Les Misérables, the 1862 Victor Hugo novel, is built around a series of elaborately constructed, complexly organized scenes. The book is packed with incident, yet its plot is anything but one-thing-after-another.
Gavroche is twelve years old or so, and is a street urchin:
One evening, little Gavroche had had no dinner; he remembered that he had had no dinner the day before either; this was becoming tiresome. He decided to try for some supper. (IV.4.ii.)
A note or two. I am on page 916 of 1,463, in the blocky Signet Classics edition. I barely know Gavroche at this point – I only met him on page 593, so we’re barely acquainted. No, sorry, he first appeared on page 377:
When the brat’s insistent racket became too much to bear, “Your boy is squalling,” Thenardiér said. “Why don’t you go see what he wants?”
“Aah!” the mother answered. “I’m sick of him.” And the poor little fellow went on crying in the darkness. (II.3.i.)
Back on page 377, I had not realized that I would need that baby later. This is one way Les Misérables works.
Another way: Gavroche “remembered” that he was hungry, which was “tiresome.” Those are not Gavroche’s words, exactly – this is not stream of consciousness writing – but those are his thoughts. He’s a funny kid. Now, he has wandered towards a garden in which he remembers seeing an apple tree:
An apple is supper; an apple is life. What ruined Adam might save Gavroche.
Those two sentence are pure Hugo. They are syntactically simple but rhetorically complex. Les Misérables is a masterpiece of the rhetoric of fiction, which is, admittedly neither the only nor the most important aspect of fiction. But the novel does other things well, too.
Gavroche, scrunched under a hedge, discovers a penniless old man in the garden. I had already met the old man, too, although Gavroche had not. As the street darkens, two more figures come along, one of whom I could identify as Jean Valjean, the novel’s central character, and another Hugo has to identify, although he is not new, either.
Four characters, all known to me, not all known to, or even aware of, each other. Only Gavroche, and Hugo, and I, see them all. There is a mugging, and a struggle, and a nearly three page lecture on the wages of crime. A little purse ends up in – let’s see – four pairs of hands. Everyone present handles the purse. The scene is seven pages long.
Understanding the physical space of the scene is crucial to comprehending the mechanics of the scene. Gavroche, in his hedge, is right here; the old man under the tree is therefore over there, and the mugging over there, and Gavroche has to move from A to B and then back to A. Such is the case for every major scene in the book.
In most fiction, characters are disembodied voices, floating through an indistinct landscape. In a few novels, better ones, they begin to take on some sort of form, and their world, or at least a few spots in it, solidify. Hugo’s characters can be ghostly, too, but his world, his Paris, his stage sets, are - not real, that is the exact wrong word - but substantial, existent enough that the imaginary people can occupy them.
Does any of that make any sense? Regardless - forward! This week, I make an attempt at How Fiction Works, Les Misérables edition.