Donald Morrison: 'The Novel of the Century'

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PARIS — Every so often there comes a work of fiction that speaks to the current state of America with such insight and relevance that it becomes a sensation. The novel I have in mind was written on British soil by a Frenchman and published 155 years ago. It was indeed a sensation. It remains as relevant as ever.

I know all that because I'm a screener for the American Library in Paris Book Award. It is given to the year's best work published in English about France or the Franco-American experience. Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer-winning author ("Cleopatra," "The Witches") who grew up in Adams, is a judge for the prize.

This year's winner, which Stacy and I both championed, is "The Novel of the Century" by Princeton University scholar David Bellos. It's a book about a book — a tale of the astonishing critical, commercial and political success of Victor Hugo's "Les Mis rables," the first real international best-seller.

Civil War sensation

The book was published in 1862, when Hugo was in exile on the isle of Guernsey for opposing Napol on III's high-handed rule. Already famous for his fiction and activism, Hugo received an advance worth $4 million in today's money. The book was quickly translated and published around the world. Troops on both sides of the American Civil War — which Hugo, a fierce opponent of slavery, followed closely — would pool their funds, buy a copy and choose a comrade to read it aloud. Robert E. Lee's beleaguered Confederate soldiers even began to call themselves Lee's Miserables.

Like many Americans, I am familiar with "Les Mis rables" without ever having finished it. In our defense, the thing is 1,500 pages long. Besides, there are hundreds of easily digested stage adaptations (notably Cameron Mackintosh's 1980 hit musical), condensed versions, comic books, radio plays and movies (like the 2012 extravaganza with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe). We fans do know the book is about the French Revolution and the triumph of democracy.

Only it isn't. The revolution Hugo chronicles is not the big one of 1789, but an obscure 1832 Paris uprising that failed swiftly. And though "Les Mis rables" is clearly on the side of what Bellos calls "the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast," democracy is mostly ignored.

Instead, Hugo tells compelling stories of injustice: Fantine, the abandoned single mother, descends into prostitution and dies tragically; her daughter Cosette is exploited by foster parents; Marius, the middle-class student who loves her, ends up joining the uprising. Watching over them all is Jean Valjean, the novel's outraged heart.

A peasant jailed for stealing bread, Valjean escapes, changes his identity, prospers, adopts Cosette, saves the wounded Marius at the barricades and finally confronts the implacable inspector Javert, who has hunted the escapee for years. If that were not enough, Hugo truffles the book with lengthy asides on philosophy, language, agriculture, industry and local customs.

But a grand idea shines through that chaos, and here we get to America. The misfortunes that plague Hugo's characters are mostly the result of two failed institutions: a remorseless justice system rigged against the poor and a government unwilling to do much except spread misery. Sound familiar?

If he were writing today, Hugo's targets would be an American justice system stacked against minorities and the poor; and a government determined to reward the rich at the expense of the rest. Also eager to weaken public education, health coverage, environmental and workplace protections and other social advances of the past 155 years, many of them championed by Hugo.

Contemporary resonance

"Les Mis rables" helped bring some of those advances to France. But there's something else in the book that speaks to America today: Hugo's refusal to be judgmental. His apparent heroes, like Cosette's foster-parents, do bad things. His villains, even Javert, can be moved by kindness. The book's indignation is palpable, but so is its thirst for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Those were qualities Hugo likely found missing in 19th century France — when the downtrodden and their Republican tribunes clashed savagely with swells and emperors, monarchists and clerics. He would no doubt be appalled by the divisiveness and hyper-partisanship of our own, Trump-era Republic.

David Bellos received his prize a few days ago at a ceremony in the glittering H tel de Talleyrand, once used by the famous French statesman of that name and now by the U.S. Embassy. "Victor Hugo's all-embracing novel of the 19th century," Bellos said in his acceptance speech, "continues to shed a light on our common path toward political reconciliation, natural justice and social inclusiveness in the 21st century."

Jean Valjean, victim of injustice and hero of reconciliation, could not have asked for more.

Donald Morrison, a member of the Eagle's Advisory Board, lives in Paris, Miami and Becket.

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