The Novel of the Century

 

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David Bellos was on an Alpine camping trip that turned into a disaster. It rained and snowed, he caught a cold and once installed in his hotel, wrapped himself in warm blankets and Les Miserables. He was entranced and stayed “ill” rather longer than necessary to follow the moving, engaging, and immensely engaging tale to the end.

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In a life that began 1802 under Napoleon Bonaparte (Le Grand) and was endured in exile under Louis Napoleon III (Le Petit,) Victor Hugo developed a sensitivity to the needs of Les Miserables that is vividly expressed in this passionate work that is minutely observed, informative and entertaining.

He found refuge from the rule of Louis Le Petit on the French-speaking Channel Islands, first in Jersey and later in Guernsey, where the exceptionally warm climate was ideal for a nature-lover like Hugo. “Wild flowers bloom on gentle slopes and dramatic cliffs, seabirds of every kind wheel in the sky, and from almost every high point there are views of the sparkling, raging, magnificent sea.”

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He found a wonderful house, facing the sea, Hauteville House, where he and his extended family lived. His long-time mistress Juliette, was installed nearby and as long as she never entered Hauteville House was tolerated by Mme. Hugo.

Finally, in April of 1860, after twelve years, he returned to the manuscript of Les Miserables.It took him a full month to read through and list the the points that needed attention, a useful exercise that could be recommended to all writers.

Hugo was not a political polemicist but the following “program” is reflected in Les Miserables and was no doubt influential its realization.

 

1. Allow offenders to re-enter society after they have done their time and abolish the ‘yellow’ passport that makes it so difficult for them to find food, lodging and work. 

2. Amend the penal code, so that justice may be tempered with mercy.

3. Create more jobs for the uneducated masses.4. Build schools for the poor and make education universal and obligatory. (It becanme the Jules Ferry Law in 1877.)

 

Once the book was completed and set for publication on April 4 1862 it was the task of Adele to mount a publicity campaign, and she did a remarkable job.

Her first step was to create a billboard campaign. Images of characters from the book were plastered all over Paris, while never revealing a word of text. Nothing like it had ever been done before. 

Her second innovation was to create materials for the press with the proviso that nothing be published before the pub date-an embargo, a practice that is still used today. The effect was overwhelming.

A very prescient observation appeared in La Presse in advance of the publication: “the chief work of the greatest creator of the age. All the painful problems, all the raw issues of the nineteenth century are compressed into this book in the living and dramatic form of characters who will  enter universal memory and never leave it.”

Bellos has created a marvellous guide to a monumental work. Read it and keep it by your side when reading or re-reading Les Miserables.

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