Book Review: 'Novel Of The Century,' By David BelloDavid Bellos' new book is a comprehensive guide to Les Misérables, and a compelling story in its own right, packed with detail about the creation and publication of Victor Hugo's massive masterpiece.
The choices you make in the face of desperation, the morality of violent resistance to injustice, the ever-widening chasm of social inequality: Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables is unquestionably relevant today. Hugo himself said, "I do not know if it will be read by all, but I wrote it for everyone." But at around 1,500 pages, the book's sheer size may intimidate some readers — even devoted fans refer to it as "the brick."
Luckily, Princeton professor David Bellos has provided a handy introduction with The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables. Whether you're contemplating a run at Les Misérables or returning to it, Bellos' book is a perfect guide — as well as a compelling story in its own right.
Like a good French Romantic, Victor Hugo made his everyday life as dramatic as possible; a book about him couldn't be boring if it tried. He wrote most of Les Misérables in exile on the island of Guernsey, within sight of the French coast, where he'd fled into exile days before Napoleon III outlawed him. Bellos happily gives us anecdotes about the year Hugo spent trying to communicate with ghosts through a tapping table (they told him to finish the book), or the open-air baths he took every morning in a tin tub on the roof of his house, where he would wave to his mistress Juliette in her house across the way (she wrote him notes telling him to be careful of catching a cold).
Later on, the story picks up pace and becomes surprisingly suspenseful as Bellos takes us through the months leading up to the novel's publication, from the debt Hugo's "carrot-haired" publisher Albert Lacroix had to incur to pay Hugo's advance and purchase the 22 tons of lead he would need to print the novel on his steam-powered presses, to the extreme measures Hugo and Lacroix took to ensure that no one could pirate the book before publication — manuscripts, proofs and corrections going back and forth on the thrice-weekly steam ferry between Guernsey and Belgium, often delayed by storms and rough seas.
Bellos makes it very clear that Les Misérables might never have seen the light of day if not for a formidable team of women, headed by Hugo's redoubtable wife Adèle, her sister Julie, and his mistress and confidante Juliette. Juliette undertook the mammoth task of turning Hugo's manuscript, with all its crossings-out, notes, and scribbled corrections, into a fair copy for publication; she worked daily for months until her eyes gave out. Adèle went to Paris on the eve of publication when her banished husband could not, on a publicity tour to raise anticipation to a fever pitch while revealing not a word of the novel's text. It worked: The 6,000 copies printed in Paris sold out in two days.
But this isn't only the story of the Hugo household; it's a guide to an extraordinary book that everyone should read. There are chapters on everything from the religion and politics of Les Misérables to the significance of colors in the age before chemical dyes (blue was expensive and thus royalist; green was bourgeois; red and yellow were cheap and low-status). Bellos has struck the ideal balance of top-notch research and readable prose in the chapters that deftly lead us through the world of the novel and its characters.
I first read Les Misérables as a teenager, in Norman Denny's notoriously inaccurate translation; still, I loved that book and have always returned to it. I can forgive the aspects that haven't aged well because of the truths it tells. It's a book that dares you to change the world — and tells you that even if you fail, the world you leave behind will be changed by the choices you made and the life you lived.
I don't think my experience is unique. Through the years, thousands of people — especially young people — have seen the musical, read the book, and fallen in love. As Bellos says, "I think it's significant that a higher proportion of baristas and office staff than literature professors I've met have read Les Misérables from end to end." Hugo's novel now has online communities of fans who discuss it with intense enthusiasm, as fans do; Bellos touches on these in a your-dad-writes-about-the-internet moment, the only bum note in the book.
And if you haven't yet read it? Les Misérables, despite its brick-like appearance, is divided into 365 short chapters that fly by; even if you limit yourself to a chapter a day, you could easily read the entire book in a year. If you do, The Novel of the Century will be an engaging and enlightening companion in a year well spent.
Liza Graham is a mezzo-soprano, writer and Shakespearean text coach. If you are looking for a good translation of Les Misérables, she recommends this one.