I am scaling Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and keeping a journal of my ascent of the 1200-page hill, scouting the terrain on behalf of prospective readers tempted by the upcoming film adaptation. I am writing you now from a modest mountain hut on page 251—the conclusion of the first of five parts. And I am somewhat tempted to keep elaborating on the climbing metaphor I’ve got going, partly because the novel begins at the edge of the Alps in the early 1800s, partly because the novel sets a certain example. Though its opening sections offer copious evidence of Hugo’s gifts for tartness and pith, they just as often evidence his copiosity.
The discussion below includes a few minor spoilers. For instance: In 1793, on a Wednesday in October, early in the second year of the French Republic, by the order of the National Convention, Marie Antoinette’s cake-hole ceased to be connected to its esophagus. If you hope to read this novel with pleasure and ease and if your memory for the broad facts of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era is de mauvaise qualité, then equip yourself for an efficient trip by brushing up your history. There’s no need to get fancy, but investing 10 minutes in treating Wikipedia or Brittanica or PBS as a cheat sheet will enable you to decipher some shorthand references and thus to save the time and tedium of frequent endnote-flipping.
The first chapter of the novel introduces Monseiur Myriel, the bishop of Digne, who is cheery in temper and austere in his habits. As a surfeit of anecdotes attest, he practices Christlike compassion to the utmost degree, which is the way of Hugo’s worldview. Most noteworthy characters in Les Misérables do most things utmostly. Consider Jean Valjean, introduced in the second chapter, a man who earned a five-year prison sentence for stealing bread for his widowed sister’s seven children—and who then served an extra 14 for attempting multiple escapes. In physical strength, Jean Valjean is the “equal to four men.” Or consider Fantine, introduced in the third chapter, a young woman from the “absolute dregs of the social morass,” a good girl whose moral goodness seems to extend from her stunning classical beauty. In the fifth chapter, after the bishop has compassionately helped Valjean escape further torment, after Fantine has borne an incomparably beautiful bastard daughter and tearfully entrusted her care to scoundrels, after Valjean has assumed a new identity and earned a fortune running a factory where Fantine finds work, we meet wolf-faced Inspector Javert. He’s a police offer “composed of two sentiments … respect for authority, and hatred of revolt,” which look to me like the flip sides of one sentiment, but there you have it.
These characters live much closer to the realm of medieval allegory than that of modernist fiction, and reading Les Misérables, you quickly determine that there is no reason to linger over paragraphs sussing out the characters’ subtleties; what few they possess are rendered so boldly as to resemble neon nuances, and Hugo himself tells you about all of the subtext right there in the text, sometimes twice.
Les Misérables achieves its immense length partly for this reason and partly because the bits of dialogue are in fact large lumps. That the prolixity is sometimes appropriate to the speaker—as when Hugo renders the empty grandiloquence of a trial lawyer or the drunken philosophizing of the college student who impregnates Fantine—does nothing to help you pay close attention to it. And the fact that Hugo will sometimes reiterate a couple pages of information, or restyle the same idea five ways in five successive sentences, may make you think that he thinks that you are not, in fact, paying close attention. Which you aren’t.
But some kind of attention must be paid. Hugo paces the novel masterfully, and the characters’ anti-ambiguity intensifies the force of the action and the feeling of suspense. The lulls of essaying about what prison does to harden a convict or about what ambitious young clergymen do to cultivate patrons give way to compact explosions of incident. When the reinvented Jean Valjean, driven by conscience, races in a carriage to clear a man of the charge of being him, the unreconstructed Jean Valjean, Hugo throws in his path a comically long list of obstacles, each resolved only after a tedious conversation. But you experience the tedium as suspense. It remains to be seen whether this Great Book is good literature, but there is no doubting that it’s a grand page-turner.