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les misérables page 2

24 September 2003

Hugo's skill in arranging digressions is dazzling, of course. Nowhere is it more in evidence than in the almost 300 pages of the barricade episode, where most of the major characters meet and risk their lives (with varied outcomes) in the abortive rebellion of 5-6 June 1832. Time and again, everything hangs in the balance as Hugo stops to consider the character of barricades past and present, or the nature of Progress. When Hugo tires of the authorial voice, one of his characters is happy to contribute a five-page riff on the history of urban uprisings, or something. One of Hugo's most persistent verbal habits is the interminable monologue that cannot be a realistic representation of what someone said on any occasion, but is instead a grab-bag of their obsessions, their catch-phrases, their interior speech. As essays, these riffs would be banal; delivered while reader and characters alike wait for the regiments to storm the barricade, they are compelling reading in several senses.

Les misérables, like Hugo's early masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris, is half yarn and half essay, cobbled together: or, if you like, half literature and half rhetoric. It is par excellence one of the "large loose baggy monsters" that gave Henry James such fits when he criticized his older contemporaries. War and Peace may be longer, but Les misérables is a strong candidate for the honor of loosest and baggiest 19th-century novel. It is also funnier than War and Peace or Middlemarch, grander than Vanity Fair, and more accessible than The Idiot. I'm still trying to figure out what Nastasya Filippovna wants in that one.

What the characters in Les misérables want is obvious. Thenardier wants cash, Javert wants to send Jean Valjean back to the galleys, Marius and Cosette want each other, and Jean Valjean wants two things: "cacher son nom, et sanctifier sa vie; échapper aux hommes, et revenir à Dieu [to hide his name and to make his life holy; to escape from men and to return to God]." Well, that's four things. But you get the picture.

Victor Hugo's characters are not, shall we say, nuanced. The novel begins with the least nuanced of them all, the Bishop of Digne. The first sixty pages of the novel – before "un homme" enters the town of Digne and kick-starts the plot – are devoted to a long catalog of this bishop's astonishing saintliness. He casts a long shadow over the novel. When he refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean, who has stolen the only silverware in his ascetic home, he sets in motion a wave of influences that washes into all corners of the story: refreshing the haggard prostitute Fantine, redeeming Fantine's enslaved daughter Cosette, exonerating the hapless Champmathieu, lifting a carriage off the trapped Fauchelevent, inspiring the pedantic Mabeuf, softening the heart of the acerbic Gillenormand, and ultimately saving the life of Marius and, for a short time, the life of Javert himself.

But Jean Valjean, as he is making his life holy, is also hiding his name. He hides his past and that of others. Cosette never realizes that her mother was a cocotte and a whore. The whole story of the Bishop's saintly influence cannot be made known; even when Marius and Cosette learn the outlines of the story, they don't grasp its significance. The saintly glow of the Bishop of Digne dies with Jean Valjean. Marius and Cosette, though one wishes them well, are shallow; they have the stamp of young lovers, and neither one shows the slightest indication of deepening into characters out of a George Eliot novel.

To make the world better requires suffering, requires being misérable. The people that les misérables like Jean Valjean, Mabeuf, and the young men who die at the barricades make the world better for may not even suspect that their lives are being made better. In a lovely digression during the barricade sequence, Cosette wakes up on the 6th of June, not a hundred miles from the battle, and spends a few pages prettying herself up, sniffling because Marius hasn't come to see her for a few days. He hasn't come to see her because he's getting himself shot up by the National Guard, but she doesn't have a clue.

That's the genius of Victor Hugo: not that he creates complex characters, but that he juxtaposes terribly simple ones in gorgeously complicated ways. Les misérables is great art because it is contrived, two-dimensional, and pulpy; because it is the kind of book where the sewers are full of friends and enemies who simply have to meet.

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Hugo, Victor. Les misérables (1862). Paris: Gallimard, 1951.

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