Les Miserables

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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It’s almost obligatory to begin any comment on Victor Hugo with Andre Gide’s famous answer when asked to name France’s greatest poet: “Victor Hugo, alas.”

I think I understand what Gide meant.

Hugo’s prose masterwork, Les Miserables , stretches over almost 1300 pages. That huge bulk accommodates not only one of the most elaborate plots in French literature, but also a string of digressions about French slang, the relationship of Tacitus and the Roman Caesars, and the contrast between French and English wedding practices, among many, many others. Some of these disgressions are brilliant and fascinating; others are boring, irrelevant, or downright cranky: Hugo devotes dozens pages to a long exposition of his theory that France could vastly enrich itself by using the sewage of Paris as agricultural fertilizer. The idea is bad agronomy, but worse literature.

Even in the narrative passages of the novel, Hugo works on the apparent theory that his words are too precious ever to cut, piling redundancy upon repetition upon elaboration.

 He often loses track of his own plot, leaving his characters stranded and forgotten. (Whatever does happen to the two younger children of the villain Thenardier, who wander into the later chapters of the book and then wander out again?)

 Hugo’s romantic hero, Marius, reminds me of the tenor lead in some mediocre 19th century operetta – handsome, pompous, boring, and stupid. Hugo’s romantic heroine, Cosette, is (if possible) more vapid still. At times, Hugo succumbs to a sentimentality that would have choked Charles Dickens. At other times, he rhapsodizes over maidenly chastity with a fervor that must have left the old lecher’s many mistresses howling with laughter. In all 60 hours of audiotape, I counted precisely one (1) joke.

(Granted, it was a pretty good one: after Marius barely escapes death on a barricade, his doting royalist grandfather M. Gillenormand decides to humor the young man’s revolutionary opinions by biting his tongue as he struggles to suppress his real opinion of the French revolutionaries …

This is the ending of the elegy of the `Jeune Malade’ by Andre Chenier, by Andre Chenier whose throat was cut by the ras . . . by the giants of ’93.”

M. Gillenormand fancied that he detected a faint frown on the part of Marius, who, in truth, as we must admit, was no longer listening to him, and who was thinking far more of Cosette than of 1793.

The grandfather, trembling at having so inopportunely introduced Andre Chenier, resumed precipitately:

“Cut his throat is not the word. The fact is that the great revolutionary geniuses, who were not malicious, that is incontestable, who were heroes, pardi! found that Andre Chenier embarrassed them somewhat, and they had him guillot . . . that is to say, those great men on the 7th of Thermidor, besought Andre Chenier, in the interests of public safety, to be so good as to go . . .”

M. Gillenormand, clutched by the throat by his own phrase, could not proceed. Being able neither to finish it nor to retract it, while his daughter arranged the pillow behind Marius, who was overwhelmed with so many emotions, the old man rushed headlong, with as much rapidity as his age permitted, from the bed-chamber, shut the door behind him, and, purple, choking and foaming at the mouth, his eyes starting from his head, he found himself nose to nose with honest Basque, who was blacking boots in the anteroom. He seized Basque by the collar, and shouted full in his face in fury:Ñ”By the hundred thousand Javottes of the devil, those ruffians did assassinate him!”

And not one of these serious faults relaxes even for a moment the power of Hugo’s grip on the reader’s imagination. You start Les Miserables and you cannot stop. Its characters and events become more real to you than almost anything in your own life. For all its many faults, Les Miserables is vast, thrilling, moving, and profound – and Hugo himself a transcendent literary genius, who wrote with an ambition and grandeur almost unimaginable in our time. And since his great book is so long, I am afraid this blog entry must be too. To make life easier for everyone, I’ll post it in parts over the next few days.

- – - PART TWO – - -

This continues the discussion of Hugo’s Les Miserables. I listened to the book as an audiotape, link here. The Modern Library has an excellent translation at a very reasonable price. There’s also a searchable version online , from which the quotes below come. Avoid at all costs the “edited” versions that gives you “just the story.” The power of the book can only be experienced in all its often redundant fullness.

I’m going to talk here, on this political blog, about Hugo’s politics.

Most of us probably know (or think we know) Les Miserables from the hugely successful musical of the same name. I listened to the score after finishing the book and was left amazed that the thing ever even made it to the stage. Good God is it a mediocre piece of work! And yet I think I can see the secret of its success. The film’s big crowd-pleasing number – its one memorable and exciting tune – celebrates revolutionary war.

Do you hear the people sing?

Singing a song of angry men?

It is the music of a people

Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart

Echoes the beating of the drums

There is a life about to start

When tomorrow comes!

This is the musical equivalent of a Che Guevera t-shirt: all attitude, no politics – pure revolutionary kitsch to appeal to nostalgics for 1968.

Victor Hugo was not immune to revolutionary kitsch. Much of Les Miserables celebrates the supposedly transformative and transformative power of political violence. Much – but not all. Here is Hugo’s description of an incident at the barricade. The soldiers have aimed a deadly cannon at the barricade; the insurgents aim their guns in reply.

The captain of the piece was a handsome sergeant of artillery, very young, blond, with a very gentle face, and the intelligent air peculiar to that predestined and redoubtable weapon which, by dint of perfecting itself in horror, must end in killing war.

Combeferre, who was standing beside Enjolras, scrutinized this young man.

“What a pity!” said Combeferre. “What hideous things these butcheries are! Come, when there are no more kings, there will be no more war. Enjolras, you are taking aim at that sergeant, you are not looking at him. Fancy, he is a charming young man; he is intrepid; it is evident that he is thoughtful; those young artillery-men are very well educated; he has a father, a mother, a family; he is probably in love; he is not more than five and twenty at the most; he might be your brother.”

“He is,” said Enjolras.

“Yes,” replied Combeferre, “he is mine too. Well, let us not kill him.”

“Let me alone. It must be done.”

And a tear trickled slowly down Enjolras’ marble cheek.

At the same moment, he pressed the trigger of his rifle. The flame leaped forth. The artillery-man turned round twice, his arms extended in front of him, his head uplifted, as though for breath, then he fell with his side on the gun, and lay there motionless. They could see his back, from the centre of which there flowed directly a stream of blood. The ball had traversed his breast from side to side. He was dead.

The killing gains the insurgents nothing – another sergeant replaces the dead man, and the fight continues to the inevitable end.

It was as obvious to Hugo as it is to us, his readers, that the violence of June 1832 was pointless and destructive. Hugo acknowledges at length that the regime of the 1830s, the monarchy of Louis Philippe, provided a freer government than any he had known in his lifetime – much freer than the government that ruled at the time of the writing of Les Miserables in the 1860s. Indeed, by the 1860s, Hugo had taken refuge on the island of Guernsey, a British possession just off the coast of France – an exile from the military dictatorship of Napoleon III. That perspective raised questions in Hugo’s mind about the revolutionary enthusiasms of the 1830s:

[W]hat the chiefs of the insurrection of 1832, and, in particular, the young enthusiasts of the Rue de la Chanvrerie were combating, was not precisely Louis Philippe. The majority of them, when talking freely, did justice to this king who stood midway between monarchy and revolution; no one hated him. But they attacked the younger branch of the divine right in Louis Philippe as they had attacked its elder branch in Charles X.; and that which they wished to overturn in overturning royalty in France, was, as we have explained, the usurpation of man over man, and of privilege over right in the entire universe. Paris without a king has as result the world without despots. This is the manner in which they reasoned. Their aim was distant no doubt, vague perhaps, and it retreated in the face of their efforts; but it was great.

“It was great.” Hugo returns to that and similar affirmations again and again, but never very convincingly.

Here was his problem: By the 1860s, Hugo had become a staunch republican, a ferocious opponent of monarchy. He championed the French Revolution in all its phases, even the bloodiest, and endorsed any and all uprisings intended to restore republican rule after the return of the monarchy in 1815.

But he had a little problem on his conscience. In February 1848, one of those uprisings did finally succeed. Louis Philippe was overthrown; a Second Republic was proclaimed. This achievement, however, did not stop the uprisings. Another broke out in June 1848 – against the Republic. Hugo rallied to the defense of the republic against the insurgents and joined one of National Guard units that brutally suppressed the June day.

In Les Miserables, Hugo attempts to distinguish between bad uprisings like those of June 1848, which he condemns as “emeutes,” or riots, and good uprisings like those of June 1832.

There are accepted revolutions, revolutions which are called revolutions; there are refused revolutions, which are called riots.

An insurrection which breaks out, is an idea which is passing its examination before the people. If the people lets fall a black ball, the idea is dried fruit; the insurrection is a mere skirmish.

It’s hard to take this distinction very seriously: Can Hugo really be saying that the only moral test for an uprising is success? But not even that makes sense: after all, he praises June 1832 as the real thing, and it failed ignominiously.

Maybe the best answer is to consider the strange contrast between the dramatic revolutionary background to Les Miserables – and the story in the foreground, the story of Jean Valjean. You probably know it. Jean Valjean is sentenced to the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry nieces and nephews. He repeatedly escapes, is caught, and his sentence extended. He is released after 19 years, but the laws governing felons deprive him of any way to earn an honest living. Full of anger and hate, he finds refuge with a saintly bishop – and then steals the bishop’s silver plates and candlesticks. He is caught and threatened with a return to the galleys. The bishop saves him by telling the police that the silver was a gift. Stunned, overwhelmed by this good deed – the only good deed he has seen in his entire life – Jean Valjean dedicates himself to peace and charity. And yet his every attempt to find a way forward is thwarted by an unjust society. He creates a business, becomes rich, but gives up everything to save a falsely accused man by exposing his own hidden identity.

Through a complicated train of circumstances, he finds himself on the same barricade as the insurgents. But he refuses to fight. He saves the lives of fellow insurgents, then of the police inspector Javert, then finally of Marius himself. He escapes from the violence of the barricade through a sewer pursued by police – a famous scene that is both thrilling and very powerfully symbolic.

If the resolutely peaceful Valjean is the hero of the novel, however, what does that say about those who fight?

Does that not mean that for all Hugo’s sympathy – their violent acts are misguided and wrong? That real progress will take a very different form?

Let us not weary of repeating, and sympathetic souls must not forget that this is the first of fraternal obligations, and selfish hearts must understand that the first of political necessities consists in thinking first of all of the disinherited and sorrowing throngs, in solacing, airing, enlightening, loving them, in enlarging their horizon to a magnificent extent, in lavishing upon them education in every form, in offering them the example of labor, never the example of idleness, in diminishing the individual burden by enlarging the notion of the universal aim, in setting a limit to poverty without setting a limit to wealth, in creating vast fields of public and popular activity, in having, like Briareus, a hundred hands to extend in all directions to the oppressed and the feeble, in employing the collective power for that grand duty of opening workshops for all arms, schools for all aptitudes, and laboratories for all degrees of intelligence, in augmenting salaries, diminishing trouble, balancing what should be and what is, that is to say, in proportioning enjoyment to effort and a glut to need; in a word, in evolving from the social apparatus more light and more comfort for the benefit of those who suffer and those who are ignorant.

The whole of progress tends in the direction of solution. Some day we shall be amazed. As the human race mounts upward, the deep layers emerge naturally from the zone of distress. The obliteration of misery will be accomplished by a simple elevation of level.

We should do wrong were we to doubt this blessed consummation.

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