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!

Comments

  1. #1 Bill McNeal
    March 13, 2013

    Ah, Jason… when “pitching” a product, it behooves one to bear in mind the evolution (tee-hee) of the reader from more-than- one-comma-to-a-sentence prehistoric times (prehistoric = “before I was born”) to the advanced, contemporary, pressed-for-time-to-find-stuff-on-Amazon Dude you are targeting in the here-and-now. Said Amazon Dude, hereinafter referred to as AD, has fulfilled the prophecies as spaketh by the prophet Orwell, and indulges only in a wonderfully refined newspeak wherein the boiled language has been purified such that a review of the Victor Hugo product aimed at AD (not BC,”Before Condensation”) should read suchlike: Les Miz Gr8 1!

    Now then. AD’s reaction to such a phrase as “on page 1,280 in the Pleiade edition” is rather predictable and involves mouse-clicking. So. Clearly you should consider a simple
    three-dot edit here. Continue to end of 1st sentence — AD will enjoy picturing himself prying loose the grill carrying a half-dead body — and STOP! Perhaps proceed with half of the summarizing-your-view statement since AD will think the bombast means some kind of bombing, which he goes for. Regarding Hugo’s larger theme, I suggest distillation to something on the order of “a bunch of sad sex!”. Now you’re selling the book, as long as you destroy all references to Chateaubriand, of whom no AD knows but might lead to mistaken rejections by vegan ADs. Hope this helps .

  2. #2 eric
    March 13, 2013

    I think I’ve stated before that I wasn’t a big fan of the book. Having said that, it IS a major work of western literature, I’m glad I read it, and I’d recommend others who are interested in gaining a broad understanding of western literature read it too.

  3. #3 Jonathan Lubin
    http://www.math.brown.edu/~lubinj/
    March 13, 2013

    I hope I haven’t mangled this account too badly: one French literary giant said to the other, “Who is France’s greatest writer?” Answer: “Victor Hugo, alas.”

  4. #4 proximity1
    March 13, 2013

    RE: Jonathan Lubin
    http://www.math.brown.edu/~lubinj/
    March 13, 2013

    I hope I haven’t mangled this account too badly: one French literary giant said to the other, “Who is France’s greatest writer?” Answer: “Victor Hugo, alas.”

    well, something’s lost, since in the original–asked of André Gide– it goes,

    «Quel est selon vous le plus grand poète français ?»

    «Victor Hugo, hélas!»

    which should read, in English, “Who , according to you (or, “in your opinion”, or more concisely, Who do you consider …” ) is the greatest French poet?” (one can reasonably read, for “poet,” “writer,” in English, though that is to somewhat editorialize the original.)

    So, there’s the “…according to you…,” which, left out, leaves us with an impression that its regretable that Hugo is thought by many to be France’s greatest poet instead of an acceptance by Gide that Hugo holds that place, and that Gide could wish that there was someone else as good or better than Hugo.

    Or maybe Gide was expressing in an indirect way a regret that Hugo enjoyed this status by default—reasoning that, if one polled the public, Hugo would have first-place, whether because he was read or not, appreciated or nor, simply because he was so famous. That’s a more respectable kind of lament, if true.

    Ambrose Bierce thought Samuel Clemens’ fame (idolization) was far overdone. Bernard Shaw complained that Shakespeare, too, was the object of an reflexive idolization –and tried to render him more a person human-scale.

  5. #5 proximity1
    March 13, 2013

    This,

    “Then again, on second reading, I discover that, through a miracle of aging, my sympathies have switched. The sewer passages, examined anew, seem to me a feat of genius. Hugo in those portions of Les Misérables—they constitute Books XII and XIII—has chosen to be the enemy of dreamland fantasizing. He is the anti–Jules Verne, even if he is gazing underground. He wants his readers to recognize that social progress, in contrast to fist-waving, has no alternative but to veer downward into practical matters, unto sewage disposal, than which nothing is lower. And he chooses to make this point aggressively, as if poking you in the chest. You bookish young barflies who pine for Jacobin uprisings, you Occupiers with your sleeping bags: you suppose, do you, that a passion for social justice requires shocking gestures? Outrages against public civility? Kindly incline your nose toward the page, says Victor Hugo. He not only agrees, he has outdone you.”

    in a movie review? written in 2013? “Fist-waving”? That’s not even among current aspirations, is it? unless you’re in Greece, or Spain or somewhere in North Africa.

    After video killed the radio-star, it went on to kill a lot of other stuff, too. Technology isn’t “kind” to fist-waving or even to thinking. How would Hugo or Chateaubraind cope with this? Or a better question, How are we going to cope with it? Go see a movie, based on, made famous by, a derivative Broadway musical?

  6. #6 proximity1
    March 13, 2013

    further reflection on Paul Berman’s using a movie review to–among other things– chide today’s lacklustre revoultionaries–again, uless one is in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya:

    I cannot help observing, too, that, whatever one says in derogation of the Occupy Wall Street movement–(and, yes, there are valid grounds to criticize it: there were tactics, and they weren’t that bad. But was there “strategy”? If so, what was it?)– at least these protesters actually took action, and did that personally. Many among them–like the people at the barricades in Hugo’s Les Misérables were not “safe”, as Berman is safe. Many had no job, some hadn’t even a regular roof over their head, and little in marterial possessions or money. They shared the fact they were so fed up with current norms that they went into the public spaces and camped, to protest and draw the attention of a digitally-besotted society which otherwise wasn’t noticing that society is in quiet and murderous disintegration–now and for some time already.

    Meanwhile, Paul Berman– like virtually every single other privilleged individual who is granted a socially-approved podium–Berman is safe, completely safe. He can read and write, and castigate the campers from the comfort of his safe-and-approved position. The mass communications media’s talking-heads, commenters, are, like Berman, also completely safe–and like Berman, they stay that way by being careful not to stray across the lines which divide what power will tolerate in speech and writing.

    These safety-first writers and speakers have a complete monopoly on the use of every noticable outlet for mass communication. Only fringe rap artists and café poets take more daring critical stands and speak more directly about real urgent issues. As long as that is the case, we’re going to continue to live in a society which is steadily being brutalized by a combination of powerful people who help themselves by the digital-age equivalent of murder and pillage for profit, and a chattering class of intelligencia who offer hide-saving puff-balls for a response when they aren’t simply indulging in straight-out distractionary silliness.

    The internet, instead of being a means of activist inspiration has, in the First World West, become a tool of and a school for teaching intolerance and moral shallowness by daily practice and repetition. Thus, unlike in China, where it poses an actual potential danger to the power-structure, in the West (definitely including Europe) it’s a means of trivializing any serious thought, of bullying into silence any criticism which might provoke discouragement –”Google ‘lighten up’ ” for example–when, clearly, there will be no serious attention or action until matters become almost inconceivably dire.

    And the Occupy Wall Street people have already recognized from direct personal experience that cicumstances are dire.

    Berman, on the other hand, can wax all literary about the metaphors of Valjean bearing young Marius down into the refuge of the catacombs of the city.

    Things in current-day France are no better. No better. If possible, they’re worse. Today, for example, as I listened to a program on state radio’s “France Culture” network, the host and guests were taking a fine-comb literary-psycho-social-analysis to Bruno Dumont’s new film, “Camille Claudel, 1915″ as the French do such stuff–and their art at this has few if any rivals for hyper-analysis. These people, too are so very, very safe.

    As the tedious discussion of mental states droned on, I said to myself, “Do these people not notice that their wider society is quite literally disintegrating around them as they chatter on about the relationship between Paul Claudel and his sister, Camille?”

    A de rigeur Pleasant Demeanor is the first refuge–and a powerful social tool– of intelligencia’s scoundrels; when that fails, there is the bank wire-transfer and the flight-booking via internet.

  7. #7 eric
    March 13, 2013

    Proximity1 :

    in a movie review?

    No, he’s reviewing the book.

    further reflection on Paul Berman’s using a movie review to–among other things– chide today’s lacklustre revoultionaries

    No, he’s using a book review to chide folk like OWS.

    Berman is safe, completely safe. He can read and write, and castigate the campers from the comfort of his safe-and-approved position

    Yeah! Down with safety! In the new free republic, we will ensure that nobody can level criticism unless they live in fear of losing their life!

    The internet, instead of being a means of activist inspiration has, in the First World West, become a tool of and a school for teaching intolerance and moral shallowness by daily practice and repetition.

    Yeah, down with the internet! In the free new republic, we will turn off this tool of bourgesoisie oppression!

    A de rigeur Pleasant Demeanor is the first refuge–and a powerful social tool– of intelligencia’s scoundrels

    Yeah, down with pleasant demeanors, unnecessarily capitalized or otherwise! In the new free republic, having a pleasant demeanor will be a caning offense!

    when that fails, there is the bank wire-transfer and the flight-booking via internet.

    Oh, won’t somebody PLEASE think of the check printers and travel agents!

    Okay, enough fun for now.

  8. #8 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 13, 2013

    Proximity1 –

    Thanks for sharing, but after leaving three long comments, I’d appreciate it if you took a break. Thanks!

  9. #9 proximity1
    March 22, 2013

    RE : March 13, 2013
    Proximity1 – Thanks for sharing, but after leaving three long comments, I’d appreciate it if you took a break. Thanks!

    Okay. Read and respected. Here’s the balance-sheet after nine day’s break

    Not a single new post in the interim. Instead, no further comment –and nothing deserving respect or reply in other comment/rebuttal here since I last posted.

    So, did my three “long” posts preëmpt any others’ comment? It would seem they didn’t.

    What I draw from the experience is that discussions of books, films, or ethereal literary theory about social justice are welcome. Discussion of real-world aspects of social justice, especially if they relate to current events, simply aren’t really welcome here.