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Victor Hugo: The Wretched (Penguin Classics)

THERE is an understandable song and dance about the phenomenon. The cry must be:

Les Miserables the movie prefers to focus on tattered gamines
Les Miserables the movie prefers to focus on tattered gamines

"To the barricades". The flag-waving celebration is of Les Mis. Les Miserables, the musical containing overheated scenes of barricades and poverty in Paris, has brought Victor Hugo's story to an audience unprecedented in number; it has been seen by more than 65 million people in 42 countries and in 22 languages around the globe and is still setting records in its 29th year. Les Miserables, the film of the musical, has taken £275m in receipts. Les Miserables, the DVD of the film of the musical, will be shoved into millions of stockings this Christmas.

Les Mis is a financial, cultural behemoth. It was once, dear reader, merely a book. It was also a sensation on its publication. It needed no soundtrack, no actors and no stage directions to cause both scandal and sensation. But that was 151 years ago when Hugo unleashed one of the great novels of any language. The sturdy tome, stretching to more than 530,000 words, has become dwarfed by the musical, but does this tale of redemption deserve to be examined, demand to be resurrected?

The answer is an unqualified yes.

This is not to sneer from the snooty heights about the film of the musical. It follows with admirable loyalty the narrative of the book. It does not wilfully mislead or deliberately obscure. The main criticism may be directed at Russell Crowe, whose singing is so bad one expected him to slap his flippers at the end of one putative showstopper and demand a fish. However, director Tom Hooper does a fine a job job of keeping Hugo's preoccupations in sight, if not always in focus.

The problem with Les Miserables is that it has been labelled a social polemic, a political diatribe or an extended love story. It is all of these and more. This book is a drama whose main character is the infinite. And if there is any argument with that assertion, then go argue with Hugo. He told me this in person. About halfway through the novel.

The immediate impression of reading The Wretched is to be forcibly reminded that the core message of a novel strays into sewers, wanders over Waterloo, meditates on convents and monasteries, and contains so many plot devices that one struggles to keep familial relationships in some kind of order.

Yet Christine Donougher's seamless and very modern translation of Les Miserables has an astonishing effect in that it reminds readers that Hugo was going further than any Dickensian lament about social conditions or any Zolaesque j'accuse against political injustice. "Never mind what endangers our life or our purse," writes Hugo. "Let us be mindful of what endangers our soul."

The Wretched reclaims the book for Jean Valjean. The tattered gamines of Les Mis, the movie, remain in the shape of the young Cosette or the ill-fated Gavroche. But Valjean is regularly referred to as a wretch, most conspicuously when he is wealthy and the mayor of a thriving town. This is a novel about the battle for the soul and how it drains, tests and can consume a human being. There is redemption, even salvation, in The Wretched but there is also perdition, damnation and eternal pain.

There are many paths to The Wretched and myriad ways to interpret it. But it holds both the imagery and message of Calvary and Gethsemane. It is possible to bookend The Wretched with the fates of Jean Valjean and his pursuer, Javert. This is a spirited novel, certainly. It is also a spiritual tract.

The book begins with the best exposition of goodness that this reader has ever encountered. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel is the bishop of Digne who provides the opportunity for Valjean to undergo a spiritual awakening. Valjean, a prisoner released on licence, steals the bishop's silverware. When he is arrested, Valjean is astounded that the bishop insists no theft has occurred and presses silver candlesticks on the shocked former convict.

The episode is teased out of more than 100 pages in The Wretched. It is edifying in its profundity, sensationally inspiring in its portrait of what authentic goodness is and how it can touch others.

Valjean's desperation, his failing spirit, his animalistic appetites are described without censure. Hugo, too, hints delicately that the bishop has a past that has been tainted by sin. He is, after all, human. His goodness is not that of the unstained deity. The bishop is fat, stooping and disorderly but his purpose is straight, his methods simple. He loves, he forgives, he does not judge.

Valjean emerges from the encounter with the bliss of a life redeemed but also with the recognition that a conscience must not only be heard but obeyed. "The soul dilates in misfortune and eventually finds God," writes Hugo.

However, Valjean's discovery of God extracts a price. The Wretched surely talks most persuasively to modern readers when Valjean faces the turmoil over whether to follow conscience or expediency, particularly when the latter is made all the more attractive by the reality that he would be of more use to people as a free man than as a newly incarcerated prisoner.

Valjean chooses God, surrenders to conscience. He also chooses the hard road, the path back to incarceration. He is a man who constantly carries a cross, stumbles and falls to his knees. He sacrifices his happiness on the altar of what is right. It is not easy. "I'm the poor wretch," he cries when he faces yet another dilemma. Yet his triumph is that he bows to goodness, embraces righteousness and accepts death. This sounds like the roistering of a particularly febrile evangelical minister but Hugo couches it delicately and affectingly in scenes that evoke a chilling empathy.

The trials of Valjean, the criminal, are given a stark counterpoint in the personality of Javert, the policeman. His suicide regularly raises a cheer in cinema or theatre as the bad guy plunges into the Seine. But this dramatic denouement demands to be scrutinised. Just why does Javert choose death? Hugo tells us. "His supreme anguish was his loss of certainty," he writes as the policeman cannot come to terms with Valjean's mercy or to accept why he allowed his one-time enemy to walk to freedom.

Javert faces a spiritual crisis but cannot reconcile his prejudices, his moral rigidity to a new reality. "He was now conscious of his new chief, God, and he felt disturbed," writes Hugo. Javert seeks a physical death rather than bowing to a spiritual transformation.

Valjean, for all his troubles and anguish, dies in the arms of those he loves. Javert plunges alone into the darkness. "To love, or have loved, is enough. Ask for nothing more," writes Hugo. We are all The Wretched, he insists, but there is redemption.

Les Mis and its songs will lift the heart. The Wretched touches the soul.

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