Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It was large and it was small - Hugo's omnibook

Les Misérables is an Omnibook, a book that contains everything.  All of Hugo, everything he knew, and he knew everything, poured into one book.   Absurd but admirably ambitious.  Every reader of the novel can identify a section or two or ten he would not miss.  I myself have doubts about a long chunk describing the history of a Paris convent.

I have seen French abridgements that follow a single character, so we have a Cosette novel and a Gavroche novel and a Jean Valjean novel, with parts that overlap and parts that stand alone.  I doubt too many novels could survive this treatment.  I can also imagine a version that skips the story and characters completely, or contains only one character, the inescapable one, M. Hugo.  Hugo on History, Hugo on War, Hugo on God, Hugo on All Things.  A preposterous book, but Hugo was a preposterous figure.

About a fifth of Les Misérables is devoted to a few days in 1832, during the futile July Revolution.  Students and workers build a street barricade in a corner of the Marais, prepared to give their lives for liberty, fraternity, and equality.  The description of the barricade and its construction is extraordinary, but it is somehow only a warm-up to a long passage about two other barricades, “two frightful masterpieces of civil war,” both from the 1848 revolution – the novel  is as much about 1848 (and 1789) as about 1832:

The Saint-Antoine barricade was monstrous; it was three stories high and seven hundred feet long…  Of what was this barricade made?  Of the ruins of three seven-story houses, torn down for the purpose, said some…  It was the collaboration of the pavement, the pebble, the timber, the iron bar, the scrap, the broken windowpane, the stripped chair, the cabbage stump, the tatter, the rag, and the malediction. It was large and it was small. (1171)

Hugo is not finished.  He has another two pages to go.  He cannot stop describing this beast, even interrupting himself to add more details – “disjointed chimneys, wardrobes, tables” (what it all means) “knuckle bones, coat buttons” (more interpretation) “its crest was thorny with muskets, with swords.”

Hugo has trouble looking away, as did I.*   The barrier, like his novel, contains everything.   But he has to get to the next one:

This wall was built of paving stones.  It was straight, correct, cold, perpendicular, leveled with the square, built on a line, aligned by the plummet…

It was fitted, dovetailed, imbricated, rectilinear, symmetrical, and deathly.  There was in it science and darkness.  You felt that the chief of that barricade was a geometer or a specter.  You beheld it and you spoke softly. (1174)

These fragments may entirely fail to convey the dual nightmare that Hugo conjures in this passage, the creation of these two horrors, objects that should not exist, renegades from Borges or Kafka that somehow escaped into the past, into a work that is mostly thought of, incorrectly, as an old-fashioned and sentimental adventure story, Dumas with a social conscience.

Les Misérables, more than any novel I can think of, except, perhaps Samuel Richardson’s hilariously long Clarissa (1747), begs for abridgement.  Not just one, though – many abridgements.  A different abridgement for each reader.  The reader wanting to Get On With It will want to snip away this interruption of the actual story.  I am certainly not that reader.

* C. B. James has provided more of this description of the first barrier, from a different translation, the lightly abridged Penguin Classics version, or the recent Julie Rose version.  I'm using the revised Wilbour translation, Signet Classics.


  1. I can't believe you wrote the "A" word. I'm so not a fan of abridgements. At best they are a shallow version of the original. At worst, they are a 250 page movie-tie-in version.

    I found "Hunchback" to be more difficult than Les Mis even though it is half the length. Hugo really lets himself indulge in the descriptions of the architecture of Notre Dame. I'm sure it has been done, but I would love to read a comparison of Hugo's architectual descriptions to, say, Ruskin or Pugin. Is Hugo merely descriptive? Somehow I doubt it.

  2. On abridgements:

    First, you are entirely correct.

    But, second, I am guessing (about myself, but also about others) that re-readers of Hugo create their own abridgements. As do, probably, first-time readers. Going back, someday, exactly how carefully will I re-read the convent history, or the Digression on Argot? How many people just hop right over the Waterloo section (which I thought was fantastic)?

    I assume many readers similarly self-abridge the architectural chapters of Notre Dame de Paris. They're absolutely central to Hugo's purpose, but they're not exactly the most thrilling part of the novel.

    Those character-focused abridgements were for French schoolkids, by the way, so they have their own purpose.

    I don't think Hugo was prescriptive in the way that Pugin and Ruskin were. He did not advocate a return to the Gothic, but was a preservationist - a founder, really, of French architectural preservation, savior of Notre Dame and Mont St. Michel.

    Much of the discussion of architecture, streets, neighborhoods, and so on in Les Misérables is preservationist, even if what Hugo wants to preserve is already gone - so it will only be preserved within his novel.

  3. Currently wading through 'Du Côté de chez Swann' - now talk about a need for abridgements ;)

    I read Les Mis a long time ago in French, and I have plans to read it again at some point. I distinctly remember the Waterloo section (and remember wondering what on earth it was there for!).

  4. Tony, if you want to change one word of the "Cambrai" section, we are operating on not merely different but mortally opposed aesthetic principles.

    "Swann in Love" is pretty, tight, too. Proust doesn't need scissoring until the endless party scenes in The Guermantes Way.

    A good thing about re-reading - next time, the point of the Waterloo section will be clear. Hugo is developing a theory of History, or Progress. Or, really, Change. He needs a big Turning Point kind of event to contrast with the apparent pointlessness of the ineffective 1832 revolution. And he needs a Great Man, Napoleon, to shadow all of his Small Man characters, or to knock againt Jean Valjean, who way well be a kind of Great Man himself.

    The Digression about Argot is about change. The convent history is about continuity, a long-lived institution, and thus really about change.

    The whole book is Big vs Small, over and over.

  5. I don't know how you feel about the stage musical, but my father--a university theater teacher all his life--said of the barricade on stage in London when we first saw it that the barricade was the single biggest, most impressive piece of scenery he'd seen in all his years. The barricade descriptions here reminded me of that comment.

  6. This post reminds me of Graham Robb, who raged over the Penguin translation because the abridgment trimmed away at one of the early chapters -- the chapter in which Hugo gives the reader a list of historical news items. I think the translator mentions it in the introduction and defends himself in a chirpy cheerful way, and Robb, reporting on this fact, virtually tears him out of the page and bites him. I don't remember where I saw Robb's article (or did he write this in his Hugo biography, along with all the other passionate things about Hugo's previous biographers and translators?), but the tone has stayed with me.

  7. Tony, if you want to change one word of the "Cambrai" section, we are operating on not merely different but mortally opposed aesthetic principles.

    Ha, I completely agree.

    Your "a different abridgment for every reader" idea (and the subsequent comments) reminds me of this recent post at So Many Books in which Stefanie briefly discusses a Victor LaValle essay that (I'm quoting Stefanie) "floats the idea of readers being able to edit their books, for instance, removing all of Levin’s farming scenes from Anna Karenina (or, I might suggest, all the whale processing chapters from Moby Dick). Would it really hurt the book? Feel free to discuss."

    I know nothing else about the essay in question but am now curious to read it. In a way this idea is less threatening to my "completism" than an edition that was abridged from the start: a given reader is presented with the whale-processing sections of Moby Dick and decides "eh, next time I don't need to read these again."

  8. Graham Robb's rage may be enjoyed right here. Lots of goodies in that piece.

    That list chapter ("The Year 1817", I.3.i) is an especially bizarre one to omit or move. It's only six pages long, and it is easy for the impatient reader to grasp and skip - you can see what it's doing just by looking at the text, the Dos Passos-like list of newspaper headlines and topical detritus. So why not let the reader see it, and decide on the abridgement himself?

    Jeanne - I have never seen or heard the musical, and know nothing about it beyond its poster. I can see how the staging and choreography of the barricade scene would make or break the whole show. But please note what the musical cannot include - Hugo's leap forward to the two Surrealist barricades from 1848.

    Emily - I think you've got it at the end, there. The reader's power is enormous. Pierre Menard and I would argue, contra the author Stefanie quotes, that the "editing" idea is inherent in the act of reading.

  9. Ah, the barricade! I read this so many years ago, and even though I saw the musical multiple times that was even longer ago...but I do remember finding this one of the most moving parts of the book, and it was an impressive piece of scenery as well.

    I did not remember, of course, anything so specific about the passages, but they remain wonderful.

    And I particularly like the idea of these character-based abridgments. But not doing away with the whaling chapters of Moby-Dick!

  10. I was trying to ignore the "no whaling" thing as too depressing. A good reader is a curious reader.

  11. I enjoyed your thoughts on Les Miserables and the idea of editing for oneself as you read is wonderful. I'm not skimming or being lazy: I'm self-editing. Every reader reads a different book, even if the book that two people are reading has the same title.

  12. Sherry, I'm full of bad ideas - I've got a million of 'em!

    But, really, it's what we do anyway, isn't it? Even if we read the exact same words, our attention to particular words varies, even when we do our best. We're constantly self-editing.

  13. I would personally be against the idea of an abridged Les Miserables. I think Les Miserables, being more than a novel (it's a novel, a prose-poem, a poem unlimited, an epic, a history, a monument), should be taken in as the full uninhibited infinite experience of Hugo's monumental genius (I think Hugo deserves a lot more respect, which Harold Bloom and Walter Pater rightly give him), in the Anglo-American literary world, the respect he gets in the French and the Continental European world.

    Les Miserables is unabridged and elaborate for a reason. it is preservationist and creationist, ancient and modern, radical and old, epic and intimate. In short, it is a book of the infinite. There's a point to all the "needless" details, which is to create a high world and a low world, a world through the eyes of God (however imperfectly), a world where everything is connected in the grand cycle of life.

    Les Miserables is so monumental and engaging and engrossing as it is, that it should perhaps be left unabridged as is. Whether or not the reader will take on the whole experience is up to him or her.

  14. When you suddenly have to teach French literature to a bunch of French 8th graders, you will appreciate those single-character abridgments!

    For someone who is just reading the book, the abridgments are baffling. There is one that cuts the 1,400 page book down to 1,200 pages. What could possibly be the point of that?

    No needless details - exactly right!

    1. Fair enough. A case could be made for abridgments tailored for specific, and mostly educational, purposes.

      But for publication of the novel, both in the original French and in translation, the novel should be published uncut, unadulterated, and unabridged. I will reiterate that there is nothing needless about Les Miserables, not even the extraneous details. Yes, they're exhaustive and sometimes feel overlong, but they aren't needless - not with Hugo's emphasis on realism and the need for sympathizing with and knowing people.

      Ultimately, what elevates Les Miserables from shallow sentimentalism, however "good vs evil" its view of the world may be, is its larger complexity (it is a complex novel, and perhaps more complex than we've been lead to believe), its beautiful poetic style, its gothic and free form, its sympathy for people and its honest-to-God humaneness (not fake humaneness), and its religious and, dare I say it, Catholic spirit and aesthetic that separates it and consecrates it even compared to the British and American masterworks of literature.

      Speaking of which, though Hugo abandoned Catholicism later in life, I think his work is fundamentally Catholic in a sense, even when his theology is heretical. I mean to argue that Catholicism inevitably influences his form and his art, and the tradition's visual richness and high elevation informs his boundless visual, verbal, and thematic imagination.

  15. A strongly Catholic ethos, yes, I think that's right, even if it is a Catholicism in which Hugo is Pope.