I recently decided to patch a rather large lacuna in my reading history by reading first Les Misérables and then War and Peace. It did not take me long to tick off Victor Hugo’s monster work because I literally hurled it from me in disgust less than half-way through. Quite simply there is no way this book would find a publisher in the 21st century, furnishing us with an interesting take on 19th century tastes.
First, it is cloyingly, mawkishly sentimental, its leading characters one-dimensional cartoon figures embodying bravery, nobility of soul, sanctity, venality, outright evil or some other characteristic. At least one of Hugo’s themes, that grinding poverty and unrelenting struggle can ennoble rather than debase a person of the right character as depicted in the figures of Marius and others I find somewhat offensive and certainly condescending coming from a figure as grand as Victor Hugo. It cries out under the weight of verbiage excessive to the point of bloat, all the more of a shame for the fact that the language is often little short of wonderful. No character, even the most peripheral, is allowed to pass under our eyes without being supplied with a complete biography. In order to introduce two characters who will play important roles later on he does not give us just one or two scenes on a battlefield – he takes us blow by blow through the entire battle of Waterloo! Interesting enough, sure, but we are waiting for something to happen and so what should be fascinating becomes simply annoying.
In the section dealing with the Friends of the ABC when the writer wishes us to grasp a character’s political and philosophical viewpoint he does not just let him utter a few indicative sentences. No – he lets the man rant on for pages, teaching us nothing and adding yet another tree to the forest of roadblocks that slow the narrative to a crawl. Indeed he regularly brings the story to a complete standstill while he blathers on about the soul and “Infinity”, constantly repeating and reworking his celestial themes.
Furthermore, and in defiance of the basic rules of the novel, he thinks nothing of introducing the most outrageous coincidences to advance the story. When Valjean flees through Paris, surrounded and trapped by the posse led by his nemesis Javert, he takes refuge in a garden. And who is the gardener? None other than Fauchelevant, the poor cart driver whose life Valjean saved back in Montreuil and subsequently found a job working in this very garden. He could have ameliorated if not solved this problem by simply placing a sign over a gate or some similar mechanism to provide information and motivation to his hero. It would still have been a stretch but it would have given us something to hang credence on. But no. He just does not care as he blithely litters the narrative with the unlikely and the implausible. Another instance: Fantine, poor, poor Fantine and her little daughter Cosette. We are told that Tholomyès caroused for some considerable time with Fantine and her friends while apparently unaware that he had fathered Cosette. How Fantine got through pregnancy and birth while conducting this relationship is a question Hugo leaves unanswered. Certainly the character of Tholomyès Hugo draws for us would have dropped Fantine like a hot rock on discovering her pregnancy. It gets worse: during the whole grim arc of Fantine’s downfall our sympathy for her is fatally undermined by the evident fact that she is as thick as mince and hopelessly gullible, making every wrong decision available to her. Not tricky choices, either. She consistently avoids doing the obvious best thing under the circumstances, starting with leaving Paris in the first place. I ended up wanting to shout at her rather than weep for her.
So much for Les Misérables. Fingers crossed for Tolstoy.