Posts Tagged ‘Victor Hugo’

The BBC “Les Misérables” is fini! Get over it. Now go read the book.

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019
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I can tell that the BBC airing of Les Misérables is tout fini. For a month or so now, the Book Haven ratings have shot up into the thousands each weekend. No more. What were people looking for at the humble Book Haven when they could watch the multi-hour BBC splendor?

They were clicking on our all-time highest-ranking post: “Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight,” illustrated with photos from 16th-century church Église Saint-Merri, where the real-life insurgents staged a desperate last stand, in and around this church at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place. Over the years, the single post has gotten about a million views. It also attracted the record number of comments – 150 – before we had to turn it off because of the relentless spam attacks that defeated even the Stanford techies.

The biggest mistake viewers make: even apparently educated fans refer to this as the French Revolution. Wrong. This is 1832 not 1789. Big difference. Different clothes, different leaders. The biggest difference of all: the revolutionaries won the French Revolution. The insurgents in 1832 lost, big time. Well, read the story here.

With the BBC film, there seems to be a second mistake: Victor Hugo did not write a musical. He wrote a novel. You can read about that here. Please don’t wait for the songs.

But I’m gratified that the long-ago post is still getting attention. And I still get letters, like this one from Doris Reffner last week:

“I wanted to thank you for your excellent article.  It was just what I needed to explain the musical Les Miserables to my twelve-year-old granddaughter.  Even her grandfather mistakenly thought it was about the ‘French Revolution,’ and we saw the musical at least twice as well as concert videos and the movie.  Perhaps we need to read the book.   If I can read a Russian classic novel, I guess I can work my way through a French one.  You provided great information, easily understood.  Thank you.”

Join Doris and go out and get the book. Hurry, before the next remake!

How Victor Hugo saved Notre Dame: “a thought written in stone … it is the freedom of architecture.” Plus a few words from a wise medievalist.

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019
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“This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.” (Wikimedia Commons)

 

“The church of Notre-Dame of Paris is without doubt, even today, a sublime and majestic building … a vast symphony in stone, as it were; the colossal handiwork of a man and a people.” So opens Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It began as Notre-Dame de Paris in 1829 – he had an axe to grind. He was tired of seeing France’s magnificent heritage of Gothic architecture neglected, defaced, destroyed, or “improved” by subsequent eras. It had just survived the depredations of the French Revolution, where its statues and artwork had been broken, plundered, mutilated, and destroyed. Twenty-eight statues of Biblical kings were mistaken for statues of French monarchs and so beheaded. The cathedral was eventually used as a warehouse for for storage of food and other non-religious purposes. In 1801, Napoleon restored the cathedral to the Church “as is.”

Twenty years later, Gothic was simply out of fashion. Hugo had published a paper entitled Guerre aux Démolisseurs (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture. “A universal cry must finally go up to call the new France to the aid of the old,” he had written. He declared war on the “demolishers.”

The repairs and “improvements” had made the cathedral uglier. Medieval stained glass panels had been swapped for clear glass to let in more light. “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows” and “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds,” he asked.

Notre-Dame de Paris would later become The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and his preoccupations with the Gothic survived the transition. “There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture,” he wrote in praise of these medieval builders and what they wrought.

He won, of course. He triggered a national effort to restore the cathedral. The Notre Dame we saw until yesterday was in part the result of his labors. Now we face an even greater challenge to restore the building that barely survived a catastrophic fire.

***

From Sara L. Uckelman, assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University and editor in chief at Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, in a public post on Facebook:

While what has happened to Notre Dame today has shocked me and moved me to tears more than once over the course of the evening, I’m finding that my background and training as a medievalist means I’m, overall, finding it a lot less devastating than many people.

Why?

Because I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.

The spire that fell, that beautiful iconic spire? Not even 200 years old. A new spire can be built, the next stage in the evolution of the cathedral.

The rose windows? Reproductions of the originals. We can reproduce them again.

Notre Dame is one of the best documented cathedrals in the world. We have the knowledge we need to rebuild it.

But more than that: We have the skill. There may not be as many ecclesiastical stone masons nowadays as there were in the height of the Middle Ages, but there are still plenty, and I bet masons from all over Europe, if not further, will be standing ready to contribute to rebuilding. Same with glaziers, carpenters, etc.

Precious artworks and relics may have been lost. There is report of one fireman seriously injured, but so far, from what I’ve read, no one else, and no deaths.

This isn’t the first time Notre Dame has burned. I’m dead certain it won’t be the last.

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.

***

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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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.

The sewers of Paris: the conscience of the city?

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017
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Musee-des-egouts2

Our 2012 post, Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight is still getting comments – close to 150 of them now. And I also get some private correspondence. One recent email from a kind reader told me of a Smithsonian Magazine article featuring Victor Hugo‘s Paris – but only one of the locales it featured (unless you count the Jardin du Luxembourg) had any specific associations with his masterpiece. From The Smithsonian:

Hugo

“A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.”

Paris’s underworld features heavily in Les Misérables, most famously its sewers, which once branched for a hundred miles beneath the city’s cobbled streets. It is here that Jean Valjean escapes in one of the book’s most dramatic scenes, fleeing the barricade with a wounded Marius on his back. “An abrupt fall into a cavern; a disappearance into the secret trapdoor of Paris; to quit that street where death was on every side, for that sort of sepulchre where there was life, was a strange instant,” writes Hugo. Baron Haussmann’s overhaul left few stones unturned, including the black, squalid sewer tunnels of Hugo’s day. But, visitors to the city can still catch a glimpse of Paris’ underground at the Musée des Égouts, which offers hour-long tours chronicling the sewer system’s modern development—no hazmat suit required.

That journey of clicks took me he Musée des Égouts on the Quai d’Orsay in Paris – it has a museum and a website.

A non-click journey to my library returned me to Hugo’s massive novel. Here’s what he had to say about the sewers where Jean Valjean escapes carrying his wounded son-in-law-to-be, Marius Pontmercy, who has had his brief and unsuccessful role in the 1830 uprising. About 1,260 pages into the book, the French maestro writes:

sewersThe sewer is the conscience of the city. All things converge into it and are confronted with one another. In this lurid place there is darkness, but there are no secrets. Each thing has its real form, or at least its definitive form. It can be said for the garbage heap that it is no liar.  … All the uncleanliness of civilization, once it is out of service, falls into this pit of truth, where the immense social slippage is brought to an end. It is swallowed up, but it is displayed in it. The pell-mell is a confusion. Here, no more false appearances, no possible plastering, filth takes off its shirt, absolute nakedness, rout of illusions and mirages, nothing more but what is, wearing the sinister face of what is ending. Reality and disappearance. Here the stump of a bottle confesses drunkenness, a basket handle tells of domestic life; here, the apple core that has had literary opinions becomes again an apple core; the spittle of Caïaphas encounters Falstaff’s vomit, the louis d’or that comes from the gambling house jostles the nail trailing the suicide’s bit of rope, a livid fetus rolls by wrapped in spangles that danced at the Opéra last Mardi Gras, a cap that has judged men wallows near a rottenness that was one of Peggy’s petticoats; it is more than brotherhood, it is closest intimacy. All that used to be painted is besmirched. The last veil is rent. A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.

Thi sincerity of uncleanness pleases us, and it is a relief to the soul. When a man has spent his time on earth enduring the spectacle of the grand airs assumed by reasons of state, oaths, political wisdom, human justice, professional honesty, the necessities of position, incorruptible robes, it is a consolation to enter a sewer and see the slime that befits it.

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Getting ready for the Nobel in literature. And where better to do it than Stockholm?

Monday, October 5th, 2015
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Concert Hall with nobel program. Stockholm 8/2015

Laureates are seated onstage at the Concert Hall during the ceremony. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The Nobel Prize for Literature will be awarded this Thursday in Stockholm. While we await the announcement, our New York City-based  correspondent, roving photojournalist Zygmunt Malinowski, reports on his recent visit to the Nobel Empire in Stockholm…

During last summer’s visit to Gdańsk for the opening of European Solidarity Center (read about it here), I found a nearby harbor with ferry to Sweden. I remembered a well-known photograph of Polish poet Czesław Miłosz dressed up in a tuxedo receiving his diploma from the king of Sweden, and I wondered what traces his visit to Stockholm might have left.

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Stockholm City Hall for the Nobel banquet (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

A journey without the usual hustle of airports and cramped airplanes makes a ship seem more natural way to travel. Even though the ferry was spartan in its accommodations, it felt spacious (except for the usual closet-sized sleeping cabin). In the evening at the large cafeteria with panoramic windows, time passes slowly. One can order a coffee or something stronger and gaze at the grayish Baltic Sea and the semi-circular, unending horizon, where the distant water edge never seems to get any closer.

After about 19 hours, we arrived at the port city of Ninanshamn. From there, it’s a short rail ride on a comfortable train to Stockholm. Stockholm consists of interconnected islands; its many bridges and water taxis efficiently transport passengers on its clean waterways and canals. The historic old town (Gamla Stan) with the narrow cobbled streets and shops, restaurants, and cafés, dates back to 13th century. The neoclassical Nobel Museum, home of the Swedish Academy that nominates the literature award, is pretty much in the center of it.

Nobel Ice Cream at Bistro Nobel, Nobel Museum. Stockholm. 8/2015

Nobel ice cream at Bistro Nobel (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

I took advantage of a guided tour offered in English. As a young man, Alfred Nobel wanted to be a poet. Inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, he wrote all his poems in English. His father dissuaded him, saying that it was not a real job, so Alfred Nobel is remembered for inventing dynamite instead.

He also wrote several plays, but his family destroyed most of these papers, since they wanted him to be remembered for chemistry and inventions. He lived most of his adult life in Paris, never married, and had no children. His last will and testament gave away most of his fortune as annual prize. According to the museum, “Nobel was against inherited fortunes that he believed contributed to the laziness of humanity. The will was an ingenuous way of solving this dilemma. The inheritance, in the form of a prize, would reward those who have made themselves worthy by way of their work.”

Nobel had over 350 patents and made a fortune, but his idea of ideas was establishing the Nobel award in five categories: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace (later a prize for economy was added). The peace prize is awarded in Norway. Nobel met Victor Hugo in Paris, and throughout his life corresponded with Countess Bertha Von Sutter, founder of Austrian peace movement and author of Lay Down Your Arms. The latter influenced the formation of a peace prize, which she won in 1905.

The Nobel nominating process begins in September of the previous year, when the Swedish Academy committee responsible for the literature award sends out hundreds of letters to universities, institutions, and individuals qualified to nominate Nobel laureates. By the following April, the list that’s been gathered is whittled down to about 20 candidates. In May, the selection is narrowed to five candidates. The Academy becomes familiar with the proposed authors and their work. In September, the Academy finally makes a decision and the winner is announced in October. On December 10, laureates receive their prizes. The decision process remains a secret for fifty years – only now can we learn who nominated the winner from 1965.

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Would you sign my chair, please? (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

The ceremony takes place in three separate locations. The laureates are invited to the Academy for lunch, on December 9, and afterwards a rehearsal. On December 10, during a ceremony at the Concert Hall they receive an elaborate calligraphy diploma and medal from the King of Sweden, in addition to a check. Attendance is by invitation only. Limos line up to take the 1,300 guests to City Hall for the banquet, first walking through the Golden Hall down marble staircase to the spacious Blue Room. In Sweden, the event is almost a holiday; it’s followed closely on TV throughout the day.

One of the highlights while visiting the museum is having lunch and Nobel ice cream with chocolate Nobel medal at the Vienna-style ‘Bistro Nobel.’ Yes, the ice cream tastes as good as it looks, and it’s actually the same dessert that was served for many years at the Nobel Banquet. Another tradition started in recent years is signing the back seat of bistro chairs. One can turn over a chair to see which laureate signed it. Signatures started after Miłosz’s visit, but I located Mario Vargas Llosa on chair #26 and Seamus Heaney, chair #23.

So where was Miłosz? See the photo below, from the central area of the museum. Also, all Nobel winners are featured on a ceiling display (also pictured below), but it would take hours to find a specific person since they are not in any particular order. I know, I waited as Samuel Beckett, Wisława Szymborska, and Madame Curie-Sklodowska, the first woman to receive Nobel Prize and first to receive it twice, rolled past, before heading for the ice cream.

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Miłosz at last. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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After the feast, the ball – and it takes place at the gorgeous Golden Hall. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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Previous winner Wisława Szymborska in a rotating ceiling display at the museum. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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The august Nobel Museum and the Swedish Academy. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

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In my end is my beginning. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)