August 28, 2007

Summer Reading II: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Summer Reading II: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

The creator: Victor Hugo

The creator: Victor Hugo

The book that has flooded my brain and heart this summer, on which I’d love to invite a fast end-of-the-season free-for-all, is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables .

“Torrential” is the perfect word that that Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist, keeps using for the effects of Hugo’s masterpiece.

Who would not feel inundated, deleriously soaked in the poetry and speech-making of Les Misérables, the moral dynamism and passion for justice in it? The vivid variety of Hugo’s urchins, lovers, thugs, warriors, con-men, insurrectionists and saints is Dickensian. The command of the historical battlefield is Tolstoyan; the Count himself called Les Misérables “the greatest of all novels.” And the sweep of the national-cultural vision is Dostoyevskian, though Hugo focuses it in a peculiarly French way on Paris:

The Parisian is to the French what the Athenian was to the Greeks… It is thanks to the little man of Paris that the Revolution, inspiring the armies, conquered Europe. He delights in song. Suit his song to his nature and you will understand. With just the ‘Carmagnole‘ to sing he will only overthrow Louis XVI; but give him the ‘Marseillaise‘ and he will liberate the world…

…Such is Paris. The smoke from her chimney-tops is the thinking of the world. A cluster of mud and stone if you like, but above all things a moral entity. She is more than great, she is immense. Why? Because she dares.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, pages 133 and 508.
The poster orphan: Cosette

The poster orphan: Cosette

Where did we get the idea that Les Misérables was a book mainly for children, and for Broadway? It turns out to have been conceived as “a religious book,” as Hugo put it, “a sort of essay on the infinite.” Its deepest faith is in the transformation of people and social systems — starting with Jean Valjean, who never stops paying for the rash, altruistic theft of a loaf of bread, “a figure of indescribable stature, supremely great and gently humble in his immensity, the convict transformed into Christ;” and the jackhammer of the law, inspector Javert — “the guardian of order, the lightning of justice, the vengeance of society, the mailed fist of the absolute” — who stalks Valjean to the ignominy of his own death.

These are immortal, universal characters. And still the starting proposition about the grip of this book is that the preoccupying hero of Les Misérables is not the redeemed sufferer, the Christ-like Jean Valjean, but the visionary creator, the father God himself, Victor Hugo.

An Open Source listener in Philadelphia, the devout atheist Steven Antinoff, put me up to all this in a an email blast of enthusiasm in June. I’d asked him to walk me into his sanctuary of books. He wrote:

Maybe Les Misérables might be a wonderful place to begin. It is, for me, two things. One: in a way that probably can never be surpassed, it is a 1200 page meditation the passage from Luke 9 you cite and that we both love (Chapter 9, Verse 23: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”). Two: it is a great study of the relationship between love (first embodied in the bishop, later in Jean Valjean himself) and justice (as embodied in the police inspector Javert). Though Hugo’s language is sometimes a little sappy, though he can digress for 50 pages on Parisian criminal slang or the battle of Waterloo, it is a moving story beyond belief…

Steven Antinoff, in an email to Chris Lydon, June 13, 2007.

Steve Antinoff had the arresting notion that “the relationship between love and justice seems to be the subtheme of your [radio] show.” Also, that “at your level of vitality, I imagine 1200 pages might keep you busy for 2-3 days. From all you’ve said, I think you’ll love it.”

Well, the first reading took me the month of July, the second and third ecstatic immersions have consumed August. So what is it about Les Misérables that gives us the shivers? My first three points, just to get the conversation going, would be these:

First, there’s the high pitch of a poetic prose style, with the distinctive mark of the author’s endless balancing of ideas, images, phrases and personalities. God “delights in antitheses,” says the narrator of Les Misérables, and so does Victor Hugo, as for example in this commentary on the showdown on the generals who met at Waterloo on 18 June 1815:

It was the strangest encounter in history. Napoleon and Wellington were not enemies but opposites… On the one side precision, foresight, shrewd calculation, cool tenacity, and military correctitude; reserves husbanded, the way of retreat ensured, advantage taken of the terrain; warfare ordered by the book with nothing left to chance. On the other side intuition, divination, military unorthodoxy, more than human instinct, the eye of the eagle that strikes with lighning swiftness, prodigious art mingled with reckless impetuosity; all the mysteries of an unfathomable nature, the sense of kinship with Destiny; river, plain, forest, and hill summoned in some sort forced into compliance; the despot tyrannizing over the battlefield, faith in a star mingled with military science, enriching but also undermining it. Wellington was the technician of war, Napoleon was its Michelangelo; and this time genius was vanquished by rule-of-thumb.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 314.

Second, as in that famous long digression on Waterloo (“not a battle but a change in the direction of the world”), the narrative and cast of characters are ever inseparable from the pulsing context of Hugo’s political vision and cosmic history. We know where we are on every page of Les Misérables: We are living through the aftermath of the greatest chapter in the story of human freedom, the French Revolution. We are swinging on “the hinge of the 19th Century,” Waterloo, where “a great man had to disappear in order that a great century might be born.” We are grappling — eternally, perhaps — with ideals that came to furious life around Bonaparte.

Victor Hugo’s alter ego in the novel, Marius, calls himself “a Bonapartist democrat” after laboring to master the big ideas of Republic and Empire. Marius, like Hugo himself, was the son of an officer in Napoleon’s Grande Armee, and a man of “antitheses”:

[Marius] came to see that these two groups of men and events might be resolved into two enormous facts, namely, that the Republic represented the sovereignty of civic rights transferred to the masses, and that the Empire represented the sovereignty of the French Idea, imposed on Europe. The grand figure of the People was what emerged from the Revolution, and from the Empire there emerged the grand figure of France.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 541.

To the point that these arguments never die, Adam Gopnik observed in last week’s New Yorker that not the least of Nicolas Sarkozy’s success as the new president of France in 2007 is his embodiment of a certain abiding Bonapartism:

If there is a political creed behind Sarkozy’s government-of-all-the-talents populism, his urge to transcend party or policy, it can be found in what people call his Bonapartism. Bonapartism does not mean simply the possession of power by a short, ambitious man. It refers as well to a coherent ideology, which flourished in the nineteenth century… the Bonapartist tradition is very much that of an outsider—whether Corsican or Greek-Hungarian—in a Parisian setting: opportunistic, authoritarian, maneuvering, personality-cultish, and successful… It is a creed that can be philistine — the recent Sarkozite claim that France suffers from too much thinking is pure Bonapartism. But its ideal would be to make Paris a world capital once again, however that had to be done.

Adam Gopnik, Letter from France: The Human Bomb, in The New Yorker, August 27, 2007.

But then, what Les Misérables makes an American reader pine for is not a French recapitulation of Bonapartism but a setting of our own strange times — Bushismo, war, empire, the 9.11 reaction and the 2008 alternatives from Giuliani to Obama — on a canvas of imaginative fiction in the grand, even grandiose, Victor Hugo manner. Or is this what we get in fact from Don DeLillo, Richard Ford and Jonathan Franzen?

Third, there is Hugo’s rapturous language of the soul. If Steve Antinoff can take it, so surely can I. Starting with Monsieur Bienvenu, the old Bishop of Digne, a man with “the childishness of St Francis of Assisi” and the radiance of an angel, who becomes the agent of Valjean’s rebirth.

But the day was not complete for him if he was prevented by bad weather from spending an hour or two in his garden… At those moments, when he offered up his heart in the hour when the night flowers offer up their scent, himself illumined in the bestarred night and unfolding in ecstasy amid the universal radiance of creation, he could not perhaps have said what took place in his spirit, what went out from him and what entered in: a mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 67.

God has a speaking part in Les Misérables — in exemplary lives and in history, as a decisive undertone, not least, in the fall of Napoleon.

His excessive weight in human affairs was upsetting the balance; his huge stature overtopped mankind. That there should be so great a concentration of vitality, so large a world contained within the mind of a single man, must in the end have been fatal to civilization. The time had come for the Supreme Arbiter to decide. Probably a murmur of complaint had come from those principles and elements on which the ordering of all things, moral and material, depends. The reek of blood, the over-filled graveyard, the weeping mother, these are powerful arguments. When the earth is overcharged with suffering, a mysterious lament rising from the shadows is heard in the heights.

Napoleon had been impeached in Heaven and his fall decreed; he was troublesome to God.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 303.

It is “The One who is present in the shadows” who steadies Valjean’s conscience and steels his nerve at crucial turns. And it is something even beyond Valjean’s goodness and uncanny strength that is being affirmed:

Is there not in every human soul, and was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean, an essential spark, an element of the divine, indestructible in this world and immortal in the next, which goodness can preserve, nourish and fan into glorious flame, and which evil can never quite extinguish?

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 98.

Mario Vargas Llosa, in a fresh appreciation of a masterpiece that has sustained him since childhood, grants Victor Hugo the highest praise a writer can give a writer: that the force of his pages…

…is so strong that it can brush aside the sober reason of its readers, and convince us that its chimerical adventures, its larger-than-life characters, and its gruesomeness and wild imaginings are indeed true human reality, a reality that is both possible and achievable… reading gives us access to this lost reality and spurs us on to recover and reinstate it through our actions.

Mario Vargas Llosa, The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Misérables, Princeton University Press, 2007. Page 176.

So let the conversation begin, with Mario Vargas Llosa and Steven Antinoff, and all the rest of us.

When did you discover Les Misérables?

And why haven’t you told us about it before?

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  • hurley

    The implacable Javert has haunted me since childhood. I’ve never stolen a piece of bread since. The only thing remotely comparable in scope to Les Misérables in American literature might be USA, by John Dos Passos, though it pales by comparison. The central drama reminds me of nothing in American culture so much as the old television series, The Fugitve, in which the falsely accused Doctor escapes his imprisonment and sets out to redeem his name, becoming both the hunter and the hunted –

    Telephone, but not a cellphone…

  • loki

    Thanks. I am just starting!

  • Zeke

    Curse you Christopher Lydon! Thanks to you (and Potter, mynocturama and others) I have a stack of Emerson to read that will last me until who knows when! And now you weigh in with a 1300 page monster; just after introducing a new author (Gibson) who I would love to check out. It’s a good thing the daily broadcast is on hiatus. (Just kidding; that is the opposite of a good thing.)

    Seriously, the Hugo does look interesting. But I can’t jump in just now. I wonder how you manage to read this book three times along with all the other things you read. And how you select what is deserving of your attention?

  • Isn’t it injustice vs. love? Love and justice can co-exist. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Any parent knows this, as she has to help her child see the consequences of his actions because she loves him. She must mete out justice to serve him in love.

    Javert isn’t seeking justice. He is too full of mania to have a clear sense of justice. He can’t face the real darkness of life, so he loads it all into the figure of Valjean and tracks him single-mindedly so that he can avoid the real injustices happening all around him.

  • Potter

    With the Antinoff exchange I was inspired to get the Denny translation. Actually I got two copies. One I gave to my 93.5 year old mother who has been bored lately. (She’s slowly plowing through Tony Judt’s on the postwar period of late and has read quite a number of large volumes in her time). Well she said she did not have time and was waiting for the musical again on TV. For goodness sake. She’s not the reader she used to be!

    But her friend Harry ( he’s in his very late 80’s) took the book and last I heard he had completed 75 pages. He thinks he has the time. Actually Harry is a character straight out of Dickens. Well good for Harry!

    I can’t keep up with Chris. I’ll try to keep up with Harry though. I read the intro and I am reading about the bishop. So far so good. I figure at ten pages a day it would take me three months. Don’t wait for me. Along with Zeke I too am reading Emerson. As well Chris inspired me to read Henry Miller, a kindred spirit, oh I just love him, on Greece ( Colossus of Maroussi) as we watch awful scenes of Greece burning.

    Always grateful for the challenge.

  • Sutter

    Allison’s comments prompted me to write. I’m reading Lawrence Wright’s fantastic “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” The first chapter is about Sayid Qtub, one of the godfathers of Islamism. Wright notes at one point that Qutb was very well-versed in Hugo’s writings. I haven’t read Les Miserables, so I’m confined to the musical’s interpretation, but it strikes me that Qutb somehow read Les Miserables and modeled himself on Javert’s brittle moralism (maybe he’s deeper in the novel) rather than on Valjean’s humanism. Of course, the same is true for our own domestic brittle moralists, though I doubt too many of them have read Hugo themselves. In both cases, the turn to Javert has caused much harm to many people.

  • Alex Brown

    Chris – Thanks for your summer reading report – I will now try to set aside a month or two for Victor Hugo. But his enthusiasm for Bonaparte will be hard to share. One of the people that drew me into my present romance with maps and other models of our world was Yale graphic designer Edward Tufte, who pointed out what he calls one of the most compelling pieces of graphic communication of all time: “Probably the best statistical graphic ever drawn, this map by Charles Joseph Minard portrays the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each position. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales.”

    See:, via,

    Engineer Minard’s work on clarity and truthfulness in graphic expression included this attempt during the last year of the Second Empire of Louis-Napoleon to remind France, and the world, of the catastrophe that the first Napoleon, Victor Hugo’s “Michelangelo of war”, had created through arrogance and ignorance. Hugo’s novel had appeared in 1862; Minard’s 1869 map of the 1812 Russian campaign was a warning against the coming Franco-Prussian War, in which Louis-Napoleon III was not just defeated but captured by the Germans in 1870, bringing the Second Empire to an abrupt end. The Versailles Government of National Defense signed a surrender treaty, but the Paris Commune resisted, and was brutally suppressed, in what was probably the first experience in modern urban warfare, not by the German army but by the French army which had surrendered to it. Marshal MacMahon issued a proclamation: “To the inhabitants of Paris. The French army has come to save you. Paris is freed! At 4 o’clock our soldiers took the last insurgent position. Today the fight is over. Order, work and security will be reborn.”


    Minard hated war, but communicated only the cold facts of his country’s disastrous experience of it, as it was just slipping out of memory, a lifetime before. Perhaps the facts alone were not enough – and Hugo’s passions were needed, although they may have failed to communicate the vast scale of these catastrophes.

    The parallels with our own disastrous Empire are obvious. We need a Minard today to remind us of the facts of our own history — esp. the facts of our recent history in southeast Asia, which should not have slipped from memory quite so fast. But we also need a Hugo to set us in motion.

    Alex Brown

  • Zeke ~ A slow reader & a busy person myself I sympathize. I need a long ocean cruize with a deck chair, plaid blanket & stack of all the books I would love to read.


    That said, I thought the movie Les Miserables was great.

    And speaking of film, I can’t think of Victor Hugo without recalling the film, The Story of Adele H about his daughter. I saw it years ago and it made quite an impression on me. She was so obsessivly in love that she went insane.

  • Alex Brown

    By the way, this all reminds me of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. See:


  • Sutter

    It’s worth noting that To The Finland Station has recently been republished by the New York Review of Books Press, as part of the same effort that saw republication of “A Savage War of Peace.” See

  • Potter

    Thanks to Alex Brown, also for the links. I became interested in Napoleon as well. Coincidentally the MFA is having an exhibition of his “stuff”: symbols of power. Their magazine shows an incredible picture of him dressed in ermine and red velvet with gold sceptres sitting on a golden throne,

    I do have a DVD on Napoleon from a recent PBS series/show that I am inspired to watch now, And of course there’s that other more recent tome by Simon Schama: “Citizens: A chronicle of the French Revolution”- waiting. I am going to pack my bags and join Peggy Sue on her cruise (to the far east?).

    With a busy weekend watering my garden non-stop ( I too love my garden as does the Bishop of Digne), actually for the last two weeks let me interrupt this conversation to say that we are having a drought of sorts. Someone said it was the driest August in 100 years!

    I have to say, having arrived past the Bishop part of the book that though it was slow going ( I was paying it some mind, the only way to read imo) the pace has now picked up and I am hooked. We’ll see how far I take this.

    It’s such a big book that it’s not the kind of thing you can finish and then discuss. To have a real discussion about this it would seem to me that one needs to go section by section. Those who have read think more of the broad sweep and the impressions left. Those who are reading are more into the details at the moment.

    That said-I did enjoy the Bishop section, the first 70 pages, though Antinoff was right to say that it was something to get through- but not boring. You want to say to Hugo: “so you mean the Bishop was a good guy?”

  • Hold steady, Potter, you’re on right path. Keep walking! Bishop Bienvenue strikes me as a bold device for a novelist’s opening episode — the moreso because the man never reappears in the remaining thousand-plus pages of the book! Only his effects persist, but he is a key figure in the story. He is the link to the redemptive insight and energy that remake Jean Valjean in the last twenty years of his life. For an author, Victor Hugo, who’s all about transformation, the bishop is “the transformer,” almost literally in the electrical sense of that useful piece of hardware that converts divine current, in this case, into something that’s adaptable for human inspiration. The Bishop is not a theologian, just a simple man who loves the poor and the condemned, and takes literally Jesus’ last admonition to “feed my lambs.” As Hugo writes, “he took the short cut, the Holy Gospel.” He spends day and night without food or sleep with a “mountebank” and murderer before his execution. “He repeated the greatest truths, which are the simplest. He was the man’s father, brother, friend; his bishop only to bless him. The man had been about to die in utter despair… The bishop caused him to see light.” When Jean Valjean, a shunned convict, arrives on the scene, he marvels that the bishop seems to know him. “You know my name?” Valjean asks.” “Of course,” said the bishop. “Your name is brother.”

    Mario Vargas Llosa observes that Bishop Bienvenue “is not a revolutionary, he is a saint… Any form of violence is contrary to his nature as is any political ideology and, indeed, any attempt to offer an intellectual rationalization of faith. For him, faith is a question of feelings and love rather than ideas; it is impulse, emotion, giving, action, rather than theory and doctrine.” Vargas Llosa goes on to tell a fascinating Hugo family story about the development of the bishop as a character.

    [Hugo] had heated discussions with his son Charles about the character Monseigneur Bienvenu. Charles Hugo attacked the priests as “enemies of democracy” and regretted that his father was making the bishop of Digne “a prototype of perfection and intelligence.” He suggested that instead of having a priest, he should invent someone “with a liberal, modern profession, like a doctor…” Victor Hugo’s reply was blunt: “I cannot put the future into the past. My novel takes place in 1815. For the rest, this Catholic priest, this pure and lofty figure of true priesthood, offers the most savage satire on the priesthood today… I am not interested in the opinion of blind and stupid republicans. I am only concerned to do my duty… Man needs religion. Man needs God. I say it out loud, I pray every night…”

    Mario Vargas Llosa,The Temptation of the Impossible: Victor Hugo and Les Miserables, page 64.

    Sounds a lot like Steve Antinoff to me!

  • Santinoff

    This is the first time I’ve ever posted on a blog and I gather from the other contributors that it’s better done in digestible bits. So I’ll try to offer a few fragmentary thoughts over a few sessions. It was suggested also that it is better for those reading, as opposed to have read, the book, to break it down into sections. I tried to do that to some small extent in a three-quarters finished essay written in 1998 and stuffed in a filing cabinet since then, so I’ll steal a little from there.

    The two radii of the novel are, for me, the relationship between love and justice, and the statement from the gospels: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” In other words, the central biblical paradox that highest affirmation of self is to be selfless.

    Regarding the first, let me focus, this time and next, on and around the first key fulcrum of the book. The bishop has the right to exact justice from Jean Valjean for having stolen his silver. He forgoes that right, in part because he lives in the house of Christand all he owns belongs to the poor, in far more more significant part because he intuits that to demand justice and return Valjean to prison would destroy him. From that moment on, the conflict between Valjean’s love and Javert’s loveless justice is prepared. But the issue is not as simple as it may appear. In The Idiot by Dostoevski, Myshkin, who can only love, and who is told, and confesses, that he has “no sense of proportion [that is, no sense of justice],” destroys Aglaya because he can only love all unconditionally, and cannot bring justice to bear on either her or her rival Nastasya Fillipovna. Again, because he can only forgive, and cannot bear to exact justice from his male rival, Rogozhin, Myshkin is implicated in the destruction of Nastassya Filippovna as well, since he always knows he will kill her. Similarly, consider the film Camelot, which I recommend –– despite the hard to endure portrayals of Lancelot and Gwenevere –– to all lovers of Les Miserables. King Arthur, no less loving and noble than Jean Valjean, in his effort to construct a world of justice whose basic principle will be “might for right” rather than “might is right,” destroys Camelot because he can be just to everyone except the three people he loves most: Lancelot, Gwenevere, and his evil out-of-wedlock son, Mordred. These three he can only love. In Les Miserables, love, through forgiveness, forgoes the demands of justice and saves: first Valjean, later Fantine and others. In The Idiot and in Camelot, love, through forgiveness, forgoes the demands of justice and destroys. The question, ultimately, is not whether love is higher than justice, but whether love is to exact, or ignore, the demands of justice. Paul Tillich, in his indispensable little book, Love, Power, and Justice, anticipates the eternal ambiguity of the answer to this question:

    A man may say to another: “I know your criminal deed and, according

    to the demand of justice, I should bring you to trial, but because of my Christian love I let you go.” Through this leniency, which is identified wrongly with love. a person may be driven towards a thoroughly criminal career. This means that he has received neither justice nor love, but injustice, covered by sentimentality. He might have been saved by having been brought to trial after his first fall. In this case the act the act of being just would have been the act of love (pp. 13-14.)

    Yet, as I’ll try to make clear down the line, Tillich would have praised the bishop’s forgiveness of Valjean as an act of what he calls “creative justice.” Yet again, at the most critical point in his transcendent love for his “daughter” Cosette, Jean Valjean’s love is unjust, on the verge of destroying her happiness and her beloved Marius’ life.

  • Preach — and teach! — Steve Antinoff. The idea of the two Love and Justice axes of the novel is well argued here, and persuasive, I think.

    But then, how’s to keep track of the motifs and themes of what Vargas Llosa calls a “total story” emerging from Hugo’s “totalizing vision.” Vargas Llosa writes: “The perspective that the narrator adopts… is not that of a man observing and describing the development and mysteries of other men, but rather that of a God who contemplates, from his divine omnipotence, the story that he has procreated. From this perspective, everything is important, everything is equally necessary…”

    Or as Victor Hugo writes about the garden at Valjean’s Paris hideaway on the Rue Plumet:

    The cheese-mite has its worth; the smallest is large and the largest is small; everything balances within the laws of necessity, a terrifying vision for the mind. Between living things and objects there is a miraculous relationship; within that inexhaustible compass, from the sun to the grub, there is no room for disdain; each thing needs every other thing.

    Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Norman Denny’s translation, Penguin Classics, page 764.
  • What SAntinoff is suggesting is that nothing can ever be so rigid. People must use discretion. To see love and justice as incompatible is to lack discretion. The Bishop used discretion. Javert did not. In The Idiot the character does not have the capacity of discretion.

    What we seem to fear when we have large societies is allowing people to use discretion. We don’t trust each other enough for that. Thus the leaning towards totalitarianism. Whenever we fear we tend to rein in the rights of individual discretion. I end up asking myself what these characters fear…

  • From my beloved brother Michael Lydon, a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine and esteemed biographer of Ray Charles: Man and Music, among many other things:

    Les Miserables is a book so rich in character, place, and action that it beggars description. No one view of the book can take it in, no one reading can frame it. So I’ll take the easy way out and name a favorite passage, a few pages about the overgrown garden at the little house in the Rue Plumet. Here Jean Valjean and Cossette have found temporary refuge, hidden in the heart of Paris. Jean Valjean lets the garden go to seed to make the house seem less lived in, and Hugo, in a sublime three-page rhapsody, connects these few square feet of earth to the farthest edge of the universe.

    Hugo pushes us close to the garden’s lush jungle of “trunks, branches, leaves, twigs, tufts, tendrils, shoots, thorns mingled, crossed, married, confounded….The garden was…as impenetrable as a forest, populous as a city, tremulous as a nest, dark as a cathedral” In the winter the garden is “black, wet, bristling.” In summer clouds of white butterflies look like “living snow.”

    Built by a minister of the Ancien Regime as a love nest for his mistress, the house has slipped out of history. Carriages roll along the boulevards beyond its walls, carrying pompous politicians to and from the Chamber of Deputies nearby, but the quiet garden neither knows nor cares.

    Instead, Hugo writes, the garden converses silently with the Milky Way. “The ferns, the mulleins, the hemlocks, the milfoils, the tall weeds, …the lizards, the beetles, the restless and rapid insects,” all are caught in the “flux and reflux of the infinitely great and the infinitely small.” Cosmic forces determine “the path of a molecule…the radiance of the star benefits the rose….Nothing is really small”:

    Every bird which flies has the thread of the infinite in its claw. Germination includes the matching of a meteor and the tap of a swallow’s beak breaking the egg…the birth of an earthworm and the advent of Socrates. Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which is better? Choose. A bit of mould is a pleiad of flowers; a nebula is an anthill of stars.

  • hurley

    Rock on, Michael Lydon. Nice too the intimations of a family affair. A rock-and-roll corollary to the garden on the Rue Plumet — dead in the grim heart of the 15th — might be Garden, by the obscure British group, The Groundhogs, where, despite all the morbid overtones and slashing guitar, the garden begins to attain a cosmic dimension — a poor garden that can’t. It would be worth a trip to see if that space is stiil there. There are plenty of similarly anomalous green zones in Paris, usually hidden away, including one amazing mini-forest in an area bounded by four streets in the heart of the 6th, where Balzac’s printing press used to be. 300-year-old trees, birds, seasons, everything one often forgets in a city. There must be a map of Les Miserables; if so, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that someone in that vast range of characters didn’t catch a gilimpse of those very trees.

    Allison had a good point about discretion, with echoes in Dworkin’s current piece in the NYRB.

  • Potter

    Reading the book I am not reading posts that go into the action and so cannot really partake in this discussion among those who have read it. Happy enough to be reading in snatches at this point I want to say how taken I am by Hugo’s writing especially it’s intimacy, and then the translation. Hugo and Denny never waste my time and that’s a sign that I might be carried through. At points I want the original French near me to read a sentence or two for myself to have a sense of Hugo without Denny. I love the descriptive passages: of the characters, of the setting: of France, the period and then the reflections on it all. This is what is meant by “rich” (above). I agree it is so rich.

  • Santinoff

    Reading Potter’s latest, I’ll try this: The bishop, after the police leave, says that Jean Valjean must remember his promise to use the money from the silver candlesticks to become an honest man. JVJ has made no such promise. But the semiconscious theft of a child’s coin hours later forces him to realize the promise has in fact been made and is binding on his existence. The wondrous thing is that JVJ elevates the word “honest: from “thou shalt not steal,” “thou shalt not bear false witness,” to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The bishop never asked of him anything approaching this. It’s JVJ’s own doing, and it’s worth looking back to the pages immediately before his “conversion” (after he steals the child’s coin) to see the spiritual element in his character, albeit negative, that accounts for why heightens the implications promise. Ex: He almost drives a spike through the sleeping bishop’s head. He says that the bishop’s assault is more unendurable than anything suffered in his 19 years of prison. He even wishes he were back in prison. It’s also interesting to see how all this prefigures Javert’s own struggle after he is forgiven and set free by JVJ, and to consider the similarities and the differences in the result.

  • Potter

    Thanks much SA-So busy but looking for moments to read….

    I think JVJ stole the child’s coin with the intent subconsciously to shock himself, to have that reality in front of him to face, to actually feel the result in his heart, to test, to push himself to that point of seeing himself from his evolved consciousness, to be sure of it-if it was really real or whether he could dismiss his encounter with the bishop and continue on the old self-destructive trajectory. This is Frost’s fork in the road I think.

    My blood pressure rose when JVJ almost drove that spike into the bishop’s head. By then the Bishop’s “magic” was already working on him. But that was the first test. The second was the child’s coin soo after. I wanted Hugo to make that child reappear further down the road and have his coin returned, his faith in humanity unspoiled- I did not want that child to go off into the world like that. Life is cruel though.

    Backing up, I think the contrast between Jean ValJean and what he had become after all those years, how he looked upon the world, society, with the countenance of the bishop who, no matter what, never seemed to lose his faith in the human heart, the inherent goodness of spirit- is amazing, brilliant. This is wonderful dichotomy, a split in which the heart must go one way or the other, yes or no to life. There are so many Jean Valjeans in this world in need of big doses of goodness to help heal. Alas. What a better world we would have. It’s so current.

  • Santinoff

    To Potter; What beautiful, perceptive comments you have made! We learn of the child again only through his absence — that thereafter, JVJ gives coins to any vagrant child who reminds him of the first. Also, I believe he’s listed in the indictment that waits for JVJ down the road. There’s only one child he refuses to give money to a bit later on. It’ll be interesting, if you happen to spot it, to see why. Don’t want to spoil it by giving it away.

  • Bobby

    I have two questions regarding the theft of the child’s money:

    1. Did Jean Valjean actually steal the child’s money?

    Jean Valjean was in a sort of trance/dream state before, during, and after the encounter with the boy. (BTW. Did anyone notice that prior to the boy’s arrival, just as JVJ was falling into his “meditation” he was recalling memories of when he was a boy, and that “These memories were almost intolerable to him.” Anyway, can one truly be culpable of stealing if one is unaware he’s stealing, or only realizes after regaining “consciousness”? Also, the money rolled across the ground and landed at JVS’s feet, the same money, coincidentally, “which, up to that time,” Little Gervais (while continually singing, mind you) “had caught with a good deal of adroitness on the back of his hand.”

    2. Does “Little Gervais” even/ever exist?

    When JVJ sits behind the bush, Hugo describes the landscape as being barren, “a large ruddy plain, which was absolutely deserted. There was nothing on the horizon except the Alps. Not even the spire of a distant village.” And even when the boy approaches JVJ, we’re reminded that “The spot was absolutely solitary. As far as the eye could see there was not a person on the plain or on the path.” So where did the child come from? Why didn’t JVJ see him approaching? I also found it odd that Little Gervais (a 10 year old kid) “showed no astonishment” when he first sees JVJ, a man, Hugo said, had a “savage face”and would be “terrifying to any one who might have encountered him”. Instead, he stands before JVJ with a “childish confidence which is composed of ignorance and innocence.” If I’m right, Bishop Bienvenu is the only other person so far who has looked at JVJ without drawing back. (And notice that when the sun sets behind the boy, it “cast threads of gold in his hair and empurpled with its blood-red gleam the savage face of Jean Valjean.”) And finally, there’s the priest on horseback who, when asked by JVJ if he has seen the boy, says that he has not. But the priest then says, “If he is like what you say, my friend, he is a little stranger. Such persons pass through these parts. We know nothing of them.” Huh? And what’s with the “ancient fragment of blue earthenware which had fallen in the grass.”? It no doubt symbolizes something; but what? Anyway, until someone out there sets me straight, I’m sticking with my hypothesis, and say that the kid ain’t real. 🙂

    BTW. Out of curiosity, I typed “forty sous”, the value of the coin which JVJ “stole” from the boy, into Google; there I found multiple references to a book titled The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle (a man who just so happens to resemble Chris. Hmmm?). In that book, Carlyle talks about the “Law of the Forty Sous”, which (if I read correctly) is the day’s wages of a poor person. Anyway, click here if you want to see the text.

    Finally, remember the scene where Monseigneur Bienvenu is walking in the garden the morning after JVJ stole the silver and the fled. He picks up the basket that held the silver and sighs after realizing it had broken a plant. (No doubt because JVJ dropped it after taking the silver) Anyway, that plant (cochlearia des Guillons) is from the plant family which is known as Cruciferae, which means “cross-bearing”.

  • Bobby

    Not sure why, but the link above doesn’t work. Sorry 🙁 Anyway, just type “Law of the Forty Sous” into Google if you want to read more about it.

  • Santinoff

    P. 117 in Denny translation confirms Bobby’s analysis of the first point. “in robbing the boy he [JVJ] had committed an act of which he was no longer capable.” Hugo clearly intended this, for it is this act, which horrifies JVJ when he emerges from his stupor, that sets the law, and Javert, upon him for vilating his parole. Javert could not have touched him otherwise. This alone would indicate that Petit-Gervais is actually ronned And more directly to Bobby’s second, rather brilliant, theory, I think p. 247 disproves it. At the trial of the “real” [falsely accused look-alike of] JVJ, the crime is listed at part of the indictment, in addition to the new crime of stealing fruit. “In Toulon he commited a highway robbery with the use of force on the person of a small boy named Petit-Gervais.” The only way for the police to have known this is for the boy to have reported the crime.

  • Potter

    I am still with Hugo and you here.

    Bobby, if you are still reading this, those are wonderful musings and observations. Thank you. Yes and the accused, Champmathieu, says he was given for his work 30 sous, less than a proper rate for a day’s work, because he was old, 53. That was old. I was struck particularly by the description of Champmathieu, a man so deprived in life ( which was probably common- ” Paris is like a swamp”) that he could barely talk. ( page 250 ff.) ” I am one of those who don’t eat everyday”….I don’t know how to say things, I never had any schooling, I am one of the poor.”

    And then the description of Javert ( p.267-268) ending with this after which I took a deep breath:

    “He was terrible but not ignoble. Integrity, sincerity, honesty, conviction, t he sense of duty, these are qualities which, being misguided, may become hideous, but still they retain their greatness, amid the hideousness, the nobility proper to the human conscience still persists. They are virtues subject to a single vice, that of error. The merciless bu honest rejoicing of a fantastic performing an atrocious act still has a melancholy claim to our respect. Without knowing it, Javert in his awful happiness was deserving of pity, like every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could have been more poignant or more heartrending than that countenance on which was inscribed all the evil in what is good.”

  • Potter


    “He was terrible but not ignoble. Integrity, sincerity, honesty, conviction, the sense of duty, these are qualities which, being misguided, may become hideous, but still they retain their greatness; amid the hideousness, the nobility proper to the human conscience still persists. They are virtues subject to a single vice, that of error. The merciless but honest rejoicing of a fantastic performing an atrocious act still has a melancholy claim to our respect. Without knowing it, Javert in his awful happiness was deserving of pity, like every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could have been more poignant or more heartrending than that countenance on which was inscribed all the evil in what is good.”

  • Bobby

    Hi Potter

    I’m still reading the posts 🙂 I have to confess I’m obsessed with Les Miserables. I’ve become – or at least becoming – an amateur historian on the French Revolution 🙂 I’ll read a few lines of Les Miserables, and whenever I come across a word, name, etc. I’m unfamiliar with, before you can say “Sacrebleu!” I’m surrounded in history books and highlighters! I expect to finish Les Miserables in December…of 2009 🙂

  • Potter

    Yes -it’s doing that for me too! Also noticing how some things don’t change. Gail Collins wrote a great column in the NYT on child care: None Dare Call it Child Care

  • Potter

    Oh and I forgot, I heard a discussion yesterday on NPR about foster parents receiving money for their deeds, perhaps too much, or some doing it for the money primarily and some even diverting that money to their own kids or elsewhere.