple who exploited Cosette, two of the most revolting people in our letters] would settle in the same house, we accept the dramatic truth of events which are superficially unrealistic. This is the essence of great opera, the deployment of preposterous artifice to express unavoidable reality.
That is put so well. We do not go to great art for a snapshot of the physical world. We are sick of it. We go to get some insight into life, and some relief from the ordinariness and pain of so much of it. And some of us at least get the greatest of such insight or relief from high theatre – in tragedy, opera, or however. To be put off by some departure from surface reality in a novel or opera is like rejecting the Pieta of Michelangelo because the Madonna is obviously too young to be the mother of the executed Christ, or to reject El Greco’s painting of Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple because his legs are too long, the background is medieval Italy, and young tearaways do not look so rhythmically serene when they are signing their own death warrant. Or, if you prefer, the coyote perpetually eluded by the Road Runner has unbelievable recuperative powers.
Not surprisingly, the flamboyance of Carlyle had evoked similar reactions as Les Misérables. Carlyle interacted with his friend Charles Dickens over the French Revolution. Tale of Two Cities was built on Carlyle. Before Carlyle started it, he told John Stuart Mill that he saw ‘a great result in these so intensely interesting Narratives’. For him history is ‘the only possible Poem, that hovers for me in every seen reality.’ We now see the place of the seer or the prophet in poetry. When the work was completed, Mill returned the serve:
This is not so much a history as an epic poem; and notwithstanding this, or even inconsequence of this, the truest of histories.
The historiographer who passed on those comments said of Carlyle’s history:
The ring of truth that brought it success was partly due to the choice of the narrative form. A story will be listened to. Carlyle knew only the dramatic narrative form for history writing….In the English historiography of the Revolution, nothing was more wanted. Tired of being told what to think about the Revolution, people were glad to glimpse a painting of it.
These truths are not sufficiently understood. We are imprisoned by demarcation issues. All kinds of artists and historians have at least something in common. They are reflecting on their felt experience and seeking to pass it on to others as best they can. Who wrote a better account of the French Revolution than Charles Dickens? Who wrote a more riveting narrative than Thomas Carlyle? Who wrote a more effective polemic than Keynes? Who wrote a more moving protest against war than Goya?
Les Misérables has something in common with War and Peace and Moby Dick. For many, if not most, it is marred by the extravagant and unnecessary diversions. They are like little boys showing off on a bike: ‘Look Mum – no hands!’ Tolstoy was fixated on Napoleon. So, in a very different way, was Hugo.
Waterloo is a battle of the first rank won by a captain of the second.
‘Un moment, Monsieur.’ Wellington beat your boy – if he was yours. Wellington was never allowed to turn his artillery on his own citizens. He was never allowed to be so reckless with the lives of his own soldiers. He was not responsible for leaving five million dead on the battlefields of Europe. He did not leave his nation a smoking rubble. And most of all, he did not desert his army not once but twice. It may be better, Monsieur, if you stick with fiction.
There are worse parts in this novel.
But this great England will be offended at what we say here. She has still after 1688 and our 1789 the feudal illusion. She believed in hereditary right, and in the hierarchy…..France exists to arouse the souls of the peoples, not to stifle it. Since 1792, all the revolutions of Europe have been but the French Revolution: liberty radiates on every side from France. That is a fact as clear as noonday. Blind is he who does not see it! Bonaparte has said it.
This is obnoxious claptrap. The English constitutional development was smoother and happier because, among other things, they had started dismantling feudalism five hundred years before the French. As a result, they were not exposed to the horrors of the Revolution or those revolutions that followed it – one of which is dealt with in the novel. People were slaughtered in France in 1830, 1848 and 1870. The Terror is glossed over.
‘1793. I was expecting that. A cloud had been forming for fifteen hundred years; at the end of fifteen centuries it burst. You condemn the thunderbolt’.
And if nothing else, Les Misérables is a sustained denunciation of the lie or mirage that after 1789 all men in France were equal – except in the most vague juristic sense.
Well, a great work of art does not warrant the greatness of its creator. This novel is a great work of art. If someone said they could give you a prime viewing of Mount Everest for $20 – provided you were prepared to a long walk with some annoying detours, you would grab it with both hands. So you should with Les Misérables.