Archive for May 20th, 2017

Victor Hugo and the novel that is “never a downer.”

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

Not just a pretty face.

One of the more exuberant articles I’ve read recently comes from the pen of Tim Parks, writing in the current London Review of Books, about Les Misérables and David Bellos‘s new book about that doorstopper epic, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables.’ After reading the article, and perhaps Bellos’s book as well, it is hard to avoid the conviction that the French poet and master-novelist Victor Hugo was completely mad.

Hugo began Les Misérables in his early forties in Paris, when he was already a leading writer and a controversial public figure. He stopped after three years during the 1948 revolution, and began again in December 1860, nine years into his long exile, by then on the island of Guernsey.

Parks notes that Les Misérables is a curiously sexless book. Jean Valjean seems to live without it. And although Fantine apparently had it, it occurs offstage, so to speak, leaving her an impoverished single mother with Cosette. The sexlessness of the novel is at striking odds with the hypomanic Hugo:

In 1845 Hugo, who had always sought favours from whatever monarch was on the throne, was made a member of the Chamber of Peers, something that would enable him – though not his married lover Léonie Biard – to avoid jail, when caught in flagrante in an act of adultery a few months later. As a young man, he had been romantically conservative and insanely jealous, to the point of insisting that his teenage beloved, Adèle, keep every inch of her ankles properly covered. But after his early marriage to Adèle, in 1822, at the age of 20, five children in rapid succession and the realisation that his wife had had an affair with his friend, the critic Sainte-Beuve, Hugo, in 1833, secured himself a lifelong mistress and worshipper in the actress Juliette Drouet, then in 1844 began his passionate seven-year affair with Biard.

The discovery of his adultery exposed Hugo to ridicule around the time he began Les Misérables, a book that opens, we remember, with a long account of a man who having ‘given the best years of his life … to worldly pursuits and love affairs’ becomes a priest, a prelate and ultimately a kind of saint. ‘People joked,’ Bellos remarks, ‘that [Hugo] must be doing penance for his unsaintly behaviour,’ but declares himself sceptical of this ‘moralising approach’ or of any idea that a troubled Hugo might have looked for ‘refuge in an uplifting tale’. Rather, ‘the main impact of the Biard affair’ was to convince Hugo to ‘write about everything except that’. The novel ‘is unusual … for not talking at any point about adultery or even sex’.

Here’s a fascinating passage from the long review about the names of some of the principals in Les Misérables:

The character names are also, we are reminded, brilliantly invented. Bellos ponders the origins of Fantine, the name of the single mother who falls into prostitution: ‘The first syllable is a contraction of enfant, “child”, so the name itself suggests a meaning close to that of “kid girl”.’ Fantine, Bellos points out, had ‘no parents to name her and no formal identity at all’. The name is part of her status as a misérable. Cosette, Fantine’s illegitimate child and later Valjean’s adopted daughter, might be confused with chosette, a ‘small thing’, or nothing in particular. Again it is a sign she is one of the dispossessed. Bellos doesn’t remark on the irony that these names, while elaborately suggesting a blurred identity at the semantic level, are in fact highly idiosyncratic and wonderfully memorable. It’s in this sense that they are so clever. There are any number of Emmas, only one Fantine. The name is for ever associated with Hugo’s novel. Conversely, Jean Valjean, Bellos explains, couples France’s most common Christian name with a surname that amounts to a contraction of ‘Voilà Jean!’, suggesting ‘somebody or other, anybody, a nobody’. ‘It’s as heart-rending,’ he tells us, ‘as a slumdog answering to the name of “Heyou”.’ Some readers may struggle to feel this.

I take issue, however, with Parks’s accusation that the author “loads the dice,” pushing the situations and characters to unrealistic extremes. I’ve known people and events that will match anything in Les Misérables, and coincidences just as unlikely. I agree that the book is “a story of extravagant gesture and irrepressible underlying optimism,” as Parks writes. “Hugo believes in progress. Despite its title, the novel is never a downer.”

Read the whole article, aptly titled “Thunderstruck,” here.