If I were thrown against a wall and blindfolded before a firing squad and informed in no uncertain terms that my personage would be executed if I refused to divulge the single novel that I consider the greatest ever written, I would give up the information. And that novel is . . . Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Hugo, whose life spanned most of the nineteenth century, was better known in his time as a poet, but his novel possesses everything that one should require of a masterpiece. Purists in the field of literature might be inclined to pick Ulysses because of its unequaled use of language, and others might lean towards War and Peace because of its scope and intellectual depth. Neither of these, however, had the impact on me that Les Miz did.
Victor Hugo was a genuine superstar in his time (a period when writers could receive the kind of appreciation and even hero worship that is now afforded actors and actresses). He was writing and publishing at a very young age. He married at twenty and had five children, but the marriage deteriorated when Mrs. Hugo basically got tired of her husband’s self-absorption and informed him that sharing his bed was not one of her favorite activities any longer. Hugo was appalled, but eventually recovered, and thereafter became a relentless ladies’ man. He had a prodigious sexual appetite, if biographers are to be believed, and enjoyed the kind of admiration that rock stars enjoy today. Through all of this he also had a mistress, the actress, Juliette Drouet, whom he bedded whenever and however he wished, and who remained implacably devoted to him until her last breath on earth.
Hugo, precocious from birth, was only twenty years of age when his first book of poetry came out to rave reviews, earning him a pension from King Louis XVIII. He was a passionate follower of the Romantic Movement in French literature and eventually became its leading proponent. He also supported Republicanism in France, spoke out against the death penalty and social injustice, and voluntarily exiled himself when Napoleon III seized power in 1851. He lived in Brussels, Jersey, and eventually Guernsey, the small island off the coast of England, until 1970. When the republic in France was restored, he returned to Paris and was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate. He was a champion of society’s unfortunate, the poverty-stricken and the sickly, and worked diligently to make their lives better.
Hugo was a well-known poet when he published what would be considered in most countries to be his most famous work: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris in France). Almost everyone knows the story of Quasimodo, the hunchback, who lives and works in the great church of Notre-Dame, and rings the bells, the result of which have made him deaf. Quasimodo sees the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda, about to be hanged for a crime she did not commit and swings down on his ropes from the cathedral to rescue her. He takes her back into the church where she now has sanctuary. However, crowd pressure causes the Court of Parliament to cancel Esmeralda’s right to sanctuary, and the people now storm the church to recapture her. Quasimodo, who has fallen in love with the gypsy girl himself, fights valiantly to keep the crowd out. To complicate matters, the Archdeacon of the church has also developed a lustful interest in this woman. The story moves to a violent but touching conclusion.
This is one of the few classic books that I think has produced an even better movie. I am referring to the Charles Laughton version which came out in 1939 (the same year as “Gone with the Wind,” which won all the awards). Laughton delivered one of the most memorable performances of his storied career, one that simply can’t be topped. He IS the Quasimodo we envision when discussing the character. However, there was an earlier version in 1923 starring Lon Chaney (no slouch at acting himself) and one that followed in 1956 starring the spectacularly beautiful Gina Lollobridgida as Esmeralda. Who cares who played the hunchback? It’s just great to look at Gina. This movie focuses more on Esmeralda than its predecessors, and follows the ending of the book more closely.
Les Miserables was published to great acclaim in 1862 after the author had toiled over the manuscript for many years. It is said that the shortest correspondence in history was made between Hugo and his publisher when Hugo sent a letter with only “?” written on it. His publisher replied, “!” The story is probably apocryphal but it is always worth repeating. The book is huge, running 1500 pages, with windy pontifications that do not advance the plot. I read the abridged version and would recommend it to the typical reader unless you’re simply interested in Hugo’s perception of the world.
Briefly summarized: Les Miserables is about Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who becomes a successful businessman despite being pursued for a minor crime he committed while attempting to go straight. Fate brings him in contact with a prostitute who dies while in his care, but not before extracting a promise from Valjean that he will retrieve her daughter, Cosette, from a couple who have been caring for her over the past several years. Javert, the relentless police officer in the tale, arrests Valjean and sends him to prison, but Valjean escapes after several years and manages to purchase Cosette from the venal couple who have been keeping her. Now Valjean must hide from both Javert and the couple who are soon demanding more money from him in exchange for the daughter he took. The two find refuge in a convent where Cosette studies and Valjean works as a gardener. Over the years, Cosette matures and eventually falls in love with a young man named Marius. But their potential marriage is blocked by Marius’s grandfather who does not want the young man to marry beneath his social station. Now things get REALLY testy, at which point I leave the reader to pursue the novel if he or she are so inclined.
This novel has everything: vivid characters, social and political intrigue, love, pathos, life at its best and worst (the best of times, the worst of times, etc.) and is a magnificent reflection of people and society in all its complexity. Victor Hugo died at age eighty-three, two years after the death of his longtime mistress, Juliette Drouet. By then he was considered a national hero, and supposedly more than two million people attended his funeral procession in Paris. His poetry does not hold up well in time or translation, it seems to me, but here is a sample that is at least worthy of reflection.
As in a Pond
As in a pond that sleeps o’erhung by trees,
Two things at once in many a soul one sees :–
The sky, which points, the surface pure and calm,
With all its rays and clouds the heart to charm;
And then the depth, slime, hideous, dark, and dead,
Where foul black reptiles swarm,
and vaguely tread.