When Les Misérables hits UK screens, sales of Victor Hugo’s magnum opus are likely to benefit, but readers expecting to relive the romance of Cosette and Marius may be disappointed. As Hugo informs his reader, “This book is a drama, whose leading personage is the infinite.”
It is often forgotten, because the nineteenth century was so defined by its great novels, that Dickens’ experience as a sketch-writer developed his portraits of peculiar characters, or that Zola’s work was often journalism by other means. Hugo first earned fame as a poet. As a consequence, Les Misérables is brilliantly written but frequently abstract. Who else would include a chapter on ‘the convent as an abstract idea’ just at the moment the reader is breathlessly waiting to find out whether the hero has escaped the treacherous Javert?
While Hugo had a gift for creating characters that were subsequently interpreted by others, he remained a poor writer of them. Valjean, Javert, Fantine – all are defined by what they represent. There is practically no memorable or quotable dialogue in the entire book – only the boorish, oft-philosophising and more often indecent Monsieur Thenardier (a Gérard Depardieu-like figure) might qualify for a minor role in the work of any other great novelist.
Nonetheless, a novel cannot be truly great without characters, so it is as well that Hugo devotes so much of his energy to portraying Paris and the Parisians. After all, ‘to stray is human, to saunter is Parisian.’ Amiable Paris, which is made to laugh, to condone, is cheered by ugliness, diverted by vice and yet is made ‘heroic, by dint of passion.’ Not the Paris of a Woody Allen film, then, but all of the coexistant pretentiousness and grubbiness of Les Halles or Le Marais.
This is the romanticisation, rather than idealisation of Paris – two very different concepts. A recent article in Foreign Affairs complained that the new film minimised Hugo’s appreciation of revolution. Indeed the martyrdom of the revolutionaries was admired by Hugo and the French at large, who refer to the events as ‘the three glorious days.’ On the other hand, Valjean’s endurance of suffering, his attempts to rebuild his life and redeem his soul in the face of the stern, unfeeling rationality of the law is the centrepiece of the novel, and the reason for its moral ambiguity. It is clear that Hugo admired virtue more than reason, but whether this was merely because he considered the government to be so tepid and petty is unclear. Then again, who would not chafe at the constraints of exile on Jersey with the memory of Paris and great events fresh in the mind?
Humanism, if anything, might be considered Hugo’s creed. In his own words; ‘In proportion as I advance in life, I grow more simple, and I become more and more patriotic for humanity.’ The worth of a society could be assessed by its treatment of its most vulnerable and by whether it allowed humanity to flourish. Organised religion, like government, crowded out the goodness of humanity:
“A dogma is a dark chamber. Through a religion you see the solar spectre of God, but not God… As human religion retires from this mysterious and jealous edifice, divine religion enters it. Let solitude reign in it and you will feel heaven there.”
Belonging to no clear social order himself, Hugo claimed that if you could gaze past the people, you would ‘perceive truth’. Whether it was truth itself, or merely the people in full flight that Hugo captured, the contribution itself loomed as large as Hugo himself.