Paris has another Paris underneath herself; a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossroads, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form.
The sewer is the conscience of the city… All that used to be painted is besmirched. The last veil is rent. A sewer is a cynic. It tells all.
At times this stomach of civilization had indigestion, the cloaca flowed back into the city’s throat, and Paris had the aftertaste of its slime.
The sewer is the taint the city has in its blood.
Imitate Paris, and you will be ruined.
I’m near the end of Les Misérables. A couple of characters have escaped a fraught situation by escaping into the Paris sewers. Hugo decides that a twenty page digression on sewers is in order. Hugo is right.
The above lines are fragments, plucked from here and there. Much of the passage is written like this, although I have omitted the hideously disgusting lists, some of which I can barely believe were publishable in England (some startling objects can be found under those ellipses). I can hardly reproduce the bulk of Hugo’s rhetoric, the solidity of some of it, the gaseousness of the rest.
Hugo is preparing the ground for an action scene, one that must be a high point of any movie version. He wants the reader to trace out the map, and I’m not sure that I don’t mean that literally. Hugo is going to follow his characters through the sewers while keeping track of what they’re under, and I am expected to follow along as best I can. But that hardly explains the passages about the ancient history of the sewers, not just of Paris but of Rome:
When the Campagna of Rome was ruined by the Roman sewer, Rome exhausted Italy, and when she had put Italy into her cloaca, she poured in Sicily, then Sardinia, then Africa. The sewer of Rome engulfed the world. This cloaca offered its yawning depths to the city and to the globe. Urbi et orbi. Eternal city, unfathomable sewer. (V.2.i, 1259)
Or how about Hugo’s crackpot idea about collecting the human waste of Paris for fertilizer (“Paris throws five million a year into the sea”), or the point where a separate adventure story pops up, an account of the actual exploration and rebuilding of the ancient sewer that took place from 1805 to 1812, or the detailed statistics, geology (“seams of very fine clay and laminar schistose beds”), and geography of continued construction, up to Hugo’s present – “Today the sewer is neat, cold, straight, correct.”
Hugo wants our understanding of the sewers to be complete. No part of the novel is allowed to exist only vaguely, and everything has to exist not just visually, as with Flaubert, but in space and time, in history. And, perhaps most importantly, the sewers then become an enormous, all-encompassing metaphor for any number of aspects of the novel – the weight of history, the suddenness of change, the forgotten miserables. Every line I excerpted is built out of metaphors. I know another writer or two as good as Hugo in this regard. Not many more. I think I’ll save that for next week.