On finishing Les Miserables I ticked another box on the mental list of Really Long Works of Classic Fiction I Want to Read Someday which I have been keeping since I started to read the classics in my teens. I’ve seen off a few of these titles in recent years, including Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. These books were usually first issued in separate volumes or instalments and are now published in monolithic blocks which tend to languish on bookshelves unread. (In the case of War and Peace, my copy has been languishing for over a generation, passing unsullied from mother to daughter: it’s a two volume tie-in edition to the BBC adaptation from the early 1970s, in mint condition, which my mother likely bought before I was born.)
I didn’t make much headway at first with Les Miserables and actually put it aside for a few months when I was only three sections into Part One. Reason: the story takes a while to get started. It opens with a description of the career and lifestyle of a bishop who doesn’t have much to do in the story apart from befriend the hero, ex-convict Jean Valjean. Not that the bishop is in any way superfluous: his kindness to Valjean saves his soul, changes his life and sets the plot in motion. But there was rather a lot about him. Then we met a new character, Fantine, but at this point I lost interest and put the book aside for a while. Fantine is an innocent country girl who drifts into sin in the big city (Paris) and will suffer enormously for her fall from grace. Once she is drawn into the orbit of Jean Valjean, who has fallen foul of the law again but has started a new life under a different identity (one of several he will assume in the course of the book), taking the bishop as his role model, I was enthralled and hardly put the book down until I had finished it. I think anyone making a serious attempt on Les Miserables should try to get to the end of Part One (Fantine) – if you’re not absorbed by the story by then, it’s not for you.
For such a long book, there are only a few really important characters: Valjean, Fantine, her waif of a daughter, Cosette, a couple called the Thenardiers and their children, a young lawyer named Marius and to a lesser extent his family and friends. And, of course, Valjean’s nemesis, the police officer Javert. Although the repeated coincidences which bring these people together could strain credibility, Hugo’s writing is so powerful that the action feels fated. This is a high-octane thriller to which Hugo brings a deep understanding of the human condition (one or two overly theatrical moments apart). But there’s much more to Les Miserables: the main action is set against a detailed backdrop of history, politics, society, religion and the revolutions which shook France from 1789 onwards. And that’s where the trouble starts. Hugo’s very lengthy digressions into the battle of Waterloo, the nineteenth-century convent and the Parisian sewers started off interesting and ended up wearying. Not only Hugo, but his characters occasionally plunge into irrelevance, in the form of long speeches stuffed with literary and historical illusions most of which will be a mystery to today’s reader. I ploughed through the unabridged version, but concluded that Hugo was a great writer who needed an equally great editor.
And that editor should have told him to cut the last hundred pages of the book. The final chapters read like fan fiction of the sort that attracts reviews complaining that everyone is acting wildly out of character. It’s hard to explain my objections further while avoiding spoilers, but I will say this: I think Hugo was aiming for a bittersweet ending and ended up piling on improbable melodrama in order not to be left with just the sweet.
I read a print edition of Julie Rose’s translation of Les Miserables for Vintage Books. It’s a beautiful edition, but too heavy to carry around on public transport, so on Kindle, I read Isabel Hopgood’s translation in the Harper Perennial Classic digital edition (excellent value). I preferred the Rose translation, but the Perennial Classic edition has some interesting extras, including the Atlantic Monthly’s July 1862 review of the first volume, Fantine, which condemned the book.
Its tendency is to weaken that abhorrence of crime which is the great shield of most of the virtue which society possesses, and it does this by attempting to prove that society itself is responsible for crimes it cannot prevent, but can only punish.
The reviewer (Edwin Percy Whipple) correctly divined Hugo’s intention: to create sympathy for Valjean, a criminal whose odyssey begins when he steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children. Although the harsh penal system which traps him, where petty theft could lead to the galleys or even to the scaffold, has long disappeared, the book remains relevant in the way that it asks the reader to consider how personal and collective responsibility can best be balanced. Taking personal responsibility for your own life is crucial to survival, and no-one demonstrates that better than Jean Valjean. Throughout the book, he shows himself willing to take responsibility for others too, especially those marginalised by society, like Fantine and Cosette. But Hugo was well aware that paternalistic charity, however admirable in itself, was not the answer: for Fantine, Cosette and millions like them to have better chances in life, collective political action was necessary.
Marius and his student comrades famously try to bring about change at the barricades in the uprising of June 1832. Hugo depicts their willingness to lay down their lives in the cause of a republican France with great sympathy, yet he himself sided with the authorities in 1832. He had a great deal in common with the implacable Javert. It is Hugo’s understanding and empathy, his ability to see both sides of a question, which give the book its depth. He is not afraid to contrast the redeemed criminal Valjean with the irredeemable Thenardier couple, career criminals who are also abusive parents. The lost and abandoned children wandering through the novel are his most poignant symbol of societal failure.
In a letter to his Italian publisher (also quoted in the Harper edition), Hugo set out his ambitions for the book:
I do not know whether it will be read by all, but I wrote it for all. It is addressed to England as well as to Spain, to Italy as well as to France, to Germany as well as to Ireland, to Republics which have slaves as well as to Empires which have serfs. Social problems overstep frontiers. The sores of the human race, those great sores which cover the globe, do not halt at the red or blue lines traced upon the map. In every place where man is ignorant and despairing, in every place where woman is sold for bread, wherever the child suffers for lack of the book which should instruct him and of the hearth which should warm him, the book of Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: “Open to me, I come for you.”
I have more to say: in fact, two digressions of my own, which will be posted separately. Warning: spoilers.
I bought my own copies of Les Miserables.