Wednesday, April 6, 2011

He sinks, he strains, he struggles - the rhetoric of Les Misérables

I marveled, repeatedly, at the freedom with which Hugo wrote Les Misérables.  Chapters vary in length from dozens of pages to a single paragraph; the chapters are then gathered into sections that themselves range from eight pages to ninety.  Paragraphs and sentences show the same freedom.  One sentence – and I frankly do not remember which – contains, I am told, 823 words, making  it one of the longest in any novel.  Paragraphs span pages.  Or, as commonly, they are two words long:

Man overboard!

Who cares?  The ship sails on.  The wind is up, the dark ship must keep to its destined course.  It passes on.  (I.2.viii.)

Thus begins a two page chapter that contains nothing, nothing at all, except for a description and actions of the man who fell overboard, a character who exists only within the metaphor.  The metaphor tells us about the circumstances, the mentality, of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, but it is hardly a necessary interruption of the story.

Here’s another sentence, another entire paragraph, from the same chapter:

Night falls; he has been swimming for hours, his strength almost gone; the ship, a distant far-off thing, where there were men, is gone; he is alone in the terrible gloom of the abyss; he sinks, he strains, he struggles, feels beneath himself invisible shadowy monsters; he screams.

Phrase by phrase, this is not complex writing – “Night falls… he screams.”    The rhetorical effect depends on the piling up of small, even banal, effects, much like the barricade built by Hugo’s revolutionaries.  The few extensions or poetic touches magnify the effect – create it, I suppose.  “[H]e is alone” has its own simple power, but add an abyss, a gloomy one, a terribly gloomy one, and those invisible monsters (a foreshadowing of Hugo’s next novel) begin to take on imaginative life.

Les Misérables was written, or accumulated, over a twenty year period.   At times, it felt like it, like Hugo was writing not with a pen but a wheelbarrow.  Or, other times, that he was more interested in rhetorical flourishes than in sense.  Hugo is not exactly a tightly controlled fiction writer.

Yet – the metaphor in the “Deep Waters, Dark Shadows” chapter becomes literal.  Jean Valjean is, early in the novel, just freed from prison after nineteen years, like a man fallen overboard.  But later in the novel, he actually becomes such a man – “All at once, the crowd shouted; the convict had fallen into the sea” (II.2.iii).  When does this occur? 280 pages after the two-page metaphorical man-adrift chapter.  280 pages!

I am imitating Hugo – he loves those little interjected questions.  His control over the novel he wrote greatly exceeds my control over the one I read.


  1. I found this to be a perfect antidote to today's sparse, economical literature. Even the notorious discourse on the Napoleonic wars was fun reading, as far as I'm concerned. Do you know if Hugo did much cutting as he work on Les Miserables?

    My bet is no.

  2. How would you say this compares with his other work? I guess you've read at least Hunchback and also Toilers of the Sea—are they any tighter, more controlled, etc.? I realize of course they are shorter.

  3. No idea about Hugo's writing method. But my bet is just like yours, that Hugo was like Proust or Richardson: "revise" = "add."

    Although Hugo is a good antidote to today's sparse literature, he fits right in with, is an ancestor of, today's sprawling literature. At times he's almost Pynchonesque.

    I haven't read Toilers of the Sea yet - soon, I hope. Notre Dame de Paris is built on similarly expansive principles, but is clearly much more focused. The digressive material, all of the stuff about architecture, does not sprawl so much.

    But it's also a smaller story, even though specific scenes, like the thieves' assault on Notre Dame, feel big, big, big. Fewer characters, shorter threads, so less tangling. Much of the fun of Les Misérables is in the ingenious tangling and untangling of the characters' paths. Notre Dame is inevitably a simpler book.

  4. One would then require the best of attentions to read his novels.

  5. Yes. Les Miserables is a fantastic epic, a romance, a novel. It's so much more. A monument.

    It is both modern in its sprawl and ideals, and it is also ancient in its mode and form. It contradicts a lot of what we are taught regarding "good writing" in writing workshops. And I love Les Miserables (and the great epics of literature) for their boldness and their daring sweep and size and their willingness to do things at a higher plane, flaws or not. Even more controlled works of fiction like The Scarlet Letter, Notre-Dame de Paris, Heart of Darkness, and Benito Cereno possess a strong, wild ambition about them that attracts us even in the days where we are told to write sparer works instead of elaborate and orotund works.