The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables

David Bellos

Particular Books, £20

Review by Hugh MacDonald

ONE should never resist the opportunity to describe one of the great publishing houses of the world as silly or castigate as daft the professor of French literature at Princeton University. So here goes. Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin books, those good people that brought you the classics of literature at a reasonable price, describes Les Miserables thus in a blurb: “There has never been a book like it. War and Peace, Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment were all published in the same decade, yet only Les Miserables can stand as the novel of the 19th century.”

The only answer to this is that a) there had been books like it before in terms of plot devices and themes, in particular the works of Charles Dickens and b) Les Miserables stands as the novel of the 19th century only in the most subjective sense, that is, it is a matter of personal preference and to state it as inarguable is absurd.

David Bellos, author and Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French Literature at Princeton University, is similarly un peu daft. He blithely calls Les Miserables the “all-conquering novel of the 19th century.”

Really? How precisely? It did not change society. It did not introduce a new form in the novel. It was, peculiarly given some of its subject matter, hardly revolutionary. It has entertained and informed for more than a century and a half but it has conquered nothing.

It was, and is, a great novel so why the vehement criticism of the title of a book that seeks to investigate? Simply for this reason: if author and publisher can be so cavalier with extravagant terms it forces the reader to be cautious in accepting any other claims.

This is a pity for two reasons. First, one of the most human, significant moments in Les Miserables concerns the presence of doubt, a trait not shared by author or publisher when it comes to daubing words on covers. Second, the scepticism about Bellos and his project is ultimately dispelled by a largely excellent, informative and entertaining account of the context and writing of Les Miserables and a clever, if necessarily restricted view of the author.

The antagonism about claims of Les Miserables’ peerless superiority is not provoked by any doubts about its greatness on behalf of this reader. I have scrambled up its impressive bulk twice and marvelled at its beauty, strength and purpose. It deserves, even demands adulation and proper investigation by a professor of literature and Bellos is only occasionally silly but regularly insightful and informative.

He is particularly brilliant on placing Les Miserables in its time, France post-Waterloo, and instructing readers on the significance of such subjects as colour and tone. He describes the gestation and the delivery of the novel with lucidity and precision.

Les Miserables was great in scale, running to 365 substantial chapters and comprising five books. It attracted a suitable, unprecedented advance. Hugo, exiled from France but still a literary lion, demanded and received the modern equivalent of £3m. Agent and publisher had no occasion to rue the deal. Les Miserables was a huge, immediate success with crowds forming early outside stores in their desperation to buy it.

The story of Fantine, Cosette, Jean Valjean, Javert and the Thenardiers has subsequently been retold in film and, most famously and lucratively, in musical. However, the films concentrate on specific plotlines to the detriment of others. Les Miserables, the musical, resembles Les Miserables, the novel, in the same way that West Side Story is the singing version of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

There is a path towards Bellos and The Novel of the 19th Century. It first involves climbing over the obstacle of the title, then reading the novel it exults and consuming the biography of Hugo by Graham Robb. This is merely a suggestion but Bellos properly makes so much of the plot, themes and author that a previous reading of Les Miserables and a knowledge of Hugo’s life enhance The Novel of the Century.

So is all that effort worth it? The answer is a subjective but powerful yes. Bellos is a decent complement to both novel and biography. He excels when being properly cautious on judging on the precise meaning of the novel. This reader believes it is about the power of good though I would hesitate to name it The Good and Greatest Book of the 19th century.

However it contains one of the best, most moving example of goodness in literature when Bishop Myriel allows Valjean to escape imprisonment by telling police that the candlesticks found in Jean’s possession were a gift. As Bellos points out, this act of goodness involved a lie. There are, therefore, subtleties to Hugo’s novel that sometimes cannot be heard for the din of semi-operatic singers and the dramatic clamour of some of his narrative.

Similarly, too, the claim that this is a religious novel has provoked cacophonous controversy in the years since its publication in 1865. Certainly, Hugo was no observer of traditional religious rites but he was a deeply spiritual man. His own flaws in thinking and action – bluntly when he lived in Guernsey he kept a mistress at the bottom of his garden and his contemplations could be as violent and unworthy as those of most human beings – did not distract him from the central purpose of his novel.

Les Miserables is an energetic condemnation of poverty, an investigation of the drives of greed and the power of redemption and a celebration of how goodness can prosper in the unlikeliest of circumstances. But, above all, it is a novel of religion in its sense of commitment to an edifying belief, however fragile and changing.

Hugo spent some time justifying belief in God in the novel with one character saying: “The infinite exists. It is there. If the infinite had no selfhood, selfhood would set a limit on it; it would not be infinite. In other words there would be no such thing. Yet exist it does. So it has a self. That selfhood of the infinite is God.”

Hugo is more precise when he writes of Valjean in a period of turmoil. Deciding whether to turn himself in for a further period of forced labour or to allow another man to take his punishment, Valjean meditates on his awful dilemma with Hugo observing: “He had the feeling that someone could see him. Someone? Who?”

Hugo answers this briskly: “His conscience, that is to say God.”

This answer, of course, did not satisfy everyone in the 19th century and will not convince many today. But it speaks to the wonder and profundity of Les Miserables.

Yes, this is a heartrending tale of a man lost and then found. Yes, this is the story of the success of romantic love. And, yes, it is an indictment of poverty, illiteracy and the abandonment of children to desperate fates. It is also, of course, a j’accuse to Louis-Napoleon and the Second Empire.

But, gloriously, it is more than all of that and Bellos has grasped this and has helped to enhance comprehension and enjoyment of a masterpiece.

It cannot be stated irrefutably that Les Miserables is the greatest novel of the 19th century. However, it has attained a more substantial cachet. It is rooted and set in a bygone age but its concerns are recognisable to the modern reader. It remains relevant and inspiring. It is then not just of the 19th century but eternal. This is the hugest of claims but one that is founded in any appreciation of Hugo’s purpose and the survival of his greatest novel.