The Novel of the Century – The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables by David Bellos

Reviewed by Annabel

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 150 years old in 2017, and doubtless there will be much attention paid to it including this book by David Bellos, renowned professor and translator of French Literature. If, given Bellos’ literary stature you were expecting an academic study of Victor Hugo and his masterwork Les Misérables however, then this is not the book for you.

But if, like me, you were hoping for an accessible companion to the novel and the life and times of Hugo, you may enjoy this book as much as I did – even if you haven’t read Les Misérables! Here, I must admit to having only read the first two parts of Les Misérables, but I do know the musical by Schönberg and Boublil and the 2012 film made from it. Bellos’ populist approach brings the period to life – particularly of course, the plight of the poor which was Hugo’s main concern in this gargantuan novel, but there is also a big story to be told about the author himself and how Les Misérables made it into print. As Bellos says:

…Hugo’s novel remains as meaningful today as when it came out a 150 years ago. It is a work of reconciliation – between the classes, but also between the conflicting currents that turn our own lives into storms. It is not a reassuring tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good.

Bellos begins by discussing crime and punishment, a subject at the centre of the novel, and the complete unfairness meted out to the less fortunate. Hugo had intervened in the case of a young woman who fought back when a well-to-do young man put a snowball down her back and ended up in court. He got her off. He wrote up such events and stowed them away in a folder he called “Things Seen.” Many of these experiences were used as inspiration for events in the novel. Bellos tells us about another of these notes – about a stolen loaf, which might have been the basis of Jean Valjean’s story. Bellos takes us through many of them, comparing and contrasting life and the version on the page.

Hugo met Charles Dickens in 1947. At this stage, he was well into writing Les Misérables, but they couldn’t converse well as Hugo didn’t speak a word of English and Dickens only schoolboy French.

The real conversation between Dickens and Hugo didn’t happen in 1847, but fifteen years later. In 1861, the English writer completed his story of an ex-convict, Magwitch, transformed by an act of kindness into a power of good. Just a few weeks later, Victor Hugo brought the story of Jean Valjean to its conclusion. Great Expectations and Les Misérables say more to each other than their authors ever could.

Bellos also takes great pain to explain the technology, or lack of it, in Hugo’s times – the railways were yet to come for instance. He also explains how one early film of Les Misérables (1935, dir. Richard Boleslawski, starring Frederic March) gave rise to an inaccuracy in the story which has been perpetuated in the musical – which made me chuckle. I still love the musical though. This is the whole idea of Valjean slaving in a shipyard – the word galérien does mean galley-slave, but also, as in Hugo’s sense, a convict sentenced to hard labour. Hugo’s Valjean didn’t work on a ship at this point.

He goes on to discuss many other thematic aspects of the novel such as the economics of the time, as well as the writing of it and its structure; there are interesting interludes on all the names of the characters and French slang too. Along the way, Bellos always compares and contrasts the book to its various adaptations. In the musical and film, the Thénardiers are comic characters, however in the novel they are treated very seriously, as users and abusers with a grudge against humanity. Another interesting discussion is on the meaning of the French word misérable:

In English, the meaning of ‘miserable’ has been narrowed to refer to the psychological state of someone on whom we might (perhaps) take pity, and now refers to roughly the same inner state as ‘glum’, ‘sorrowful’, ‘downcast’ or ‘depressed’. That process of specialization has not affected the meaning of its French twin misérable, which never means miserable. Even now the French word retains some of the sense it had in classical and Church Latin; ‘deserving of pity and sorrow’. These meanings were even nearer the surface in the mind of a man who was as good as bilingual in the two tongues.

Hugo’s life was as colourful as some of his characters – he was a bit of a rebel underneath, and he wrote much of Les Misérables living in exile from France on Guernsey, with his mistress installed nearby too. Living there made the logistics of publishing rather difficult. His manuscript had to go via England all around the houses to reach the printers in Belgium. I visited Hauteville House which is maintained by the Musée du Paris on holiday a couple of years ago – it’s well worth a visit as Hugo did all the interior design himself in a colourful and idiosyncratic style.

Hauteville House, St Peter Port, Guernsey. Photo © Annabel Gaskell

If you’re not sure whether to embark on reading Les Misérables, reading this book first will surely spark an interest. If you’ve read (some of) Les Misérables – then this book will enrich the experience and give an intelligent appreciation of its great scope and depth.

Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds, and will finish reading Les Mis – one day.

David Bellos, The Novel of the Century (Particular Books, Jan 2017). 978-1846144707, 290 pp., hardback.

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2 Comments

    1. I did say I haven’t read the whole Les Mis! Bellos is here specifically referring to the frequent mis-translation of the word galérien as ‘galley-slave’, which it apparently can mean, but Hugo didn’t mean when Valjean does his hard labour. I, meanwhile, was being flippant!

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