Mosher on Bellos (2017)


Bellos, Davis. The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les MisérablesFarrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017, pp. xi + 307, ISBN 978-0-374-53740-1

Sarah E. Mosher, University of North Dakota

David Bellos’s text emulates both the structure and spirit of Victor Hugo’s work, providing its readers with an adventure and a journey through the story of how, where, and why Hugo’s novel was written, published, sold, and read. Both Bellos and Hugo divide their lengthy texts into five sections. Interludes come after the first four sections of Bellos’s work while part five is followed by an epilogue. These interludes provide readers with additional cultural details, a discussion of how and why Hugo selected the names of his characters, an analysis of the protagonist Jean Valjean, and an examination of vocabulary and the use of language registers throughout the text. The creativity, originality, and the depth of this scholarly monograph make it an excellent addition to the existing body of publications on both Victor Hugo and Les Misérables

In the first section, “Crimes and Punishments,” Bellos reminds the reader that the noun misérable referred to the nation’s poor. Bellos outlines Hugo’s devotion to the working and the non-working poor of France and describes his first novelistic attempts at depicting these marginalized subjects. Both the title and the content, then, announce Hugo’s devotion to the working and the non-working poor of France. Poverty and debt were viewed as synonymous with crime, and, as a result, it was against French laws of the time for citizens to beg. Thus, the author explains that the members of the lower classes and those who lived in abject poverty were accused of carrying a social disease and feared by the middle and wealthy classes in France and England. Bellows draws comparisons between Great Expectations and Les Misérables, noting that the English author Charles Dickens met with Victor Hugo in Paris in 1847. At this point in time, Hugo had been working on his novel of the century for two years. 

Part two, “Treasure Islands,” describes Hugo’s departure from France and the writing of his novel in exile. In 1850, Hugo referred to Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as “Napoléon le Petit” during a debate at the National Assembly. In retaliation, Bonaparte had both of Hugo’s sons arrested and imprisoned. Much like the protagonist Jean Valjean, to avoid imprisonment, Hugo was forced into hiding and then escaped to Belgium. While in Belgium, Hugo published the pamphlet Napoléon le Petit (1850) that outraged this first president of France. In August of 1852, Hugo and his family relocated to the independent Channel Islands to further distance themselves from Bonaparte’s rule. By 1855, the island of Guernsey became a permanent home for Hugo where he could continue to write Les Misérables

The volume’s third section, “Rooms with a View,” portrays Hugo with a finished manuscript of incredible length and the need to find a publisher for a text with 365 chapters that he refers to as a “monster” and “Leviathan.” Bellos notes that before 1850, publishing a book was difficult since materials to make paper were limited, printing presses were operated by hand, and the salaries of those who operated the presses were substantial. Given his original quarrel with Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte and the censorship under the Second Empire, Victor Hugo could not rely solely on a French publishing house to transform his manuscript into a finished commercial product. Hugo believed it was likely that his book would be banned in France if it were published. Therefore, in 1861, Hugo turned again to the Belgian nation and signed a contract with the publisher MM A. Lacroix, Verboekhoven & Cie of Brussels. 

Part four, “War, Peace, and Progress,” opens with a discussion of the many theatrical and cinematic adaptations of Les Misérables that have altered the timeline, characters, and plot of the original text. It is inevitable and expected that a multitude of international artists would be inspired to recreate and reimagine the plot and the characters of Hugo’s masterpiece. In Hugo’s novel, the story begins in 1815 to align itself with the Battle of Waterloo, and throughout his text, Bellos painstakingly shows how Hugo’s timeline coincides quite deliberately and methodically with historical events. In this section, the author includes his own draft of an imagined screenplay for a new version of the film Les Misérables in which the opening scene takes place on 18 June 2019. This section further discusses the presence of Hugo’s nostalgia for the Paris he left behind when he escaped to Belgium in 1850. Bellos describes Hugo’s sentiments toward Paris as deep and sincere. This longing for Paris is evident in book five of part two when Paris is described through third-person narration. 

The final section, “Great Expectations,” describes the publication of Les Misérables on 4 April 1862 as well as the distribution, the public of readers, and their response to the novel of the century. The original work was published in ten separate volumes, the first of which, “Fantine,” was printed and sold simultaneously in Brussels and Paris and then released across Europe. While the public responded enthusiastically to Hugo’s publication (the first 6000 copies of “Fantine” printed in Paris sold out by the second day) Les Misérables received severe criticism from the press. One of the critics claimed that Fantine’s story was implausible. Bellos reminds readers that Hugo wanted his novel to be accessible to everyone, yet explains that the ten-volume first edition sold for a price of sixty francs, a sum that was generally too expensive for much of the population. Groups of individuals combined their money to purchase one copy that would be shared by many. Public readings in homes and in cafés took place for those who could not read. 

Following the epilogue, Bellos includes forty pages of additional resources that further enrich this publication, among them, a historical timeline of nineteenth-century France, works cited, notes, and an index. This extensively researched, engaging, and vivid text will serve scholars whose area of research considers nineteenth-century French history, literature, cultural studies, and the history of publishing. Furthermore, this book is written in such a way that, in addition to appealing to an academic audience, a wider public of readers beyond the world of academe will also find it both accessible and enjoyable to read. I recommend this book to scholars, students, and to a general audience who wish to learn more about Hugo, Les Misérables, and nineteenth-century France.