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The story of the “Les Mis” biz

The novel of the century

...and other literary recommendations, including how Lincoln communed with the dead

...and other literary recommendations, including how Lincoln communed with the dead

February/March 2017

“As long as there are ignorance and poverty on earth”, wrote Victor Hugo in his preface to “Les Misérables” in 1862, “books such as this one may not be useless.” Never mind those self-help manuals urging that some classic novel may change your life: in this sparkling study of the birth, growth and afterlife of Hugo’s evergreen block-buster, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos argues that “Les Misérables” already has.

Bellos, professor of French literature at Princeton University, makes clear that this gigantic but “tightly knit” yarn of crime and conscience, destitution and revolt can claim to have altered the course not only of publishing and showbiz but also of history itself. Hugo championed reforms – from support for outcasts to universal education – that became social norms. His 365-chapter saga of the convict-hero Jean Valjean’s progress through strife-wracked France after 1815 began as a global sensation – with “the biggest deal in book history” and “the first truly international book launch” – and remained one. With deep learning but a charmingly light touch, Bellos dissects and salutes this “dramatic page-turner” bursting with “generous moral principles”. The earliest musical version, by the way, opened in Philadelphia – in January 1863. ~ BOYD TONKIN 

About a boy
At the height of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln buried his beloved 11-year-old son Willie. “This is the hardest trial of my life,” he told the boy’s nurse; he reportedly returned to his son’s crypt more than once to hold the boy in his arms. In Lincoln in the Bardo George Saunders uses this historical material to spin out a strange and haunting novel – his highly anticipated first, after decades of short-story wizardry – about the effect the dead have on the living, and the living on the dead. 

Set largely in a Georgetown cemetery, the book is crammed with spirits who linger in “the bardo”, a Tibetan term for the liminal state after death but before judgment. There, Willie joins Roger Bevins III, a gay, love-sick youth who slit his wrists, and Hans Vollman, killed hours before he was to consummate his marriage. Saunders’s account of purgatory is not comforting. ~ EMILY BOBROW

Wild Europe
History has blessed and cursed the borderlands of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. A centuries-old mosaic of languages, ethnicities, cultures and religions was shattered as politics shifted after the first world war. Communities were uprooted and dumped across borders to countries that they scarcely knew. In Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Kapka Kassabova, a writer born in Bulgaria but now living in Scotland, mixes reportage, history, quasi-mystical reflection and wry humour to capture the paradoxes of the present, as well as what she too-modestly calls the “odd ragged bits of this once-rich human tapestry”.

A particular treat is Kassabova’s ear for the more lurid local myths: extra-terrestrial beacons, lost pyramids and sites guarded by specially bred Uzbek vipers all get a look in. An accomplished poet and polyglot, she writes exquisite prose, dripping with scorn for the politicians whose bone-headed rules and careless greed despoil the land and ruin the lives of those who still live there. ~ EDWARD LUCAS

Wilder Pakistan
The pools of light and scholarship introduced into Pakistan by the Mughals narrow into pinpricks as darkness engulfs Pakistan in The Golden Legend, Nadeem Aslam’s evocative new novel about fear, religious intolerance and stolen love.

Massud and his wife Nargis, both architects, live surrounded by books in a converted paper factory in what used to be a cosmopolitan district of the city Aslam calls Zamana (which means “the world” and is based on Lahore). Nargis’s life falls apart when Massud is caught in a shootout on the Grand Trunk Road and dies in her arms before she can confess the secret she carried into their marriage three decades earlier. Threatened by a bullying military officer who barges into her home demanding that she pardon her husband’s killer, an American intelligence operative, Nargis grows increasingly fearful that her past will be exposed. For weeks, someone has been broadcasting from the minarets of the city’s mosques, recounting secrets and casting terror into Muslim and Christian alike. Nargis and two others hide on an island as the authorities, both secular and religious, hunt her down.

Aslam, Pakistani-born but now based in Britain, has written a novel of delicate prose and fine intelligence. Full of humanity, and therefore of hope, it may be his finest book yet. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

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