Les Misérables has come to Stanford – and the Book Haven was asked to give a talk about it to a small group of students and alumni, as a warm-up for the opening-night event (see poster at right). The reason for the invitation was the high Google ranking for our earlier post, “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight.” Apparently, it appears fourth in the search engines when you type in “Les Misérables” and “misconceptions.” It was a late invitation, and we had little time to prepare. Hence, devoted followers of this blog will recognize some of this text from earlier posts, with amendments and additions. Here’s what Humble Moi said last night:
“Do what we may to shape the mysterious block out of which our life is quarried, the dark vein of our destiny will always show forth within it.”
So wrote Victor Hugo in his masterpiece, Les Misérables. And so the book seems to be part of my own personal destiny – a book which, according to the author, is “a drama in which the leading character is the Infinite. Man takes second place.”
I run a popular blog, the Book Haven, on the Stanford website. A year or two ago, at the launch of the movie version of the musical, I wrote a post called “Enjoy Les Misérables. But Please Get the History Straight,” which is now pushing close to 100 comments – not bad for a literary blog. But this is a love story that began long, long before, as an 11-year-old girl who discovered Jean Valjean, and spent my evenings with him, hiding my bedroom lamplight so my parents wouldn’t see that I was still awake long after midnight, still reading. Modern literature tends to be intensive rather than extensive nowadays, with texts that are descriptive not demonstrative – and so, despite the devotion of a few of us, Hugo’s meandering cathedral of a novel has been démodé for awhile.
Thanks to the world’s longest-running musical, which you will see tonight, this terribly out-of-fashion book suddenly is in fashion. I cannot say the same for the history of the period, which somehow fell by the wayside. We are repeatedly told to go see this story of the French Revolution.
Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe. No surprise, perhaps, since even the Les Misérables movie director Tom Hooper seemed a little muddled muddled about French history.
I don’t have to tell a Stanford audience that the French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The insurrection of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century, different sensibility. But some of the details may have become fuzzy since your years in the classroom, and many of them rush by rather quickly in the show, so it’s worth revisiting. Two years before the rebellion featured in Les Misérables, the July Revolution of 1830 had put the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe on the throne. Popular for awhile, that is. Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Hugo commended as good and admirable, the poor got poorer, crime was rampant, and poverty was everywhere. Some of the Republicans felt they had spilt their blood in vain on the 1830 barricades, that the revolution had been co-opted by the cronies who put Louis-Philippe in power.
By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic brought Paris to a breaking point, ultimately taking 45,000 lives in the city. The epidemic’s most prominent victim was the popular General Lamarque, a Republican and Napoleonic war hero who was forever lamenting Waterloo and hating Wellington. Hence, in the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris. The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse en route to his native district in the Pyenees, as the funeral cortege made its wide arc around the Seine’s right bank. Mourners and rebels merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.
There were cries of “down with Louis-Philippe, long live the Republic.” A group of students took control of the carriage carrying the coffin, diverting it to the Place de la Bastille where speeches followed and eventually someone waved a red flag with the words “Liberty or Death” on it – you should see some sort of a flag in the production. Soldiers had been under orders to refrain from the use of deadly force, but when a shot rang out from somewhere, the crowd began to throw stones at the military. The June rebellion began.
Hugo was an unwitting participant. The 30-year-old author was nearby, in the Tuileries, writing a play and taking the fresh air his doctor had recommended. Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles. He should have gone home to safety, instead he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. The shops and stores had been closed for some time. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles. Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde – in English, the street at the end of the world, which was more than a fitting tag that afternoon. Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was trapped, surrounded by the barricades. He flung himself against a wall and took shelter between shop pillars. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways. Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.
The cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets, and the barricade is a central image in the show you will see tonight. But there wasn’t one barricade in Paris, but dozens. They took as little as fifteen minutes to set up.
According to historian Mark Traugott, insurgents ripped the saplings that had been planted to replace the larger trees cut down in the earlier revolution, in 1830. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These raw materials added mass and helped knit the structure together. In the hour-and-a-half between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were first reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the river.
As the first barricades were going up, the rebels searched frantically for weapons. Some made do with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were vital. Bands of insurgents seized them from soldiers on the streets; others looted the Paris gunsmiths shops.
But they needed more than weapons: they needed the citizens to rise up and join them. The insurgents pleaded for help, but no help came. The citizens of Paris were not as quick to join the revolution as they were to join the rowdy funeral procession. In theshow, the army officer warns the insurgents:
You at the barricade listen to this!
No one is coming to help you to fight
You’re on your own
You have no friends
Give up your guns – or die!
And so it was. The casualty toll among the insurgents mounted as high as 800 dead and wounded, particularly heavy because the people of Paris had abandoned them. The most committed insurgents paid for their rebellion with their lives.
That should have been a tip-off for the modern theater reviewers who got it wrong: after all, the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries won. Recall the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, and the rest. This was different. In 1832, the last guns were silenced barely twenty-four hours after fighting had begun.
That about does it for the 1832 insurrection. We could follow with the 1848 revolution. And then the 1851 coup d’état by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. And then the destruction of the last Napoleonic empire in 1871. It goes on and on. With all the upheaval, it’s a wonder they could manage an empire at all … oh, that’s right, they couldn’t… It does go some way to explaining the insane decision to sell off a third of the North American continent in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. They were distracted – in that case, by a slave rebellion in Haiti and an impending war with Britain.
We don’t have much in the world to remind us of this ill-fated one-day insurrection – except this book, and now this musical. Yet the influence of the book over the years has caused me to wonder: Can good be contagious, the way evil is? Can we make it so? One Peruvian writer thought so. He called the Les Miserables an “ideological time bomb that can explode in the mind and imagination of its readers.” It may have been a short-lived blip, but after publication there was an increased interest in philanthropy and the plight of the poor in France. Many people all over the world have drawn strength and inspiration from this novel, but I think, in particular, of this young man in a military academy in Lima, Peru, a century after Les Miserables was published. The Nobel prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa would go on to write a remarkable book about Les Mis, called The Temptation of the Impossible. He wrote: “Les Miserables is one of the works that has been most influential in making so many men and women of all languages and cultures desire a more just, rational, and beautiful world than the one that they live in.”
“I know that in the winter of 1950, in my military uniform, shrouded by the drizzle and the fog on top of the cliff at La Perla, thanks to Les Miserables, life for me was very much less wretched.”