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The Strange Power of Les Mis, the Book

Victor Hugo's Hard-nosed Melodrama

Rick Payette/Flickr

The most famous and revealing scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables 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.

Jean Valjean pulls the grill back into place above his head. And as he goes creeping through the tunnel, we readers ought to be able to detect amid the gloom a peculiar propulsive energy in Hugo’s book, the mysterious subterranean power that, over the last century and a half, has somehow allowed the gigantic, sprawling text to assume one new shape after another: a theater play in the 1860s, a series of parodies mocking the novel from the same era, silent movies and talkies in the twentieth century (Fredric March and Charles Laughton, among others), a TV mini-series (John Malkovich and Gérard Depardieu), a musical-theater play in France in the 1980s, which evolved into a British production, which ran on Broadway as Les Mis and has been seen, or so it is claimed, by sixty million people, which has now emerged as a teary-eyed movie-opera called Les Misérables, the soundtrack to which has reached number one on the Billboard chart, and which will doubtless give way, soon enough, to still odder, weepier presentations. Les Misérables is many things, but never has it been dead. It respires. It procreates. And there, in the viscous murk of the pages devoted to sewage and tunnels, you can glimpse, bubbling in the mud, a few telling signs of the procreative power at work.

At each of the transition points in the giant book, when the story is about to turn a corner, Hugo interrupts his recitation to launch into long-winded disquisitions on historical and social-scientific themes. In this instance, when the sewer grill clangs shut, he produces a dossier on sewage called “The Intestines of the Leviathan,” with Paris identified as the Leviathan and the sewers as its intestines. The problem of mass poverty, or la misère, has been the novel’s insistent theme from the title onward. By this point in the book Hugo has already made clear at preposterous length that he advocates the grandest of social reforms, beginning with a reform of the human heart. He has shuddered in horror at medieval superstitions; has abominated the police; has throbbed with sympathy for the downtrodden. 

Here and there he has made the case for specific ameliorative policies. Compulsory and free primary education: “the right to the alphabet.” Amnesty and compassion for men such as Jean Valjean whose hardships have driven them to theft, and for women such as Fantine whose hardships have driven them to prostitution. Against capital punishment. Against convents and monasteries: “Who says convent, says swamp.” Hugo has never gotten around to explaining, though, how any of these changes of heart or of policy will do much to alleviate the deeper problem. Higher wages: a good idea. Where will the money come from? No explanation. I do not mean to suggest that, as you go floating along the sundry streams that make up Les Misérables, the lack of wonky specificity will nag at your reading pleasure. In the years since 1862, when the book came out, not a single person has rummaged its pages in hope of discovering a ten-point program.

Still, Hugo himself evidently felt the lack, and in the chapter on the Leviathan and its intestines he presents at last a detailed and practical-sounding proposal. He explains that, under Napoleon, the state undertook a public-works project to modernize the medieval sewage tunnels and cesspools, with admirable results. But progress cries out for more. The sewers, as of 1862, release their wastes into the Seine and the sea. Hugo proposes that, instead, a “double tubular apparatus” be constructed that, instead of polluting the waters, will recycle human manure into the farmlands. Parisian guano will raise the agricultural yield. The tubular apparatus will recycle the pristine waters of the countryside back into the city, and the entire setup will attenuate the problem of poverty—this, together with a new economic policy. “Add the suppression of parasites, and it will be solved.” The splendor of Paris will double.

The proposal adds up to a clever nineteenth-century adventure in visionary ecology, with some of the charm of a novel by Jules Verne—whose Journey to the Center of the Earth came out a mere two years after Les Misérables: landmarks from the golden age of underground futurology. The gap between Hugo’s lowly proposal and his lofty goal is bound to seem a little puzzling, though. Or dismaying. Or risible. The recycling of shit and the emancipation of the human race do not join together in a happy phrase. Yet shit is insistently his theme, and not just this once. He devotes several pages to fecal ruminations in his long account of the Battle of Waterloo, earlier in the book, in which shit comes up for discussion because, in the course of the battle, a gallant French officer, when asked to surrender, defiantly cries out, “Shit!”—“the most beautiful word perhaps that a Frenchman has ever said.” Hugo typically exudes on the page an almost physical joy in writing, and there is no mistaking that, in several of these passages, the prospect of rubbing our noses in the beautiful word has tripled his pleasure. But it is not immediately obvious how we readers are supposed to respond. 

Just now I have stumbled across one possible response, proposed by Paul Claudel in 1925. Claudel, being a decent person, was happy to applaud Hugo’s protests against poverty, tyranny, superstition, and illness. “But positively what do you propose to us?” On this point Claudel was puzzled. “Victor Hugo appears to have strongly worked up only a single detail of the garden to come, which is the better use of sewer drains for agriculture.” And Claudel waxed indignant. He saw in Hugo’s abased imagination a pitiable example of what happens when religion degenerates into a wispy spirituality—the foggy religion of nature so beloved by the Romantic writers: a wine without alcohol. The sewer passages offered the proof, in Claudel’s estimation, that writers stand in need of something stronger, more vigorous—stand in need, to wit, of the Catholic Church. Wine with alcohol!

My own response many years ago was pretty much the same, except for the part about Catholicism. My favorite characters in Hugo’s book were young Marius and his comrades, the “Friends of ABC,” who hang out at the tavern and run into the streets to build their revolutionary barricades and cry “Long live death!”—the Jacobin slogan—which, a hundred years later, became a fascist slogan and was maybe never the best of slogans. Still, I loved the Friends of ABC. I wanted Hugo to bang the table on their behalf. But, no, after the tavern scenes and the barricades come the sewer scenes, and downward we go, and my left-wing heart, as if in tandem with Claudel’s non-left-wing Catholic heart, sagged.

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.

And still he isn’t finished. The sewer passages descend yet again, into substrata lower than politics itself. Jean Valjean, with Marius still on his back, wanders blindly from one tunnel to the next, unable to tell where he might find an exit; and, in his meanderings, he willy-nilly traces a subterranean map of Paris. Underground Paris turns out to have a history. Jean Valjean stumbles across a remnant of the medieval sewer vaults. Cadavers from the religious wars lie strewn about. Their specters sweep through the caverns. The shroud of Marat, Friend of the People, rests in the sewer. The tunnels are the repository of crime, and not just of sewage. Fungus covers the walls, as if the stones themselves were sick. We begin to suspect that Jean Valjean has made his way into the shadow world, and not just a world of shadows. And here in the obscure tunnel, we run across, as if tripping over one more ancient stone, the genuinely religious or spiritual motives that propel Hugo forward—the impulses that turn out to be odder and more ingenious than anything Paul Claudel ascribed to him.

A wispy Romantic religion of nature—yes, Hugo clings to that idea. It was the doctrine of the age. But he also entertains a more idiosyncratic idea, strictly his own—a storyteller’s confabulation, instead of a philosopher’s theory. It is a Manichaean cosmology, which contains a place for the divine, and a place for the satanic, and a light-and-dark struggle between the two that has persisted throughout the history of the universe—the grand underlying plot of Hugo’s most sacred scripture, his thousand-page, Bible-like history of the world in verse, The Legend of the Centuries. And the divine-and-satanic struggle can even be found—here is the particular contribution of Les Misérables to the enormous cosmology—in the architecture of Paris. For Paris is two, instead of one.

It is a city of vaulted arches overhead, and also underfoot. The soaring, and the sordid; metropolis, and necropolis. And as Hugo proceeds with his tale, we realize, after a while, that he has left behind the modern-sounding cause of social reform, and he has begun to tread in the downward-wending footsteps of the greatest and most ancient of his literary deities. This was the author of The Georgics and The Aeneid—Virgil, whose Orpheus descends from the world of the living into the black ooze of the underworld; Virgil, whose Aeneas floats across the Styx into that same underworld of crimes and punishments and the dead. So Jean Valjean, too, lowers himself into the black ooze, and slogs onward, and the shores of light yield to shores of darkness, and the sewers are real, but we are no longer in the zone of social realism.

Wikimedia CommonsFrançois-René de Chateaubriand by Anne-Louis Girodet Trioson

Hugo was an established master of French verse by the age of eighteen or so, and the literary hero whom he revered above everyone else in those early years, his idol, was the supremely distinguished François-René de Chateaubriand, from his parents’ generation. The young Hugo dedicated a poem to Chateaubriand, wrote two odes in his praise, one of which was called “The Genius,” and invoked him still again in the epigraphs to poems—all of which, the metered outpouring of gush, may seem a little surprising, given that, in the world of books and magazines, Chateaubriand was France’s most eloquent champion of Catholic royalism. But then, Hugo, too, as a stylish young man, was a stalwart of the counter-revolution and the restoration—even if, in his twenties, his royalism began to soften, and one political position gave way to the next, and maturity, in his case, pushed him to the left.

Chateaubriand was a royalist because he came from a long line of Breton aristocrats, and fidelity to tradition was the family culture. The French Revolution exacted a price on people with that sort of fidelity. His mother and sister were jailed by the Jacobins, and never recovered from the experience. His brother and his brother’s wife and in-laws were guillotined. Chateaubriand himself fought in the counter-revolutionary army and then fled to England, where he spent most of the 1790s working up enormous theories to account for the terrible events.

Some of these ideas he presented in a treatise called The Genius of Christianity, which came out in 1802, the year of Hugo’s birth. I have the impression that no one reads The Genius of Christianity today, outside of a coterie of Chateaubriand enthusiasts. Even the historians seem to remember the book mostly for its title. Or they take the book to be an apology for Catholic reaction. And yet The Genius of Christianity was principally a poetics, a work of literary theory. And because Chateaubriand was a man of the eighteenth century, the poetics rested on ideas about universal history and human progress. His notion of progress was unusual, though. 

Progress, in his estimation, consisted of an ever-deepening appreciation of sadness, a single emotion—which was, in any case, his own emotion, given what had happened to his family. Christianity introduced mankind to the contemplation of this one emotion, and in the Christian centuries writers and artists applied themselves resolutely to its study. The greatest and most powerful of the resulting works he judged to be epic poetry. And the greatest of the epic poets was the author of The Aeneid—who may have been a Roman pagan, but whose poetry nonetheless implied and presaged the arrival of Christianity, which made him a sort of Christian, even if he was not. And so the poetics of Chateaubriand, as laid out in The Genius of Christianity, amounted to a cult of moral progress, which was also a Catholic and Romantic cult of Virgil.

Chateaubriand considered that, in European literature, the Virgilian tradition had flourished in Italy with Dante and Tasso, and in England with Milton, and in other countries, too. In France, however, the tradition was slow in getting started. It entered decisively into the literature only in the writings of Archbishop Fénelon, the court poet of Louis XIV, whose masterwork, The Adventures of Telemachus, in 1699, stuck faithfully to themes from the Trojan War. Fénelon happened to write his Telemachus in prose instead of verse, but this, in Chateaubriand’s estimation, was entirely proper. Epic poetry was a matter of theme and purpose, and not of cadence. Fénelon’s book was a little peculiar also because of the size and nature of its intended readership, which consisted of a single person, the grandson of Louis XIV. The Adventures of Telemachus accordingly ended up as something of a children’s book. This, too, comported with Chateaubriand’s idea. The purpose of epic poetry was the propagation of Christian understandings through instruction and ornamentation: a didactic enterprise from start to finish.

The only difficulty with Fénelon, from Chateaubriand’s standpoint, was that, for all his charms—The Adventures of Telemachus has a delightful lucidity—his native talent was not the equal of Tasso’s or Milton’s, and Telemachus failed to generate a sufficiently robust tradition of Christian poetry among the French. Or perhaps France’s misfortune was that, in the generations that came after Fénelon, atheism and sophistry undermined a resolute adherence on the part of poets and philosophers to the Christian and Virgilian principles that Fénelon had upheld. Either way, Chateaubriand observed that, over the course of the eighteenth century, Christianity in France had undergone a literary and intellectual collapse, and next came the guillotine. Nobody has ever attributed greater weight to the influence of poetry over world affairs than Chateaubriand. But he also recognized that, if poets in their triumphs and failures were responsible for shaping the course of history, he himself, as a poet, could exercise a powerful and revivifying effect on the woeful fate of France, of Christianity, and of the whole of Christendom, if only he could summon the skill and energy. So he set out to compose epic poems of his own, modeled remotely on Virgil and directly on Fénelon.

He produced two of these epic poems—his Les Natchez, some six hundred pages written in the 1790s about the defeat of the American Indians and their conversion to Christianity; and his Les Martyrs, equally long-winded, about the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Each of these works conformed to Fénelon’s practice of composing epic poems in prose. And, in the Fénelon style, Chateaubriand addressed each of the enormous poems to readers whom you might imagine to be sixteen or seventeen years old. He never did figure out how to make Les Natchez and its too many chapters entirely cohere, which is a pity—though vast portions of the poem, a hundred pages at a time, work superbly on their own (and two of those extracts, under the names of Atala and René, contain the most gorgeous lachrymose prose-poetry I have ever read). As for Les Martyrs, the magazine critics ridiculed the book as soon as it appeared, in 1809, and its reputation never recovered. (And yet, when I took Les Martyrs to the beach, I was surprised to discover myself more than a little moved, if only because, in the climactic scene, the hero and the heroine get eaten alive by lions at the Coliseum, and—what can I say?—I did not laugh.)

But never mind how those books seem to us today. Hugo loved those books. He invoked Les Martyrs in his poems as if shaking a fist at prevailing opinion. Even after he had turned away from Chateaubriand’s royalism, he remained, on literary matters, entirely under the older man’s influence. The very title Les Misérables evoked Les Natchez and Les Martyrs. Nobody in the history of literature has demonstrated an easier fluency at composing verse than Hugo; and, even so, he elected to write his poem in prose. He addressed himself to readers who appear to resemble, in their naïveté, the readers whom Chateaubriand and Fénelon had likewise addressed—though Hugo was canny, and, by adopting the campy plot techniques of melodrama, he allowed himself to astonish and to entrance his younger readers, even while winking now and then at their elders, in order to keep everyone happy.

Mostly he remained loyal to the Virgilian spirit of grandeur. His theme in Les Misérables—the struggle of the poor, set precisely at the moment when, because of the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of poverty had become, for the first time in history, a realistic prospect—was equal in scale to Chateaubriand’s stories of Christian martyrs and martyred Indians. Hugo’s theme and Chateaubriand’s may even be, at a deep level, the same. These giant poems were grandiose celebrations of grandiosity itself, and the grandiosity in the case of both writers turns out to be an appreciation of the truest, most beautiful, most divine, and most progressive of emotions, which is sadness.

The producer of the current film version of Les Misérables is Cameron Mackintosh, and he and his colleagues have gotten one enormous matter right, which bears on these points. The film-makers (and the creators of the stage musical on which the film is based) have somehow recognized, as if they were faithful readers of The Genius of Christianity, that Les Misérables is, at heart, a poem; and they have figured out how to conjure the epic poetic spirit. Mostly they have done this by translating Hugo’s prose into rhymed and metered verse, as if they had restored the book to an original version that never existed. And they have set the verse to music. I admire the score because the composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, has modestly confined the music to a background drone, intended to accompany the verse and not to compete against it, except for an occasional moment dedicated to the display of vibrato. I do not admire the verse itself, by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, with its iambic four-beat showiness and its poverty of images. Or maybe the chanted verse in the movie version could have sufficed, if only the camera had come up with supplementary images for the screen, which ought to have been possible. Virgilian poetry is nothing if not an extravaganza of visuals. Light and shadows are the fundamentals of Hugo’s imagination, as if his brain was intuitively photographic. Cameramen ought to worship him. Not these cameramen. Still, the new movie sets a mood. “Who weeps not, sees not,” declares Hugo; and the movie weeps, even if it does not always see.

The devotion to sadness that drives Hugo’s book contains one other twist that, absent a glance at Chateaubriand, you might end up overlooking, if only because Hugo himself, in his preface, declaims oratorically about poverty and ignorance and their consequences, and not about anything else. The extra twist is central to the plot, though. Chateaubriand in The Genius of Christianity paid the kind of attention to the problems and the prospects of the very poor that you might expect of someone who regarded Louis XVI as Christ, which is to say, none. He did sympathize with the sufferings of whole populations: the American Indians, the Africans who were sold into slavery, the Russians who were invaded by Napoleon, the Levantine Shia slaughtered by the French. He was not without compassion.

Wikimedia CommonsThe Genius of Christianity by François-René de Chateaubriand

But mostly he took an interest in the sufferings of people who are thwarted in love—the people who are victims of forbidden desires. These are the unhappy lovers who cannot marry because they have pledged their hearts to someone from the wrong religion, or because their desires are incestuous, or because of both circumstances at the same time, which is hard to imagine, but Chateaubriand imagined it. What are these people to do, the thwarted lovers? Chateaubriand devoted thousands of pages to the conundrum. Suicide figured among his themes, not that he saw any allure in suicide.

Mostly he contemplated renunciation, and therefore celibacy—which entails the embrace of a certain kind of erotically inflected sadness. Renunciation did seem to him alluring. He longed all his life for a monastic cell. And he noted something curious about the allure. Love, too, the love that is consummated, requires sadness—even aspires to sadness. Love’s most exquisite moments, he observed, are the moments of tender and almost painful recollection of what has already taken place and has now faded into the past: what is now unreachable. The moment when lovers sigh or even weep together over the beautifulness of what they have already done—this, and not the act of love itself, seemed to him a moment of the sublime. The renunciation of forbidden love, viewed in this light, is strangely similar. A renunciation of love, just like a consummation of love, leads to the contemplation of what is not at hand—an appreciation of beauty, combined with a feeling of distance from beauty, which means sadness. The deepest happiness is expressed in tears, and not in laughter. The particular sadness aroused by celibate renunciation may even be grander and more keenly felt than any other kind, if only because renunciation, being spiritual, partakes of the benedictions and truths of Christian faith. Christianity: the apotheosis of sadness. So reasoned Chateaubriand. These thoughts, too, entered into Hugo’s thinking.

The joy he took in writing was never greater than when sorrowfully contemplating doomed loves between visibly incompatible people—the monstrously deformed and deaf cathedral bell ringer, in Notre-Dame de Paris, who feels a hopeless and pathetic passion for the beautiful gypsy dancing girl, who cannot possibly return his feeling because her own penchant, socially more acceptable, is for dim-brained handsome army officers. Or the English duchess in The Man Who Laughs who is overcome by a perverse yearning for still another hideously deformed man at the bottom of the social ladder. Les Misérables outdoes those other books. Jean Valjean is yet another monstrous man, not because of any physical deformity but because his prison record marks him as a monster in the eyes of society. And the forbidden passion he feels is for his own adopted daughter, the natural daughter of the penniless prostitute Fantine, who has died—his adored Cosette.

It goes without saying that Jean Valjean is a man of virtue, and not a criminal predator, and never would he do anything even slightly amiss to his beloved adopted daughter. Hugo acknowledges the ambiguity, though. He offers up one of his glorious sentences that, but for the discipline of prose that he so steadfastly adopted for the purpose of writing Les Misérables, could easily have come out in a mounting series of alexandrine quatrains, with an explosion of imagery at the end—a complicated prose sentence whose structure follows, as it happens, the structure of the most famous of his biblical poems, “Boaz Asleep,” with its steady ascent to a far-away outbreak of shimmering gold, representing the majestic sexual power and yearning of an old man. In Les Misérables:

Certainly, poor old Jean Valjean loved Cosette merely as a father; but, as we have remarked previously, the emptiness of his life introduced into his fatherhood all kinds of love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and, as he had never had either a lover or a wife, and because nature is a creditor that accepts no protests against payment, this feeling, too, the sturdiest of all, mixed itself with the other feelings, vague, ignorant, pure with the purity of blindness, unconscious, celestial, angelic, divine; less like a feeling than like an instinct, less like an instinct than like an attraction, imperceptible and invisible, but real; and love, to use the proper word, ran through his enormous tenderness for Cosette like a golden thread in the mountains, murky and virginal.

So what is the poor old love-bedazzled ex-con to do? The discovery that his adored Cosette has fallen in love with the priggish young Marius is excruciating to Jean Valjean. He despises young Marius as a rival. He wishes him dead. Still, he understands that renunciation is his only choice, and he takes his renunciation to heroic extremes by rescuing the young man. And, as if to consummate his own renunciation, he plunges into the sewer—plunges into Hell, into the filth of all existence, plunges into a kind of ecstasy of abasement. He is not like Virgil’s Orpheus, who descends into the underworld in order to rescue his wife. Jean Valjean plunges into the underworld in order to renounce his more than fatherly love for the daughter who is the only woman he has ever loved—plunges into Hell as a gigantic act of self-immolation. He mortifies himself for love—for the love that is truer than love, the love that renounces. The sublimity of sadness: here it is, laid out as an underground map of Paris.

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.