The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
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I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both for its recounting of Hugo's life, inspirations, and the practicalities of publication and for the many dips into the plot and characters as depicted in the novel and in several of the adaptations, from film to the blockbuster musical.
I hadn't known that Hugo did most of the work on the novel while living in exile on the island of Guernsey - he'd sworn not to set foot in France again while Louis Napoleon was in power, and kept his word. He had his wife and children with him - and also his mistress, actress Juliette Drouet, who became his secretary and lived in a nearby house during his exile. And I had no idea that the novel was a blockbuster in its day, much anticipated due to Hugo's existing reputation, and promoted with a widespread zeal that rivals the massive media rollouts of today's bestsellers - challenging to do in 1862!
There's an amusing author's note up front, describing how the author stumbled upon the novel - he chose it to take along on a hike, a lightweight copy with onionskin paper and the promise of plenty to read! (He suggests that those who are wary of tackling so long a book try reading one chapter a day - that way it'll take exactly one year. I might suggest an audiobook, for those who like that format, as I found an unabridged-audio version quite enjoyable.)
I enjoyed reading about the many influences that Hugo chose when constructing the novel, everything from simple street-scenes that wound up as character bits to stylistic or format choices by other authors. He also drew from the political and social turmoil in France - he was very active in politics until forced into exile, and continued his interest in it throughout his life - forging the revolutionary Friends of the ABC and their short-lived battle at the barricade from several different rebellions-with-barricades.
The author mimics Hugo's "interlude" chapters by presenting some of his own, to delve more deeply into facets of the life of the period that readers at that time would understand but that may be less obvious to modern readers - delving into the varied terms for money, for example, with its associated hints as to the education, class, and even morality of the people using them. Another interlude goes into the origins of the characters' names, some fairly obvious, some with several meanings - and several notable characters with no names given at all, such as Gavroche's "little boys" - his brothers, unbeknownst to any of them, waifs who lose their only protector when Gavroche dies on the barricade...
Parts of the book deal with the nitty-gritty of publication in the mid-1800s, from the sheer price of paper to the production of the books themselves - and given how expensive the resulting volumes were, it's astonishing how wildly successful the novel was from the get-go! (Apparently it was among many now-classics that got lukewarm comments from critics but wholesale acceptance from the public, with people banding together to afford the volumes.) And the arduous labor of copy-editing, getting the changes sent to the printers and proof-copies returned for more editing, all done by hand (Juliette and a few others did the work, with Hugo getting the final say) and via cross-Channel boats - I'm amazed that it worked at all!
There were some hitches in the international publication, though; at that time, there weren't always pacts about copyright laws between countries, and while some countries did cooperate and got full and authorized translations, the US wound up with blithely NON-official - and often wildly abridged - translations. Given that this was in the middle of the Civil War it is perhaps not surprising that any hint of anti-slavery sentiment would be left out of editions meant for the South, but that's not something that would have occurred to me before reading this book. (And now I'm curious to try the most recent translation; I'm not sure which translation I originally read, but it may have been the 1862 one!)
I didn't expect to find this book as fascinating as I did; great fun, and providing a lot of insight into the classic novel.
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