The cottage industry of ‘Les Mis’ has gradually occluded Victor Hugo’s mammoth opus in much the same way as an encrustacean of barnacles cloak a ship’s hull. Over 50 years of dreaming a dream and singing the song of angry men has rendered the tale culturally wan, reduced to the artistic level of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It’s not helped by the fact that the novel itself is a behemoth: over 1,400 pages and 365 chapters in the English translation. Regardless of your feelings about West End Musicals that’s a commitment to a book that’s requires more dedication than some relationships. Most people steeling themselves for an ‘important’ novel will probably go towards something like War and Peace or Ulysses, something that people won’t say ‘Oh you mean like the musical?’ whilst your trying to show off. At any rate, most people know the story so well that what’s the point on starting such a long term literary expedition?
The point is that Victor Hugo uses his 365 pages to effectively draft a social document that’s not just about the harrowing adventures of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean, but is a portrait of the 19th century itself; a holistic portrait of a culture in-extremis, that makes Dickens’ reformist subtexts look pallid by comparison. Of the immense novel, a full third is made up of whatever digressions claimed Hugo’s fancy, be they discourses on the fetid history of the sewers of Paris, a sabre-rattling play-by-play of the battle of Waterloo and it’s dialectical consequences or even a lecture on the sociological origins of criminal argot. In the hands of a lesser author this would unforgivably self-indulgent but Hugo uses his digressions to shade in the wider world of his characters to almost unfathomable complexity. Writers in the 19th century had been embarking on a process of narrowing their focus to explore the inner-space of his characters; Hugo took the exact opposite approach. By exploding the breadth of his novel his characters become more sharply defined. As emanations of this seemingly infinite scope their motivations and sad lives are placed in-their correct social and historical context in a manner almost unique in literature.