Posts Tagged ‘Victor Hugo’

Les Misérables comes to Stanford – and Book Haven gives a pre-show talk about it.

Sunday, April 13th, 2014
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lesmiserablesLes 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.

Louis-Philippe

Louis-Philippe: the (perceived) problem.

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.

Lamarque

Lamarque: sore loser.

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.

traugott_bookAccording 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!

delacroix

The 1830 revolution: it was better in the Delacroix version.

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.

llosa2We 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.”

John Hennessy likes big fat books.

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
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literature_hennessy-1

Love’s much better, the second time around: Stanford prez on the joy of rereading books. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right?  Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.”  You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.

les_miserables_bookHe’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.

For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program.  Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination:  he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since.  And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

copperfieldDickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.”  As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy.  These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?”  Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide.  Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.

Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him.  Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting.  I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven.  Or you’ll forget one and have only four left.  He seems to be good at keeping track.

Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics.  Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”

stendhal_5136“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively.  The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.”  What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives?  They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts.  He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”

I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important.  I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities.  It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal.  I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too.  These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.

Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list.  “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places).  He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago.  Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.

Orphan_Master_s_SonSepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.”  He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books.  He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football):  1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance.  It doesn’t get better than this, does it?

divinecomedyWell yes, it does. Hennessy didn’t forget the slash-and-burn, blood-and-guts classics, Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Inferno.

And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime?  “Junk,” he said.  Just like the rest of us.

He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.

***

(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy.  Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin.  The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran.  Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp.  Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes.  Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)

 

The “scale of appraisal”: Woolf, Tsvetaeva, and Inspector Javert

Sunday, January 6th, 2013
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Cause of death?

Last night, I finally made the trek to see Les Misérables with my daughter and her friend.  The film has many nice touches – among them, Russell Crowe, as the solitary Inspector Javert, reviews the row of slaughtered boys the day after the 1832 uprising is quelled.  Moved by the sight of the very young Gavroche in the macabre line-up of bodies, he gently pins one of his military medals on the dead child.  Javert leaps to his death in the Seine a few scenes later.  (My daughter sent me a youtube video of Crowe being interviewed about his interpretation of the role – it’s below.)

Although my memory of Victor Hugo‘s book has faded over the years, I don’t recall any account that has linked Javert’s suicide with these useless and unnecessary deaths, in addition to the inspector’s  confusion at Jean Valjean’s unexpected act of mercy.  But the connection with warfare is an obvious one – some producer or artist should have thought of it before now – and it brought me back to my post of a few days ago, discussing Virginia Woolf‘s last letter, before her own suicide.  I had never connected her death with the German bombing of Britain, but her husband had.

According to Leonard Woolf, “319 days of headlong and yet slow-moving catastrophe” preceded her death in March 1941. Two of their homes were bombed in succession, and this may have triggered a recurrence of Virginia’s mental illness.

“Gavroche” by Gustave Brion

So it was, also, with Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose suicide was preceded by German attacks on the two cities she loved most, Paris and Prague.  (I wrote about her final days for the Los Angeles Times here.)

Lydia Korneevna Chukovskaya related this August 1941 conversation, which took place in Chistopol in Tatarstan, the evacuation destination for many writers:

“Tell me, please,” here she came to a stop, stopping me also, “tell me, please, why do you think that it’s still worth living? Don’t you really understand what’s coming?”

“Worthwhile or not – I stopped debating that long ago. They arrested people close to me in ’37, and in ’38 they shot my husband. Of course, life’s not worth living for me, and in any case it doesn’t matter any more how and where I live. But I have a daughter.”

“But don’t you really understand that everything’s over? For you, for your daughter, and altogether.”

We turned onto my street.

“What do you mean – everything?” I asked.

“Altogether – everything!” She made a large circle in the air with the strange little bag she carried. “Well, Russia, for example!”

Tsvetaeva, 1917

“And the Germans?”

“Yes, the Germans too.”

In her excellent book The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, author Irma Kudrova writes:

I’ll risk taking this thought to its conclusion. In Tsvetaeva’s eyes the catastrophe that was going on was worse than the nightmare of war. A disaster of global proportions was underway, swallowing Russia too. The dark forces of the world had incarnated into ‘nonhumans’; they held absolute power and were pitiless toward man. The swarm of Hitler’s army, which was swallowing the Russian land, was only one of the faces of triumphant evil. It seems to me that it was precisely this – and nothing less – that Marina Ivanovna [Tsvetaeva] was talking about on 26 August 1941, four days before her death.

She was speaking to the only person she had met since leaving Moscow in whom she could sense a person like herself. She spoke, at last, in her own voice, without caution. Because it was her scale of appraisal, her characteristic viewpoint about what was happening: “from the roof of the world,” as she wrote in one of her poems.

 

Enjoy Les Misérables. But please get the history straight.

Monday, December 24th, 2012
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A marvelous little church with a story to tell. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

It’s Christmas Eve.  The world awaits in joyful expectation the coming of… Les Misérables in a theater near you.

Evocations of the 16th century (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

But please, do me a big favor, in the spirit of the season.  Please don’t say this film is about the French Revolution.  Many of us have repeatedly corrected the media, Huffington Post included, for this oft-repeated gaffe.  No surprise, perhaps, since even Director Tom Hooper seems a little dim about French history.

So let me help everyone sort this out.  The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789.  The principal events of Les Misérables take place in 1832. Different century. The July Revolution two years earlier had put the Orléanist monarchy on the throne, under the popular “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe.  Popular for awhile, that is.  Despite his unpretentious manners and a character that Les Miz author Victor Hugo commended as “good” and “admirable,” the income gap widened and the conditions of the working class deteriorated.  By the spring of 1832, a deadly cholera epidemic had exacerbated a severe economic crisis.

His death pulled the trigger.

In the early morning hours of June 5, crowds of workers, students, and others gathered in the streets of Paris.  The immediate trigger was the death of General Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who had been a friend to the poor and downtrodden.  The crowd had hoped to accompany Lamarque’s hearse before it took the general home to his native district in the southwest of France.  Those mourning and those with a political agenda merged into a mob that numbered in the tens of thousands – some witnesses claimed it eventually grew to 100,000.

The 30-year-old Victor Hugo was nearby, in the Tuileries Gardens, writing a play.  Then he heard gunfire from the direction of Les Halles.  Instead of going home to safety, he followed the sounds of gunfire through the deserted streets. He was unaware that the mob had taken half of Paris, and the barricades were everywhere in Les Halles.  According to Wikipedia, Hugo headed north up the Rue Montmartre, then turned right onto the Passage du Saumon, finally turning before the Rue du Bout du Monde (if this street still exists, it has a different name now): “Halfway down the alley, the grilles at either end were slammed shut. Hugo was surrounded by barricades and flung himself against a wall, as all the shops and stores had been closed for some time. He found shelter between some columns. For a quarter of an hour, bullets flew both ways.”  Three decades later, he would write about the unforgettable experience in Les Misérables.

I had hoped to visit some of the route during my recent visit to France.  Alas, my trip was too brief, and I couldn’t quite figure out what had happened, and where, on my Paris map.  I had to make the journey vicariously, later, through Mark Traugott‘s The Insurgent Barricade (University of California Press).

No wonder I was confused.  Traugott’s map of the insurrection shows that Lamarque’s funerary procession made a wide arc around the city’s right bank.  The insurrection affected both sides of the Seine, but the flash points were here, on the right bank.

Dragoons 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 cry “To the barricades!” resounded through the streets. But what, exactly, did that mean?

According to Traugott:

“Insurgents began uprooting the saplings planted to replace the larger trees cut down during the July Days. They also scavenged planks and beams from nearby construction sites and improvised tools for prying up paving stones. These classic raw materials were natural choices because they added mass, helped knit the structure together, and were usually found in abundance right at the site of the barricade construction. Between 5 p.m., when the first sporadic gunfire was exchanged, and 6:30, when pitched battles were initially reported, dozens of barricades had been completed on both the right and left side of the Seine. Individual structures took as little as fifteen minutes to erect.

“Even as the first barricades were going up, a frantic search for arms began. Some rebels had to be content with sabers, staffs, or scythes, but rifles were the weapons of choice, and bands of insurgents boldly seized them from small patrols of soldiers encountered in the streets.  Others joined in pillaging the premises of Lepage frères, the largest of several Paris gunsmiths whose establishments were looted.”

Why, you may ask, have I chosen to illustrate this post about a doomed revolt with the elegant photos of Nichole Robertson over at Little Brown Pen?

This little gem of a 16th-century church is Église Saint-Merri.  The insurgents staged a desperate last stand in and around this church, at the heart of the district where the fiercest fighting took place.

Empty chairs at empty tables. (Photo: Nichole Robertson)

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 unruly funeral procession.  In the theatrical production of  Les Miz, the army officer warns the insurgents via a loud-bailer:

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 it was true.  According to Traugott, “The casualty toll among the insurgents, mounting as high as 800 dead and wounded, was particularly heavy because the people of Paris withheld their support, leaving most of the committed insurgents of June 1832 to pay for their rebellion with their lives.”

If nothing else, please remember is that the whole point of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries  won.  Remember the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, Robespierre et al.?  This was different. In 1832, writes Traugott, “The last guns were silenced a barely twenty-four hours after hostilities had begun.”

Eléphant_Bastille_Les_Misérables

Gustave Brion’s illustration for the novel in 1865

Postscript on 27 July, 2013:  Comments are continuing to trickle in for this post.  Today, Reader Karen wrote to ask: “Have enjoyed reading all the comments, but am still searching for an answer to the elephant in the movie.  Did that actually occur?  Was there an elephant structure in the area during that period?   If so – why?  Will it help if I actually finish reading the novel?”

I couldn’t resist the educational opportunity.  From Wikipedia:

The Elephant of the Bastille was a monument in Paris which existed between 1813 and 1846. Originally conceived in 1808 by Napoleon, the colossal statue was intended to be created out of bronze and placed in the Place de la Bastille, but only a plaster full-scale model was built. At 24 m (78 ft) in height the model itself became a recognisable construction and was immortalised by Victor Hugo in his novel Les Misérables (1862) in which it is used as a shelter by the street urchin Gavroche. …

The elephant itself was described negatively by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables; little other account of contemporary public perception is available.

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. “The aediles,” as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.   —Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862

Happy birthday, Les Misérables! No, no – not the musical, the book

Thursday, May 31st, 2012
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My hero. (Engraving by Gustave Brion.)

It was, perhaps, my first love affair.

How old was I?  Ten, eleven, maybe?

It was the book I read late at night, pushing a blanket under the crack under my bedroom door, so my father wouldn’t see the light in my room and know I was still awake until the wee hours. (I lived in fear that he might go outdoors, and see the lamplight blazing from the second-story window.)  I lugged Victor Hugo‘s tome outdoors as during school recess in the bone-numbing Michigan winter, while my teachers tried to drive me into the group sports that made one “well-rounded.”  If I were 12 and not 11 (can’t recall, really) it would also have my secret companion while the teacher droned – carefully hidden half-inside the desk, so it could easily be shoved inside should the teacher begin patrolling the aisles. It was the touchstone of my youth.

Happy birthday, Les Misérables.  This year celebrates the 150th year since the book’s publication in 1862.

Clearly, I was not the only enthusiast.  Although it was scathingly reviewed, it was a popular success. According to Graham Robb’s 1997 biography (a long excerpt is at “A Practical Policy” here):

By the time Parts II and III appeared on 15 May, it was clear that Hugo had achieved the impossible: selling a work of serious fiction for the masses, or, for the time being, inspiring the masses with a desire to read it. It was one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached. The oxymoronic opinions of critics betray the unease created by Hugo — that the lower orders might also have their literature: ‘a cabinet de lecture novel written by a man of genius’, according to Lytton Strachey half a century later, still fighting ‘bad taste’. In other words, Les Misérables was a jolly good book, but Victor Hugo never should have written it.

The view from the street was an inspiring contrast. At six o’clock on the morning of 15 May, inhabitants of the Rue de Seine on the Left Bank woke to find their narrow street jammed with what looked like a bread queue. People from all walks of life had come with wheelbarrows and hods and were squashed up against the door of Pagnerre’s bookshop, which unfortunately opened outwards. Inside, thousands of copies of Les Misérables stood in columns that reached the ceiling. A few hours later, they had all vanished. Mme. Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out. But the nameless readers remained loyal. Factory workers set up subscriptions to buy what would otherwise have cost them several weeks’ wages.

What impressionable girl would not fall in love with Jean Valjean?  Of course, my role model was not Valjean, but rather Cosette, the milky, demure girl with sweetness of temperament. But some messages are enduring and subliminal:  the heart of the book is a love story, but not a sexual passion between a man and a woman, but the pure devotion of a middle-aged man for the orphaned girl he had adopted.  That, in itself, made it a good influence on a gawky, prepubescent girl – for other loves prove more enduring and reliable than the merely passionate ones.  And mankind’s universal refusal to extend charity towards its weakest members would be a durable lesson.

Emile Bayard's illustration from the original edition of "Les Misérables"

According to Robb:

 Les Misérables etches Hugo’s view of the world so deeply in the mind that it is impossible to be the same person after reading it — not just because it takes a noticeable percentage of one’s life to read it. The key to its effect lies in Hugo’s use of a sporadically omniscient narrator who reintroduces his characters at long intervals as if through the eyes of an ignorant observer — a narrator who can best be described as God masquerading as a law-abiding bourgeois….

The title itself is a moral test…. Originally, a miserable was simply a pauper (misere means ‘destitution’ as well as ‘misfortune’). Since the Revolution, and especially since the advent of Napoleon III, a miserable had become a ‘dreg’, a sore on the shining face of the Second Empire. The new sense would dictate a translation like Scum of the Earth. Hugo’s sense would dictate The Wretched.

A podcast of “Les ‘Nouveaux Misérables’, 150 ans après” is here.  And a  popular play about Hugo’s longtime muse and mistress Juliet Drouet celebrates the year.  On the play:

“All but ignored or forgotten in most official histories, Juliette exchanged with Victor 23,000 letters over their fifty-year love affair, letters which writer and actress Anthea Sogno has mined in order to write this exquisite and historically accurate play. Sogno herself gives a spellbinding and often very funny performance as Drouet.

2012  is a significant year for Hugo enthusiasts, as it is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Les Miserables, a manuscript that might not have ever been published, had Juliette Drouet not taken care of it during one of Hugo’s several exiles. Sogno’s play, recognised as part of the national Hugo commemorations, and supported by the Maisons de Victor Hugo, has given over 500 performances in 130 French cities, to more than 70,000 viewers.”

Thanks to her...

The book made its imprint on me, but certainly I’m not alone.  Robb writes:

One can see here the impact of Les Misérables on the Second Empire…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862.

(Oh, by the way, the immediate prompt for this post.  The movie of the 1985 musical is slated for a Christmas release – with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter as les Thénardiers, and beloved Valjean veteran Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop.  The first trailer was released yesterday, and is below.  Looks dynamite, though like the book, this clip has been scathingly reviewed in some quarters.)

Writing is a life of poverty? Not.

Friday, January 27th, 2012
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Waugh's digs at Piers Court, near Stinchcombe

For those of you entering this or that writing competition or perhaps applying for a grant, hoping to scrape together a few shekels so you can buy kitty litter – behold and weep!

Writing does not have to be a monastic dedication to a life of poverty – here are a few dwellings where famous writers had their desks and pencils.  Probably lots of other stuff as well – including maids, gardeners, and butlers.

Obviously, they mostly did not begin poor.  If one wants an independent income and a room of one’s own, it’s best to acquire them at birth.  (The old joke:  What does it take to make a small fortune as a writer?  Answer:  A large fortune.)

Vidal's domicile in Ravello, Italy

I’ve selected a few from Flavorwire’s 15 – based strictly on personal taste, the houses I would most love to live in.

Not surprisingly, Evelyn Waugh comes out tops with his home in Goucestershire.  Given my love of the English countryside and its stately homes – is this any surprise?

And for the winter break, I’ll take Gore Vidal‘s home on the Amalfi coast, just for the landscaping. It’s also known for handmade paper and plenty of limoncello. Pray for no earthquakes.

Where he lived in exile: Hugo

Perhaps it’s only a lifelong and slightly cheesy love for Jean Valjean that makes me hanker for Victor Hugo‘s “Hauteville House,” at 38 Rue Hauteville in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, where he lived during his exile from 1856 to 1870.  Hard to beat Guernsey for beautiful climate, and probably an improvement on Paris. This is the view from the garden, not the busy street. Thanks to the mild climate, the jardin is filled with trees and flowers.  Well, rather like Palo Alto.

We can’t leave without citing the ur-house, and the only one of the bunch that I’ve seen face to face:  William Shakespeare‘s house in Stratford.  Shakespeare, to his credit, did make his own money, in sometimes less-than-savory ways (he was accused of hoarding).

The Bard's stomping grounds

I’ve seen lots of writers’ homes – Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Elizabeth Bishop in Samambaia, Mikhail Bulgakov in Kiev, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, C.S. Lewis in Oxford, Robinson Jeffers in Carmel, Alexander Pushkin in Moscow and Odessa,Winston Churchill at Blenheim and Chartwell, Czeslaw Milosz in Kraków and Berkeley and Lithuania, even John Milton‘s humble digs in Chalfont St. Giles, a couple miles from where I lived on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Can’t say these top the preferred list – but they certainly stack up very well.  See the rest here.

Procrastination: Jonathan Franzen’s superglue solution, and Victor Hugo buck nekkid

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010
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Better with clothes on, I expect

I am supposed to be writing a wise and insightful essay on a poet over the next few days.  Supposed to be.

James Surowiecki’s recent article in the New Yorker points out the basic irrationality of procrastination.  We know we need to cut the grass, pay the traffic fine, study for the exam, meet the deadline, finish the essay …

Of course, writing is 90 percent procrastination, and I find I have to lock myself into solitary squalor as the dishes pile up, putzying about the house in bathrobed anxiety, letting phone calls roll to the answering machine, looking up random words in the dictionary, seeking for odd small tasks to distract (giving the pills to the dog, taking coffee cups to the kitchen).  But there are only so many snacks one can prepare for oneself; and too much caffeine to jack oneself up to a simulacrum of creativity might eventually require medical intervention.  Above all, I must be careful that I don’t do anything that appears to be work.  That will successfully justify non-writing.  And of course, one must limit checking email to only 25 times every half hour.  Katherine Ellison, who (ironically enough) has just published Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, knows what I am talking about:

I finally had to acknowledge that I was helpless in the face of my addiction, which has had me, especially in recent weeks, tapping my e-mail “refresh” button like a lab rat trying to get cocaine …  Why labor over a metaphor when I can check my moment-to-moment ranking on Amazon? Why struggle with a transition when Google Alerts may be telling me at this very moment that my book was featured on yet another tiny blog?

What makes it all worse is that my publisher has encouraged me to leap into the mind-sucking Internet vortex: to put up a Facebook page and post on it regularly, to join LinkedIn, send e-mail “blasts” and tweet away. And this raises a particular problem, in that my book chronicles my yearlong effort to curb extraneous distractions so as to focus on what’s truly important.

She points out that bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen has confessed to using superglue to block the Ethernet connection on his computer. Ellison has resorted to an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which, for a one-time fee of $10, will shut off your portal to the outside world for up to eight hours.  Wizard Fred Stutzman has sold his program to more than 75,000 people.  His new program, Anti-Social,  shuts off your access to top time-wasting sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, StumbleUpon, EHarmony, DateHookup and OkCupid.

Surowiecki tackles the problem at its roots:  Why do we procrastinate?  He calls it “a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict”:

… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel Solar: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”

My metaphor, the internal parliament, has been stolen.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve been saying that for years.  It will never be mine again. Maybe I should think of filing a lawsuit today.  That’s what I should be doing today…

All is forgiven, however, when Surowiecki drops this gem:   Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.”

Back to work…

Postscript 12/29: The trick, I think, is to learn to procrastinate faster