Why is it that the poor must always suffer? What is it that makes them wretched and, well, miserable? In his own meandering way, Victor Hugo looked at that question one hundred and fifty years ago, and brought forth his answer as one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. First undertaken during the reign of Louis-Philippe, and finished over a decade later, after Hugo's exile to the Channel Islands, Les Miserables has filled its rather wide berth on the shelf of yesteryear's popular social fiction, both in size and substance.
Hugo's monsterpiece of fiction and history both real and imagined covers an epic swath of post-Revolutionary French history. The battle of Waterloo, the revolving-door governments, and the numerous street barricade rebellions of the city of Paris during the 1830s all serve as a tapestry draped behind (and sometimes over) the story the author brings forth. His characters stroll, lurch, arise, and fall before the great onrushing cart of Gallic events.
As if this were not an ambitious enough undertaking, Hugo had a mission. Amidst the redemption story, the love story, the bravery and heroism story, Hugo's text is larded with thick veins of commentary on the conditions and problems of France and Paris.
There was sonething of the Paris gamin in Poquelin the clown who was born in les Halles, and something of him in Beaumarchais. Gaminerie is a manifestation of the Gallic spirit, good sense to which a certain pungency is sometimes added, like the alcohol in wine.... The gamin is respectful, sardonic, and insolent. He has bad teeth because he is underfed, and fine eyes because he has sharp wits.... In a word, he amuses himself because he is unhappy.
The paperback Penguin edition of Les Miserables is unannotated and without any sort of glossary, so the reader unfamiliar with both gamin and French clowns of the early nineteenth century might be lost. Dante pursued this practice to the extreme in The Divine Comedy. (As did Dennis Miller, although Miller was somewhat less successful than either Hugo or Dante.) On the other hand, at over twelve hundred pages of closely-set type and weighing in around two pounds, perhaps Les Miserables doesn't really need a glossary.
What it wants, says translator Norman Denny, is some editing. "[Hugo] is in many ways the most exasperating of writers," Denny reveals in his introduction, "long-winded, extravagent in his use of words (it is not uncommon to find eight or ten adjectives appended to a single noun), sprawling and self-indulgent." Denny relegates two of the lengthier digressions in the text to the back of the book in seperate appendices, one on the concepts behind the convent and one on the use and origins of argot. Denny is to be commended for a fine effort that surpasses previous, more mechanical, translations.
Given that the language is less of a translated French novel and more of the style of the contemporaneous Dickens, what are we to make of Les Miserables? It begins with the tale of an insignificant but model country priest who, in Paris for a routine matter, meets Napoleon by chance and gains appointment to the bishophric in the city of Digne. He earns a reputation for charity and kindliness beyond the standard mien of the priesthood. One day he attends the death of a member of the former revolutionary government, who spars with the bishop about the value of human life. To the bishop's condemnation of the killing of Louis XVII by revolutionaries, he replies:
"What are you mourning? An innocent child? If so, I will weep with you. But if you are mourning a royal child, I will ask you to consider. To me the case of the brother of Cartouche, an innocent child who was hanged by the armpits on the Place de Grève until he died, for no other crime than that he was the brother of Cartouche, is no less grievous than that of the grandson of Louis XV, an innocent child martyred in the Temple for the crime of being the grandson of Louis XV.... Are we weeping for all innocents, all martyrs, all children, whether low-born or of high estate? Then I will weep with you....I will weep with you for the children of kings if you will weep with me for the children of the people."
"Iweep for them all."
"But equally! And if the balance is to be tilted either way it must be on the side of the people, for they have suffered longer."
It is a theme that Hugo returns to again and again in the long course of Les Miserables. But on this matter, he fails to run with his baton, throwing it in the air and twirling it around his wrist instead.
The next stage is the story of paroled bread thief Jean Valjean, whose route on release from the galleys intersects that of the bishop of Digne. Finding no inn in the town that will take him in, and refused even space in the stable, Valjean takes a room and some silverware at the bishop's place. Caught by the gendarmes, forgiven by the bishop, and sent packing with the silverware and a pair of candlesticks, Valjean absconds to the town of Montreuil-sur-mer. He arrives there just in time to save the children of the captain of gendarmes from a fire and the region from financial ruin, by revolutionizing the manufacturing process of costume jewelry. Valjean's initial investment of a few hundred francs becomes a fortune within a matter of years, and he is speedily elected to the honorary post of mayor, just like Ross Perot.
Fantine, a young woman who has fallen in with a crowd of Paris frat-boys, has a child, is abandoned by her lover, and takes a job in Valjean's fake jewelry factory only to be forced into a life of prostitution when an extremist supervisor finds she has a child out of wedlock. Needless to say, she lingers and dies.
Our next miserable is actually an entire family, the Thenardiers, who have somehow managed to fill a goodly number of the slots reserved inLes Miserables for the poor in the streets of Paris and elsewhere. Papa Thenardier, a man self-made in the ruins of Waterloo, where he found venture capital in the pockets of the dead and dying, and Mama Thenardier run an inn when we first meet them, it is they to whom Fantine turns when attempting to find a foster home for her child, Cosette, while she goes off to work at the factory. If ever there was a case for intervention by Children's Services, this is it. With a few minutes of observation and a cash payment, Fantine dumps the child at the Sergeant of Waterloo tavern and leaves. The Thenardier marriage has already two daughters, and by the end of the book will have spawned three sons as well.
Because the Thenardiers are poor (and poorer and poorer as they progress through the story), they can but for the most part come to ill ends. Mama Thenardier dies in prison; daughter Eponine and that lovable gamin boy Gavroche die from bullet wounds at the barricade in the Rue de la Chanvrerie; and the two youngest boys, who had already been turned out by the family, adopted, and rudely thrust back out on the streets, take up Gavroche's place as the gamins of Paris. (Destroy one and two shall grow in his place!) Only after a futile attempt at blackmail, during which his expectations are more than met, does Thenardier meet his end: as a slave trader in South America with his remaining daughter, Azelma. Pretty touching, eh?
Our other characters with whom we may sympathize: Enjolras and his lovable band of student radicals; Monsieur Mabeuf, professional gardener who loses his fortune and--is shot!; Marius, lawyer and grandson of the bourgeois Monsieur Gillenormand; and, of course, Cosette, heiress to six hundred thousand francs. All in all, it's a pretty high-toned crowd for a book that's supposedly about the oppressed and the disenfranchised.
"The poor aren't like the rest of us," you might muse, "they're dull and, well, unappetizing." Not only that, but they're accident- and disaster-prone. Not a single major character lives past the end of Les Miserables without the possession of a fortune. Perhaps Hugo's intention was to show that you just can't live without money, but a number of the bourgeoisie bite the dust during the course of the book, as well. It's odd and somewhat troubling. Don't worry about it too much, though. If you pick up Les Miserables, at least you'll have read the story. In the theater you can buy a Les Mis sweatshirt, mug, pin, program--and possibly even underwear--but you won't find a copy of the book.