And now for something completely different.
As a high school freshman I was assigned to read a heavily abridged version of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. I loved it immediately. Later I resolved to procure a copy of the full, unabridged version, complete in all of its 1200+ page glory. I finally got around to doing that in college. Despite its immense bulk, I found it almost impossible to put down. It was readable on many levels: As a ripping good yarn filled with suspense and plot twists, as a meditation on social justice, or as a study of some of the most interesting and memorable characters in all of fiction. When I finally reached the end I was sorry to have finished it. I wanted it to go on for another thousand pages.
Fast forward to the present. Having grown tired of a steady diet of horror, mysteries, and political thrillers, I decided to have another go at the novel. Would it be as good as I remembered? So I went to my book shelf, pulled out my copy, and started reading. I was hooked anew inside of two pages.
I’ve decided to plow through the whole thing once again. And since I find so many of novel’s themes resonate with my present interests, why not get a few blog entries out of it? This is the first of what I intend to be an occasional series discussing the novel. I don’t know if anyone else will find this interesting. But let’s give it a try. It’s my blog after all!
I regard Les Miserables as the finest novel ever written. Granted, I haven’t read them all. But I think it is unlikely I shall ever encounter a better one as long as I live. So here goes…
The novel opens as follows:
In 1815, M. Charles Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D–. He was a man of seventy-five, and had occupied the bishopric of D– since 1806. Although it in no manner concerns, even in the remotest degree, what we have to relate, it may not be useless, were it only for the sake of exactness in all things, to notice here the reports and gossip which had arisen on his account from the time of his arrival in the diocese.
Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do. (pp. 1)
Hugo now goes on for more than fifty pages describing every conceivable detail of the Bishop’s life and thought. And he’s not kidding when he says the Bishop’s life in no manner affects what is to come. Indeed, in terms of the novel’s main plot, the Bishop’s sole purpose is to be the agent of salvation for Jean Valjean, who we will not encounter for some time yet. Clearly Hugo was writing in an era when people had more time to read. Nowadays a writer dare not put off beyond page three the novel’s first explosion. Spending fifty pages developing a minor character is pretty much unheard of.
We also have here the first of many examples of a Hugoism, by which I mean one of those simple statements that perfectly captures an eternal truth of human existence. One of the reasons for reading older literature is for the appreciation it gives you of the constants of human life. That gossip and innuendo can be as important as the truth in deciding a person’s destiny is no less true today than it was a century and a half ago.
On page two we get our second Hugoism:
M. Myriel had to submit to the fate of every new-comer in a small town, where there are many tongues to talk, and but few heads to think. (pp. 2)
Sounds about right.
So what sort of person was M. Myriel, aka Bishop Bienvenu? Well, a saint. He devotes nearly all of his time to the poor. He gives away nearly everything he has, which would be adequate to sustain a very comfortable standard of living, to charitable causes. He is motivated to do this by his simple and humble religious faith. A typical example of his humility is this:
One day he arrived at Senez, formerly the seat of a bishopric, mounted on an ass. HIs purse was very empty at the time, and would not permit any better conveyance. The mayor of the city came to receive him at the gate of the episcopal residence, and saw him dismount from his ass with astonishment and mortification. Several of the citizens stood near by, laughing. “Monsieur Mayor,” said the bishop, “and Messieurs citizens, I see what astonishes you; you think it shows a good deal of pride for a poor priest to use the same conveyance which was used by Jesus Christ. I have done it from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity.” (pp. 10)
You might think that fifty pages of idle development of a character destined to leave the story before much longer would be excruciatingly dull. But you would be wrong. These pages are riveting. How did Hugo pull this off?
I see three main literary devices at work here. First, much of the Bishop’s life is related via anecdotes. As such, there are plenty of “stories within a story,” each with its own little plot, characters and suspense.
For example, Hugo relates the story of the time the Bishop had to cross, on foot, a mountain trail known to house some vicious bandits. Everyone implores the Bishop not to do it, that it is too dangerous. He insists nonetheless, on the grounds that there is a poor village on the other side of the mountains that requires his services. We get dialogue such as this:
“Monseigneur, they will rob you.”
“I have nothing.”
“They will kill you.”
“A simple old priest who passes along muttering his prayer? No, no; what good would it do them?”
“Oh, my good sir, suppose you should meet them!”
“I should ask them for alms for my poor.”
So the bishop makes the journey. And not only does he make it across the mountains, but the bandits are actually moved to return their stolen booty to the villagers. Great stuff!
Second, Hugo frequently has his characters discourse on various political and social issues of the day. Hugo is so eloquent and serious in this regard, that these excerpts are a pleasure to read. More on this in a moment.
Third, Hugo introduces some tension among the characters. Even as we are spending our time following the Bishop on his various adventures, we are introduced to two further characters who live with him: his sister and a servant girl. And the sister is not nearly as in love with the Bishop’s impoverished lifestyle as he is. This tension considerably enhances the itnerest of this part of the story.
Now, regular readers of this blog are aware that I have a pretty low opinion of religion. Given that, you might think I wouldn’t go for all of this hero worship of a religious character. But you would be wrong. You see, I don’t believe Hugo subscribes to some simplistic worldview in which religion is equivalent to goodness and morality, while atheism is equivalent to immorality and debauchery.
There are two incidents where the Bishop has run-ins with atheists. In the first, he encounters a Senator who discourses for a page and a half on what utter nonsense religion is. Here is an excerpt:
“In fact I tell you, Monsieur Bishop, I have my philosophy, and I have my philosophers. I do not allow myself to be entangled with nonsense. But it is necessary there should be something for those who are below us, the bare-foots, knife-grinders, and other wretches. Legends and chimeras are given them to swallow, about the soul, immortality, paradise, and the stars. They munch that; they spread it on their dry bread. He who has nothing bedsides, has the good God — that is the least good he can have. I make no objection to it, but I keep Monsieur Naigeon for myself. The good God is good for the people.”
To which the Bishop replies:
“That is the idea,” he exclaimed. “This materialism is an excellent thing, and truly marvellous; reject it who will. Ah! when one has it, he is a dupe no more; he does not stupidly allow himself to be exiled like Cato, or stoned like Stephen, or burnt alive like Joan of Arc. Those who have succeeded in procuring this admirable materialism have the happiness of feeling that they are irresponsible, and of thinking that they can devour everything in quietness — places, sinecures, honours, power rightly or wrongly acquired, lucrative recantations, useful treasons, savoury capitulations of conscience, and that they will enter their graves with their digestion completed. (pp. 28-29)
This continues for a few sentneces more.
Why would I tolerate this? Because I don’t believe Hugo’s target here is atheism per se. He is instead criticizing nihilism and selfishness. I agree with the Senator’s opinion that religion is nonsense, but beyond that I loathe him as much as does the Bishop. The Bishop’s retort comes at the end of one of the most loathsome defenses of greed and selfishness I have seen in some time. I was cheering the Bishop on as he delivered his statement. I don’t believe Hugo was saying that the Senator is the inevitable end product of atheism, merely one representative of a type that is all too familiar.
I am moved to this view also because of the Bishop’s second run-in with an atheist. The Bishop is discussing the finer points of the French Revolution with an old “conventionist” (perhaps someone could tell me what that means), who is an atheist and a social outcast in the town. The Bishop pompously enters into their conversation with all sorts of preconceived notions about the lack of moral rectitude of the conventionist. But in the course of the conversation, the conventionist gets the better of him, forcing him to confront some of the hypocirsy of the Church:
You have told me that you were the bishop, but that tells me nothing about your moral personality. Now then, I repeat my question — Who are you? You are a bishop, a prince of the church, one of those men who are covered with gold, with insignia, and with wealth, who have fat livings — the see of D–, fifteen thousand francs regular, ten thousand francs contingent, total twenty-five thousand francs — who have kitchens, who have retinues, who have good dinners, who eat moor-hens on Friday, who strut about in your gaudy coach, like peacocks, with lackeys before and lackeys behind, and who have palaces, and who roll in your carriages in the name of Jesus Christ who went bare-footed. (pp. 37)
By the end of the conversation, the Bishop is forced to rethink his prejudices.
Also telling is a chapter in which Hugo describes the religious views of the Bishop. We are told the Bishop had very little interest in dogma and rituals. For example:
He did not attempt to make his robe assume the folds of Elijah’s mantle; he cast no ray of the future upon the dark scroll of event; he sought not to condense into a flame the glimmer of things; he had nothing of the prophet and nothing of the magician. His humble soul loved; that was all. (pp. 50-51)
Overall my impression of Hugo is of one who was more concerned with what people did than with what they believed. The Bishop was moved to charity and poverty by his religious faith. An atheist who behaved in the same way would be no less noble in Hugo’s eyes. It is actions, not thoughts, with which Hugo is concerned.
This tension recurs throughout the novel, of course. Jean Valjean is moved by his religious rebirth to commit himself to justice and good works. But his antagonist, Inspector Javert, is moved by the same faith towards intolerance and cruelty. Clearly this is no simple story of religion good, atheism bad. But we will save such thoughts for when those characters actually appear.
Instead, let us close with another Hugoism. Try to read this and not think of various braying, right-wing hacks, and other species of modern Social Darwinists:
We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. Its counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe — history. Juvenal and Tacitus only reject it. In our days, a philosophy which is almost an official has entered into its service, wears its livery, and wiats in its antechamber. Success; that is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity. Win in the lottery and you are an able man. The victor is venerated. To be born with a caul is everything. Have but luck, and you will have the rest; be fortunate, and you will be thought great. Beyond the five or six great exceptions, which are the wonder of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold. …Let a notary rise to a deputy; let a sham Corneille write Tiridate; let a eunuch come into the possession of a harem; let a military Prudhomme accidentally win the decisive battle of an epoch, let an apothecary invent pasteboard soles for army shoes, and lay-up, by selling this pasteboard instead of leather for the army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, four hundred thousand livres in the funds; let a pack-pedlar espouse usury and bring her to be of seven or eight millions, of which he is the father and she the mother, let a preacher become a bishop by talking through his nose; let the steward of a good house become so rich on leaving service that he is made Minister of Finance; — men call that Genius, just as they call the face of Mousqueton, Beauty, and the bearing of Claude, Majesty. They confound the radiance of the stars of heaven with the radiations which duck’s foot leaves in the mud. (pp. 46)
Zing! I wish Hugo would stop holding back. Maybe later in the novel he’ll tell us what he really thinks…