Thursday, February 28, 2013
Hugo, his Detractors, a Defense of Digressions and the Opulent Opus of An Age
Upon its publication in 1862, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was received with varied, albeit frequently negative, reviews; some critics pronounced the subject matter immoral or derided its excessive sentimentality, others were disquieted by its apparent sympathy with the revolutionaries. Edmond and Jules Goncourt (the literary darlings of the period) lamented its lack of 'first-hand observation' and likened its author to 'those English preachers who harangue strollers in the park on a Sunday.'
Perhaps for a modern reader, who is perturbed by neither reference to prostitution nor revolution, the novel's greatest impediment remains Hugo's digressions; for Les Misérables is not merely an opulent opus of an age, but it is also a comprehensive social, political and moral document embracing a wider field than any literary contemporaries. The narrative is interspersed with digressions, interpolated discourses, passages of moralizing rhetoric and pedagogic disquisitions - the most famous being the protracted recounting of the Battle of Waterloo, the discourse on religious orders (which Hugo's publisher urged him in vain to remove) and another on the street lingo argot - certainly fascinating historical tidbits, but segments which do nothing to advance the storyline. Self indulgent? Certainly. These unrestrained literary extravagances are wholly unsparing of the reader and comprise a good fifth of the completed work, serving nothing more than to illustrate Hugo's encyclopedic intellectual span.
To condemn Hugo on one particular or another is simply too easy, and bespeaks a certain narrowness of perspective - examining the manuscript through the blinkered gaze of preconceived notions of political, social or literary appropriateness, without due appreciation for the poignantly lyrical work as a whole. For modern critics unaccustomed to digressionary asides it requires a certain effort to sustain attentive grasp of the narrative while Hugo is enumerating the particulars of closeted convents (during which Valjean and Cosette are relegated to dusty stage-wings awaiting their cue to re-emerge beneath the brilliant literary spotlight). But as Hugo's biographer Davidson notes: "the digressions of genius are easily pardoned" and if truth be told - I rather revel in them. They seem amendments most particular to the personality that was Hugo and complementary to the sweeping epic in which they are found; being an avid reader of the classical tome with a decided interest in the history of military strategy I am deterred by neither the length nor the topic - quite the opposite in fact - a delectable literary enticement that is seldom to be found in modern literature.
Les Misérables however, is infinitely more than the selectively nit-picked parts; it is Hugo encapsulated, it is Hugo living, breathing and passionately depicting an era behind us, but one that continues to echo across the centuries, a strident clamor that has subsequently called nations to arms and their people to revolution. It is also a searing social indictment of the abandonment of so many to the affliction of acute penury: the degradation of man, the utter ruin of women, and the unloved urchin child. As Hugo himself noted, "So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth...so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless." Charles Baudelaire begged to differ; in a newspaper review, while he praised Hugo's illumination of social misfortune, privately he castigated it as "tasteless and inept" (immonde et inepte) believing that such propaganda was the opposite of art.
Despite Baudelaire's wide poetic acclaim, I would, from my obdurate vantage point of 21st century Florida Keys, have the temerity to, quite frankly, disagree. For what is literature if it does not serve to examine the very depths of ourselves? And reflected therein should be all constituent parts - the ominous and shadowy outcasts who lingered on the peripheries as well as the nobility who tended to systematically ignore them; the destitute and hungry, the workers and the students, and the dark mutterings in the fauborgs that housed them; the mushrooming of clandestine societies stridently proclaiming the rights of the people, and the ignition of discontent into the conflagration of revolution.
The novel's title finds its derivation from the French misère meaning simply misery; the second definition being utmost poverty and destitution; but Hugo's misérables are not merely the poor and wretched, they are the outcasts, the underdogs, the rejected of society and those that rebelled against it. And this, more than anything else, is their story; Hugo's literary mirror served to convey a deep and distasteful truth about Parisian society and those that scavenged in the sewers beneath. Certainly Hugo is championing a cause, raising high the flag of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, broadly lamenting the social asphyxia of the teeming majority of Parisians. Hugo was a passionate example of the French engagé, or one deeply and perpetually concerned with the social and political developments of his time; but can not all literature overtly or covertly concerned with social reform or political repression be deemed propaganda of some kind or another? And is that really such a negative literary attribute if it brings about desperately needed reform? If it casts a compassionate eye on the dark turbulence of the acutely deprived?
In regard to Hugo's propensity to digress one must also be cognizant of authorial context - this work was written over twenty years during which time Hugo departed from his bourgeois origins (and the inherited Bonapartism of his father and monarchism of his mother) to become an avowed and outspoken republican. Inevitably a manuscript penned over such a interval required subsequent amendments to sustain the evolving beliefs of its author; and to dismiss, deride and purse one's lips in literary disapproval is to miss Hugo's glorious epic in its entirety. And that, my friends, would be a tragedy indeed.
I for one remain utterly enthralled by Les Misérables, having just completed Chapter xx of book two; it is an utterly sublime combination of tense physicality and imaginative terror: Marius is poised at a peephole peering into the demonic depths of Thénardier's lair, stricken between the seemingly impossible choice of saving his beloved's father (Valjean) or honoring the memory of his own. In the heart-stopping action that follows Valjean leaps up and proceeds to self-brand his flesh in a dramatic display of stoic resistance, imminently followed by the dreaded entrance of the ruthless Javert who has yet to realize the identity of his quarry. It is a masterful scene of literary tautness that succeeds only because of the substantial investment we, the reader, have already made in each and every character so depicted. And despite being quite familiar with the narrative I admit to anxiously flipping through several pages just to reassure myself (before returning to the present engagement) that Valjean did indeed escape their notorious clutches! We should all wish for such enthralled engagement on the part of our audience (and to have achieved it in one who might be forgiven a languid re-read after several previous) It is a sublime scene indeed where all of Hugo's manifest skill is brought to bear, and the reader, beguiled and quivering with nervous apprehension, desires simultaneously an end to the current predicament Valjean finds himself in, and concurrently and paradoxically, the narrative itself to weave its magic eternal.
But perhaps I too am a romantic. Of course in Hugo's age romanticism (born out of the German Sturm und Drang) meant elevating emotion and intuition over the rationalism of the Enlightenment; and none fulfill that role more gloriously than Jean Valjean with his heroic isolation, tortured colloquies and frenzied mental perambulations...but that is another musing.
Upton Sinclair proclaimed Les Misérables to be "one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world;" an assessment I am delighted to endorse. The final word on the matter, however, belongs to Hugo himself, who writes to his Italian publishers regarding authorial intention: " I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone.... Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: "open up, I am here for you".