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les misérables

24 September 2003

Les misérables is the sort of novel where, if you are carrying the lifeless body of the young hero through the sewers of Paris, you will inevitably step into quicksand. If you get out of the quicksand, you will meet your second-worst enemy in the world coming the opposite way. If your second-worst enemy unlocks the grating to let you out of the sewer, your worst enemy will be standing on the other side.

Of course, as Jean Valjean's second-worst enemy, Thenardier, says quite reasonably:

Un égout n'est pas le Champ de Mars . . . Quand deux hommes sont là, il faut qu'ils se rencontrent.
[A sewer is not the Champ de Mars . . . When two people are there, they have to meet.]
In Victor Hugo's Paris, the key people manage to meet even on the Champ de Mars, let alone in the sewers. There seems to be only one apartment building in the city, one park, one boulevard, one bridge, and though fifty million Frenchmen proverbially haunt such places, the same half-dozen characters keep meeting again, and again, and again.

The most transparent words in Hugo's work are "un homme." When the narrator announces casually that "un homme" is walking along the Seine at dawn, or in the Jardin du Luxembourg at mid-day, that "homme" will turn out to be Jean Valjean. The implacable policeman Javert is usually not far behind, trailing him assiduously. Or perhaps "un homme" will turn out to be the young hero, Marius, trying to catch a glimpse of his beloved Cosette – or alternatively, striding away from Cosette, devastated by some romantic reverse, in search of his own annhilation.

Les misérables, the novel, is a little hard to perceive, buried as it is under layers of film and stage treatments. But as Oscar Levant said of Hollywood, just strip away the phony tinsel to find the real tinsel underneath. Les misérables is all melodrama, all the time. That it survives its over-the-top histrionics to be one of the world's great novels means one of two things: that Les misérables has virtues that outweigh its melodramatic qualities, or that melodrama isn't all that bad.

Hugo's novel is constructed of intense narrative episodes punctuated by massive essays on subjects historical and philosophical. When, on page 1,484, the narrator says "ici un courte digression est nécessaire [here a brief digression is necessary]" you start laughing – partly because he's never excused himself before, and partly at the thought that any Hugo digression could be brief.

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