Decades of reading as taught me one thing: A good book will find you. For much of my reading life, I never had much of an inclination to pick up any book by Victor Hugo, even when his most popular novel, Les Misérables, hit the big screen. I was quick to make snarky comments about a book that could be transformed into a Broadway play or cartoon. I mean, Dear Lord, what would they do next? Turn Kafka’s Metamorphosis into a kitschy Hollywood musical?
The only thing I knew about Hugo were a few anecdotes that I’d picked up in college, namely the apocryphal story about him writing his most famous book locked in a room buck naked as Adam in the garden. Lore has it that Hugo wrote covered only with a blanket so that he would not get sidetracked from his work. I liked the story about the man. I mean us writers are quirky bunch anyway. (I am, however, fully clothed writing this.) Yet Hugo’s extreme approach may have helped him to better understand the abject poverty of fictional characters like Fantine, an unwed mother who traded flesh, not for gain, but for sustenance.
And I think it is critical for any reader to put Les Misérables into the context of its day. Nineteenth-century France struggled under the brunt of stark economic and social disparities. And while Hugo’s deft hand draws portraits of France’s poor, one cannot forget that the book was written between the Scylla and Charybdis of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848) and the birth of the Paris Commune in aftermath of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The short-lived socialist Commune to create what Marx would describe as a dictatorship of the proletariat.
An Exile’s Story
My long and winding road to Les Misérables began last century when I was a journalist working in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One Christmas break, I hopped a ferry, and then a bus, to visit the vast grasslands southern Brazil, with a copy of Rupert Christiansen’s superb history of the commune, Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune, tucked in my rucksack.
Hugo was also a crusader of sorts for the poor and disenfranchised of France. Paris Babylon also helps to highlight the writer’s role as a harsh critic of Louis-Napoleon, and the Second Empire he founded. The French emperor’s more famous uncle, Napoleon, forged his dominion in cannon smoke. France’s gilded Second Empire was as vacuous as a counterfeit Faberge egg. Marx famously described the Bonapartist Second Empire by saying that history was repeating itself, first as tragedy, and then as farce.
Hugo abandoned his homeland after then-President Charles-Louis-Napoléon broke up the Legislative Assembly only to rule France under a virtual dictatorship. The Bonaparte later proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. Hugo, using a false passport, made his way to Belgium, and then eventually to the Isle of Guernsey where he wrote Les Misérables. Hugo only returned to Paris after a disastrous war with Prussia led to the fall of Napoleon III, and the rise of a Third Republic.
Beyond The Barricades
Paris, however, remained in the hands of radicals who refused to concede to a peace deal with Prussia, thus snubbing a rival French government in Versailles. In Paris, radicals turned the siege-ravaged city into a revolutionary hotbed. Latter communists and radicals praised the uprising for striving to create a society based on social equality. Hugo’s vision of the poor is in sharp contrast with the radicals of the Commune. Grace and Mercy are pillars in the sometimes anticlerical Les Misérables.
But there is beauty in the ruins penned by Hugo. He shows how the much abased Fantine, so willing to sacrifice her body, both literally and figuratively, finds mercy in Valjean’s eyes. And I wonder how Hugo, who had returned to Paris after decades of exile, felt seeing the Commune’s leadership’s dissolve into a toxic mix of militant atheism and blinding political ambition.
God On Trial
One of the more infamous members of the Council of the Commune was the prefect of police, Raoul Rigault. The militant once boasted that he would issue an arrest warrant for God and condemn him in absentia. Both grace and mercy can be confounding to our inflexible ways of thinking at times. Javert, Valjean’s nemesis, later drowns himself because his heart, more than his mind, cannot comprehend such a shameless and perplexing grace. In history, Rigault met his end too. After the fall of the Commune, the un-reconstructed Rigault was executed while shouting out: Long live the Commune!
In the biblical account of the life of Jesus, Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver. The same messiah, who earlier that evening, had washed the feet of some of the men he knew would abandon and deny him. The fictional priest Monseigneur Bienvenu in Les Misérables claimed he purchased Valjean’s soul from perdition with two stolen candlesticks. Fantine took to the streets to provide what little she could do for her child.
As one grows older, and hopefully, a little wiser, tastes in music and books can change. Les Misérables falls into that category for me. And thus, I offer a mea culpa to Mr. Hugo and his fans. But like a said, a good book will find you…it just may take some time…and the circumstances may just surprise you.