Posts Tagged ‘David Bellos’

The biz side of Les Miz: it was the first international book launch in publishing history

Sunday, January 6th, 2019
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Dominic West as Jean Valjean in BBC production (Photo: BBC)

Are you all ready? Are you braced for the new version of Les Misérables …. it’s coming … it’s coming … it’s here!!! See trailer below. The BBC has a new all-go-to-hell production, and The Financial Times is contributing to its glory.  

The BBC production premiered on December 31st in the UK. When will it be available for those of us in the colonies? Who knows. But meanwhile, an article from the Financial Timeswhich (appropriate to its purview) discusses the biz side of Les Miz. “That hulking monument of French literature, Les Misérables owes a heavy debt to Queen Victoria’s Royal Mail.”

It was the first planned international book launch in publishing history: “Cutting-edge technology helped speed the birth and broadcast the fame of Les Misérables,” writes Boyd Tonkin. “Steam-driven printers that cranked out high-volume, low-cost editions; regular mail-carrying steamers; expanding railway and telegraph networks: all came together to ease the book’s passage.” 

The book that was meant to touch everyone has touched some unexpected, flinty hearts: a production opened last month in Tehran, of all places: “It turns out that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is an avid Hugo fan who once praised Les Misérables as “a book of wisdom” that everyone should read. Somewhere in the non-denominational hereafter envisaged by Hugo’s cranky personal religion, the old man must be enjoying a very long, and very hearty, last laugh.”

A few excerpts:.

As David Bellos records in his study of the book, The Novel of the Century, the Parisian daily La Presse could claim that, in this work nobody had yet read, “all the raw issues of the nineteenth century are compressed into . . . characters who will enter universal memory and never leave it”. Pre-release blurbs hardly come more gushing — or more true.

Dominic West with David Oyelowo as Javert.

Hugo cannily boosted his new product with brash announcements that proclaimed his novel to be “the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century”.

***

No book had ever debuted with this multi-platform fanfare. It hardly mattered that Hugo’s rivals sneered: that Alexandre Dumas likened it to “wading through mud”, or that those catty diarists the Goncourt brothers bitched that Hugo had made a pile “for taking pity on the suffering masses”. The first two volumes sold out in two days. Queues clogged the narrow streets of Paris when new volumes arrived. In workers’ clubs, members banded together to buy volumes. Across the Atlantic, the polymath Charles Wilbour had completed his five-volume translation by December 1862. It sold in its hundreds of thousands. Shorn of Hugo’s denunciation of slavery, censored pamphlets of Wilbour’s translation became the favoured campfire reading of weary Confederate soldiers in the American civil war. They took to calling themselves (Robert E.) “Lee’s Miserables”. In politics, Hugo backed well-managed change. His novel pleas for “progress that has a gentle incline”. As a worldwide cultural phenomenon, however, Les Misérables looks like a wholly revolutionary coup. No French novel, not even Dumas’s all-conquering The Count of Monte Cristo in 1844, had ever earned so much so quickly, moved so fast, spread so far — or made such a planet-spanning noise. For Hugo and his entourage, soaring idealism went hand in hand with commercial nous. The former mandated the latter.

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His novel moved the masses because its author and his crew drew on every smart weapon in the armoury of 19th-century industrial society — its financial instruments; its media networks; its transport infrastructure. Hugo’s ultimate message, of integrity, loyalty and solidarity, may be simple. “To love or to have loved is enough,” we learn when Valjean’s ward Cosette marries the student Marius: “Don’t ask for anything more.” The method of its delivery, though, was as strategically artful and complex as his age allowed. It worked then. It works now. From London to Tehran, Les Misérables still manufactures outrage and uplifts with the same steam-hammer force as in 1862.

Postscript on 1/7: I should add that the all-time highest ranking post ever in the Book Haven is: “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” – it’s here.

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

Saturday, May 20th, 2017
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hugo

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.