The title of David Bellos’s new book about Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, “The Novel of the Century”, is a deliberate provocation – this was, after all, the century of Dickens, Tolstoy and Melville. But Hugo’s is one of the longest and largest. My copy of the Penguin translation weighs in at just under a kilo. Bellos tackled the book whilst he was laid low with a cold during a hike in the Alps, malingering on for a few extra days to get to the end of the tale. If you don’t have a bout of flu or a year to spare, you could instead approach the book like a box-set of DVDs or a Netflix series: binge-reading, interspersed with periods of reflection.
This is pretty much how Hugo got on with the job of writing it: he started work in November 1845 and finally published it in 1862, breaking off along the way for a revolution in 1848 and a coup d’état in 1851. In this sense “Les Misérables” is not just a book about history, a sweeping narrative of 19th-century France built around the life of an escaped convict, Jean Valjean. It is a book made by history.
Bellos’s account of how it came to be written and published, which takes up much of his book, is gossipy and entertaining and is worth the cover price alone. Hugo wrote most of “Les Misérables” outside France, on the island of Guernsey, where Hugo arrived first as a refugee, and then as a self-imposed exile from the hated Second Empire of Napoléon III. By now, although a political outsider in France, Hugo had a Europe-wide reputation as a great writer. This was the chief reason why “Les Misérables” was able to command such a huge advance from its publisher in Brussels, Albert Lacroix, whose own story as a failed academic and chancer is as compelling as any back-story to be found in Hugo’s novel. Hugo was paid 97kg of gold – literally more than his own weight.
But Bellos is also a fine critic and teacher who takes us back to the text with a light touch but also forensic precision. One of the most compelling chapters is his guide to Hugo’s use of the varieties and registers of French (and Latin). He brought back old or semi-forgotten words, and invented others. Most importantly he gave voice to the true language of the Parisian street, raising it to the level of poetry.
The separation between the written word and “unofficial” spoken French is wider than in most languages, especially English, so Hugo’s use of the “language of the people” is not only an innovative step forward in French literary style but also an openly political statement. Hugo’s use of street language was not the same thing as Dickens’s often patronising imitation of the lower-classes; for anyone with an ear for French, Hugo’s use of words is instead quite inseparable from the great sweep of his themes of love, death and redemption.
A prime example is when Hugo describes the moment when a kindly urchin feeds his starving brother with soggy bread rescued from the pond in the Luxembourg Gardens. He saves his brother with the phrase “colle-toi ça dans le fusil” – roughly translated as “stick that in your gob”. For Bellos this is one of the most moving moments in the book. He is not wrong: in this brief flash of real Paris slang, Hugo captures the true toughness of brotherly love at the bottom of society.
“Les Misérables” is best known these days from the sentimental musical adaptations of the story, the most recent starring Russell Crowe (pictured). In fact, in its use of language, it is the precursor of gritty contemporary novels like Faïza Guène’s “Kiffe Kiffe Demain” (2004) or films such as Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” (1995), which tackle life in the banlieues, the broken suburbs outside Paris and the other major French cities where the speech of old Paris has been replaced by a slang which borrows from Arabic and English yet expresses a uniquely French experience.
This is why and how, for all its meandering plots and sermonising, “Les Misérables” might be the greatest novel of the 19th century. It is one of the few classic works of literature that lives up to, and sometimes exceeds, its reputation. It is, of course, also a mass of contradictions. Some of these are political and philosophical – Hugo comes across as a proto-Communist, a Catholic propagandist, a humanist, and sometimes all three at once. Just as contradictory is the way the writing can veer from mawkish melodrama to literary magnificence on the same page. But I can think of no better guide into the heart of this tangled novel than David Bellos’s shrewd, witty and learned book.