Writing at The New Republic, Paul Berman has an interesting, if rather lengthy, article about Les Miserables, the book. I like his opening:
The most famous and revealing scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables get underway fairly late in the novel—on page 1,280 in the Pléiade edition—at the moment when the physically powerful Jean Valjean pries loose an iron-bar sewer grill in a Paris street and prepares to escape into the underground tunnels, carrying on his back the half-dead body of young Marius, the barricade fighter. It is 1832, a year of insurrections. Marius has been battling against the National Guard at Les Halles. The republican rebels have gone down to defeat; the monarchy will stay in power; the guardsmen have broken into the tavern that serves as rebel headquarters; the massacre is about to begin. And Jean Valjean—who is present at the barricade only because he has discovered that his adopted daughter, Cosette, is in love with young Marius, and Marius has decided to sacrifice his life to the doomed revolution, and Jean Valjean, who detests the young man, will do anything for his daughter and therefore is determined to rescue the barricade fighter from his chosen martyrdom—what a plot!—Jean Valjean, steely ex-con, cool under fire, disdainful of authority, bitter, self-reliant, climbs downward with the unconscious young man into the fetid sewer beneath the street.
That’s good writing. I like his closing, too:
You might wonder what the erotic sadness of Jean Valjean’s renunciation has to do with Hugo’s larger theme of sadness in regard to poverty and social oppression. But why wonder? Les Misérables is a book about misery, and not just about poverty—misery, which, even in French, denotes something larger and vaguer and more emotional than a mere economic condition. The book is a conscious attempt to advance the appreciation of sadness that, in The Genius of Christianity, Chateaubriand identified as the noblest achievement of civilization; and the appreciation ought properly to be made from every angle: the religious, the socio-economic, and also the erotic. Naturally I should add that Hugo’s attempt to advance Chateaubriand’s project in Les Misérables contains any number of elements that, from the standpoint of readers who think they know a thing about life and literature, can only seem laughably over-written, over-wrought, over-long, and over-stuffed in the Victorian style. The book is a marathon of bombast. And yet none of these flaws, if they are flaws (they are not!), can explain why, a century and a half after the publication of Les Misérables, enormous crowds are lining up at movie theaters to see the latest of an endless series of popular adaptations, just as half of Paris lined the streets in 1885 to salute Hugo’s bier as it was carried to the Panthéon: testimony to the reality that Hugo was, in spite of every valid point made against him by his detractors, magnificent; and Chateaubriand, his theoretical guide, was, at times, still more so. And Virgil—“O poet! O my divine master!” cries out Hugo—was a god, and remains a god, and has been reigning majestically over the Western imagination for two thousand years. (Emphasis added)
That boldface remark pretty well-summarizes my own view of the novel.
In between that opening and closing is a lengthy discussion of various Hugo-related topics, in particular the extent to which he was influenced by the French poet Chateaubriand. It’s all very high-brow, but worth a look!